In music, imagination and a willingness to explore the unknown are key in creating original works of art and entertainment. However, much of our present musical culture is divided by rigid conceptions of what constitutes as ‘real’ or ‘legitimate’ means of creating music - especially when it comes to the expansive ground known as ‘electronic music.’ Since the late 1800’s, with the advent of modern electricity - most notably in this case radio transmission, the phonograph record, amplification, and synthesis - electronics and advanced technological processes have become an increasingly important and prevalent aspect of present day music and further, culture and society at large. The ability to capture and reproduce sound in the grooves of a wax cylinder or transmit electromagnetic waves radiophonically have in large part been the key technological advancements which have propagated the popularization, personalization, and rapid mutation of music as we know it. With such technological advancements, music has transformed from something historically novel, singular, and completely ‘live’ - such as symphonic or orchestral works, performance oriented jazz, and traditional/tribal folk music - to something which could be recorded, played back, amplified, layered, and generally manipulated or entirely created via electrical equipment. By the 1950’s, pop and rock music had cemented their presence as a new aeon of not only artistic creation, but of an industry and culture as well. Fast forward to today - and, to get to the point, music as we know it does not exist without electronics. Nearly every single style of music known is in some way implicated with electronics - be it through electronic guitars, basses, drums, effects, or by being recorded, amplified, or somehow electronically reproduced or transmitted. Most popular forms of music, then, such as rock and pop, are fundamentally ‘electronic’ forms of music. Even ‘acoustic music’ - another misnomer - performed live is mic’d, amped, plugged and mixed. Chances are, that beloved acoustic instrument has also been created with the assistance of electronic means. And in the case of a performance being ‘unplugged,’ the moment someone whips out their phone and records audio/video; the acoustic purity is lost and the electronic facsimile is sustained. What of the less obvious cases? The real crux of the problem lies in the nearly perfected illusion of ‘organic’ music, when, in fact, it is totally artificial. Take, for instance, modern day film soundtracks. Often times, those bombastic orchestrations, epic drums and beautiful symphonies are actually not those things - they are sampled, digital instruments, which can be perfectly manipulated and programmed to the individuals liking without any sort of actual recording of acoustic instruments. The same is true for many forms of rock and extreme metal. The drums - if even played - are often triggered (an actual drum replaced with an electronic sample of a drum) or entirely programmed via digital (electronic) means. Guitar amplification is typically skipped, instead opting to directly input the guitar into a computer or hardware unit and perfectly manipulate the tone via specialized software. These means, today, are the industry standard, be it for the above, or for much mainstream rock, pop, and electronic music. Is there, however, any real issue with this artifice, especially considering that 9/10 people will never be able to tell the difference between the acoustic and the simulation, where also the technology that allows this illusion is constantly improving and closing the gap of distinguishability? What of the people who utilize such tools to create something original, vibrant, and even impossible acoustically? One of the strongest aspects of utilizing electronics in music is that it has no real ties to any lasting tradition, and can be the most open and exploratory form of musical discovery and expression.
Some may say that by reducing these once ‘organic’ instruments or elements to a digital replica is taking the ‘soul’ away from the music; another may argue that it is perhaps a virtue to create a new music without a soul, that such a statement is a form of art in itself - for instance, much industrial music is typically created to be ‘cold and lifeless,’ or forms of metal which specialize in clinical, sterile mechanicality.
But that’s sidestepping the bigger issue: A large part of disdain towards electronically oriented (as in synthetic, digital, and/or computer based) music is the common misconception that electronic music is simple, that an ‘electronic musician’ only performs the act of the DJ, who presses play and changes songs, only utilizing pre-made loops and sounds, or isn’t providing an engaging performance, working with buttons, sliders, and screens over the expected strings and skins. The performance aspect is a matter of subjective taste, while the actual musical genesis can indeed range from a ‘pre-made button press’ to actually creating the instruments and sounds that form the basis of the music. Take for example the synthesizer - nearly infinite in variety and capability - which takes the raw elements of sound (waveforms, modulations, filtering) for the user to manipulate and design the sounds which they wish to play, and can actively manipulate while playing. The reality is that an ‘electronic producer’ can create music that is sophisticated beyond the capability of traditional live performance (particularly for a ‘one man band’), and may need to rely on loops, sequences, clips, and ‘backing tracks’ for compositional integrity. What’s more is that these things often may constitute the very basis of the work itself — while a rock band may rely on rhythm and lead guitars to propel the (visceral) composition, an electronic musician may have parts of the composition (whether self-made or not ) preconfigured and instead focuses on the sonic or textural (cerebral) mutation.
This leads to another common deciding factor in what people find appealing in the vast subjectivity that is music - whether it is art, entertainment, or both. Rock, punk, and metal music are often very performance driven works, reliant on the contributing members synergy and ferocity to properly convey the visceral nature of the work. Pop music tends towards extravagant spectacle and exuberant delivery to forge a form of transcendent, disorienting fantasy. In this It’s also worth noting that many pop, rock, punk, and folk songs often utilize simple, tried-and- 1 true chord progressions, song structures, melodies, and aesthetics utilized by many more before them - is that really so different from someone utilizing a potentially unoriginal loop or sample? Perhaps, then, it is actually a sort of uncanny valley of decreasing authenticity, where an electronic musician who utilizes tired chords and melodies as well as rinsed sounds actually becomes less accessible and more repulsive due to a sliding scale of honesty and artificiality.
And yet - there is music like vaporwave, a genre that is essentially based on the very concept and use of dated, cliche, mock-corporate, and generally kitsch sounds and loops to convey a hallucinogenic and highly sardonic faux-retrofuturistic dystopia. In this case, the (subjective) musical enjoyment is displaced by the importance of an artistic vision and ambiguous anti-consumerist statement, much in the same vein as noise music.
Many such shows tend towards being more like a revel, a party, a form of fun, entertainment, and escape from everyday mundanities. While such characteristics are also native to much electronic music (club culture, raves, festivals,) there is also much electronic music that is dedicated purely to the cerebral, the ambient, the personal, often existing in a spectrum completely without the need or desire for performance, as that may not be the purpose or intended delivery of the art - some works are simply geared for deep listening, introversion and passive embrace, rather than entirely active and distractive engagement. All music (and further, all art) is participatory in some way; simply because one enjoys one form for one reason or another does not automatically invalidate the other possibilities. With the advent of electronics and its subsequent integration and inseparability from present-day music, the canvas of possibility is vast and the selection of colour infinite. To assume ‘electronic music’ has any lesser ability to be art or entertainment as anything previously established is a fallacy only enforced by an unwillingness to see the electronic nature of virtually all music created and enjoyed today. Whether it’s ‘real’ or not is a moot point - all things existent are ‘real,’ to some degree or other - whether and how you choose to embrace it, however, is indeed the deciding factor in its application as a boundless artistic possibility.
I. D. Jordan
WAIL Music Magazine