THE BLEEP CULTURE
The American Heritage College Dictionary defines electronic music as follows: "Music produced or altered by electronic means, as by a tape recorder or synthesizer."
Electronic music has long existed as a subculture within "real music", especially in Sweden. In 1948 (the same year that IBM started marketing the first commercial computer) a certain Pierre Schaeffer created the first electronic music composition, which he called Études aux Chemins de Fer (Etudes for Trains). Electronic music was born in his studio for Musique Concrète (Concrete Music) at Radio France. Concrete music is music that is not limited to pure tones, and incorporates sounds from everyday life, such as long, continually changing notes without tone quality, etc. In 1952-53, the musician Karlheinz Stockhausen worked with Schaeffer, and brought some of Schaeffer's ideas home to Germany. Since then, this form of music has spread and is on the curriculum at different public institutions as a very small branch of classical music. As opposed to Schaeffer, who preferred to work with taped recordings of real sounds such as those of trains or birds, Stockhausen focused on using only electronically created sounds. In Sweden, this music form was basically unknown until it was introduced in Harry Martinsson's science-fiction opera Aniara in 1959.
This chapter is not about classical electronic music - there are plenty of texts on the subject. Furthermore, this book is aimed at regular people who think that art should reflect something, i.e. that one should not constantly try to break out of existing concepts and conceptual systems to appear as incomprehensible as possible. Electronic music is a form in which the music has to be interpreted on more levels than the musical. In other words: this book will stick to a broader aspect of popular culture. This is not to say that the art of electronic music is not interesting; it is just not particularly interesting for the purpose of this book.
It is unnecessary to point out that the history of electronic music stretches farther back than the history of hacker culture. However, the phenomenon of electronic music has had a profound influence on hacker culture, and in its pop-culture manifestation in the forms of synth-pop, techno, acid, house, etc., it has played an important role for the generation that grew up with computers. One of its main uses has been to display the beautiful side of the computer. Electronic music was the first area in which computers were used to create art, and as opposed to other forms of electronic culture, electronic music has its roots in Europe.
The first time a computer played music was in 1957, at Bell Labs in the United States. The song was called Daisy, which is the same piece that the intelligent computer HAL (in Stanley Kubrick's film version of Arthur C. Clarke's science fiction novel 2001) starts humming as it is being disassembled. Naturally, this is not a coincidence, but rather the intention of the director to return the computer to its "childhood state" (in a double sense) as it loses its advanced electronic identity.
The world in the 70's and 80's: With the introduction of the first cheap Japanese synthesizers, regular people (who were not trained musicians) started using electronic instruments, and electronic pop music was born. The difference between, for example, the Hammond organ or Pink Floyd's monophonic synthesizers and the new generation of electronic instruments was that the latter could store rhythms and entire pieces of songs in their digital memory, which could later be modified. In particular, quantization (which adapts notes played to a given rhythm) was (and is) greatly criticized by "serious" musicians. They thought that simple and rhythmically perfect melodies were destructive to music, and they distanced themselves from it. Another factor that abhorred musicians of the old school was that music played by machines would not be limited by the dexterity of a given musician, which allowed the ability of the ear to perceive sound variations to set the limits for the music. A "groove" of several hundred beats a minute, or pieces with tone lengths of several hundredths of seconds - songs like those scare the living daylights out of musicians who are accustomed to being able to analyze the music they listen to.
For the new electronic musicians, the perfect quantization, the possibility of a high pace, and synthetic "sound images" constituted a measure of beauty. Among the pioneers, the most notable was the German band Kraftwerk, who built their own synthesizers and should be considered classics of the genre. Kraftwerk's importance for synth music can hardly be exaggerated. No single group has had as much influence on electronic pop music as these futurists - futurists in the sense that they saw the inherent beauty of the technology, rather than a tool for reproducing other ideals. They made contact with the previuosly named Karlehinz Stockhausen at an early stage, and drew lots of ideas and inspiration from classical electronic music.
Kraftwerk, and in particular its member Ralf Hütter, are also extremely politically aware and openly supports hackers. Sometimes, Ralf even refers to himself as a hacker. The mentality of these German gentlemen has thus influenced - and been influenced by - the digital underground culture around the world. Chaos Computer Club member Pengo, who was previously mentioned in connection with illegal hackers, was a Kraftwerk fan, and he listened to their records over and over while breaking into computers around the globe. He was not alone in this. Even though hackers in general have disparate musical tastes, from Bach to death metal, there are few who do not enjoy electronic music in some form or another.
While a "normal" educated musician perhaps sees the computer as a tool for producing compositions, musical arrangements, and nice-looking sheet music, a futuristic musician sees the computer as an instrument, something to be played by its own right, and which - like a saxophone or a harp - possesses an inner beauty. The futuristic musician can sit for hours and adjust different parameters to extract personal sounds from the machine, and he/she loves it as much as a guitarist loves to extrapolate his/her scales up and down in the search for a greater personal touch.
While a "normal" musician creates his or her profile through finding new techniques to manipulate his/her existing instrument, the electronic musician works with numeric parameters, spectrum analyzers, and one-handed play. Some don't know how to play an instrument at all, and stick to writing the music note by note in something like a "musical word processor". The method may be radically distinct from traditional music creation, but that doesn't mean that electro-pop has less 'soul".
Peter Samson, as one of the very first hackers at MIT (yes, we're back there again), had managed to get a PDP-1 computer to play Bach fugues solely based on numerical input. His program could be said to be the first sequencer made by an amateur. A sequencer is a computer program or a machine that remembers the notes to be played, and allows the user to change the notes, replay them, then store them again to replay them at some other time. Since that day, we have enjoyed a living, machine-made music culture. Many musicians of the old school react with outright xenophobia against this new way of working with music, rather than enjoy its benefits and try to understand what the point is.
Among Swedish electro-pioneers there was Page (which is still an active band). During the early 80's the group was one of the first (and for its genre, also one of the most successful) so-called synth-pop groups. Many jumped on the synth bandwagon, but have presently been forgotten. Who listens to groups like Trans-X, Ultravox, or Texas Instruments today? Not many, even if there are still quite a few synth-pop fans around the country. The genre has returned in the form of groups such as S.P.O.C.K. or newcomers Children Within, which are both very talented Swedish bands.
As a reaction against the frequently well-groomed and "nice" synth bands (read: Howard Jones, Depeche Mode, etc.) that flourished in the mid-80's, there came a new and incredibly heavy form of synth music: Electric Body Music, or simply EBM. Mostly, it was just referred to as "raw synth". The English band Cabaret Voltair had "invented" the style in 1978, but it was not until now that it reached popularity on the Continent and in America. Among others, Portion Control, Front 242 (who coined the term EBM), Skinny Puppy, and Invincible Spirit joined the trend. One can compare the arrival of heavy synth music to the introduction of grunge (personified by Nirvana) as a reaction to "poodle rock" - there were simply too much corny stuff out there. Less successful was perhaps the tendency of many heavy synth bands to flirt with nazi symbolism and clothing, and many groups (including Front 242) had to make public statements denying any connection to or support of neo-nazi movements.
In the 90's, many groups have grown weary of the EBM concept, since it started to become a bit trite. For example, Ministry, Die Krupps, and the Swedish band Pouppé Fabrikk had switched to Crossover, a type of music that mixes EBM and different types of metal, often in the style of the trash-metal pioneers Metallica.
Eno supposedly got the idea for making such music after being hospitalized following a car accident. He was confined to the bed with the stereo on, unable to get up to either turn it off or turn up the volume. The silent whisper of music combined with the sounds from the street below made him realize that this was actually a real music style. Peripheral music - like the music we listen to in supermarkets or airports - contains its own logic and does not at all resemble "regular" music. Ambient music is music that should be listened to while doing something else, concentrating on other sounds, yet it should be subconsciously enjoyable. In psychology, the phenomenon is classified as subliminal perception. The music creates a totality together with external sounds and does not place requirements on the listener's attention.
Eno didn't actually "invent" ambient music. The eccentric and ingenious composer Erik Satie made a few less-appreciated attempts at creating "furniture music" in the early 1900s, and in the 60's, the musical artist John Cage wrote Four Minutes, Thirty-three Seconds, a piece for silent piano, which is considered by many to be the ultimate ambient composition. The point was that the listener should concentrate on the sounds in his or her environment. To get the most out of the piece, one should perhaps read the score. Cage also worked with electronic music, where he introduced ideas from Zen philosophy about how the music should be organized but still display a chaotic nature. These ideas have, served as a basis for the study of improvisational techniques. They have also had a great influence on ambient music, and this is mentioned on the covers of Brian Eno's records.
Together with installation art, this music form says a great deal about ambitions within modern art: to create a total environment and place the beholder inside it1. The concept of Virtual Reality is considered to be the optimal combination of installation art and ambient music. An artificial, man-made environment of the type that writers for ages have been able to create using the reader's imagination - but tangible, detailed, and accurate. A world built on pure information.
Electronic music pioneers such as Tangerine Dream (which debuted with Electronic Meditation in 1969), and some symphonic rock groups like Hawkwind, experimented early on with creating alien, futuristic sound environments using early synthesizers and manipulating all types of electronic equipment (for example, guitar amplifiers) to produce strange sounds.
Brian Eno is still a prominent figure in ambient music. Before ambient music became well-known, it was often filed under labels such as New Age or Meditational. These terms are nowadays used for artists like Jean-Michel Jarre and Vangelis, who represent a sort of mood-charged elevator-style music, suitable for active as well as passive listening.
Modern DJ's such as Alex Paterson and Bill Drummond (The Orb/KLF) and Sven Väth, inspired by techno and industrial music, have succeeded in the art of making rhythmical pop music with elements of ambient music without ruining the basic concept. Especially The Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld and Väth's Accident in Paradise are considered important milestones in "modern" ambient
The art of filmmaking has developed in many directions, but electronic film in particular seems to repel many filmmakers. In film, there is no tradition of creating pictures without people. Since its inception, film has been based on theater, and thus on dialogue. The mere thought of making a film without people is absurd to most directors (Translator's note: and then Star Wars: The Phantom Menace came along...). In music there is, to say the least, a much older tradition of making music without song. One could say that music, as opposed to theater and film, has more to do with directly generating emotions and moods than trying to reflect real events or psychological occurrences.
In animated pictures, there have been several attempts to take a step away from people and trying to create a symbolic universe. Mostly, however, it has only led to compromise. Virtually all animated films are fables, i. e. they describe things that actually occur in human society. Basically all events that are described in cartoons involve actors with certain human physical and psychological attributes that have been put in some human-like situation. The few attempts at creating animated film like modern art, through the use of symbols and patterns without "life", have almost exclusively produced incomprehensible results.
Also relevant is the fact that film, up until the 90's, was extremely expensive to produce and did not lend itself to frivolous experimentation. It was necessary to have an established market potential or government financing to afford to make a movie. Neither of these institutions is very receptive to experimental ideas. With the introduction of cheap video technology in the late 80's and early 90's, it became possible to experiment with film in an entirely new way.
The computer has also made an appearance in electronic film. Here, as in music, it is the general opinion that the computer should remain merely a tool, a means of creating completely normal commercial or artistic film. Among those involved with animation and computer graphics, ideas are radically different. One of the most distinct and beautiful examples of electronic film is a series of short movies created by George Lucas' PIXAR, a company that was founded by the film mogul for the sole purpose of developing computer technology for motion pictures. It goes under the collective name of Beyond the Mind's Eye, and is well appreciated among those who already have been involved with electronic culture. Somewhat paradoxically, in this case it was the commercial film industry that financed the development of one of the most alternative art forms there is. Some of PIXAR's movies are regular movies intended for a wide audience (like cartoons but more detailed), while others are very experimental2.
I refer to films containing only exploding geometric figures, camera pans over incomprehensible landscapes, fractal images, and psychedelic color patterns as ambient films, since the idea is about the same as with ambient music - to set a mood without a linear or coherent content. The style is related to so-called parametric film, in which the technique, especially camera positioning and panning, is an end in itself to lend the film a certain mood without resorting to traditional narrative methods.
Electronic film is very popular
at rave parties, and also a given ingredient in many techno music videos,
a music style which will be discussed in the next chapter.
1 To "widen the frames" is considered a general characteristic of postmodern art.
2 They've made a commercial breakthrough with the movie Toy Story.
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