Why I like electronic music
My wife says: “Why does everything you listen to sound like an endless chord or a stuck record?”
Our son, who is five and likes “rock and roll”, says: “Why are they doing the same thing again and again? I don’t like it when they do the same over and over.”
When I fire up Apple Music in the morning, starting off the day with some atmospheric glitch or energizing drum ‘n’ bass, the nanny sings louder like she’s trying to drown out the devil’s music with her hymns.
My taste isn’t that weird. It runs from classical to jazz and from rock to electronica. Mostly electronica. Anything driven by airy or pounding synths is bound to perk my interest. I understand why the critics under my roof have a problem with repetition. Four to the floor dance can be brutal and mind-numbing.
But there’s always IDM. Pretentious as the tag might be, it means a bit more melody and a little more sophistication, enough to keep the fanciful part of my brain in check while the other part is busy with the prosaic business of editing and translating.
Like a lot of kids I had to take piano lessons and like many I didn’t enjoy it. We played from books of prescribed pieces even if we never got round to do the exams. I wasn’t interested in the tricky Telemanns and moody romantics in the front section, only in the rhythmic and punchy Bartoks and Kodalys in the back.
Once during orchestra practice in high school a kid sat down at the piano and started a tentative jazz version of Sarie Marais, a folk song appropriated by our cultural forefathers. I was astonished. How was this allowed? And why couldn’t I play this way, too?
As mentioned elsewhere, my first sight of analogue synths was in a concert hall in Durban. I sneaked in at the back with my dad and saw Rick Wakeman under his cloak of hair inside a magical square of keyboards stacked three high. As he put down his hands on the notes, a massive, mysterious wave came rolling down the aisles and hit the back wall where we stood. The strange and important sound of the synthesizer, as St Vincent calls it in her recited song “Over Borders”.
Electronica lays logical patterns over a world that can seem so cruel in its randomness and unpredictability. Other structured styles do it as well – I just have an added liking for the endless possibilities of synths. The controlled flow of Klaus Schulze’s ambient pieces, the brutalism of Nine Inch Nails, the otherworldly order of Autechre, all have charms to soothe my “savage breast”. Further down in his often misquoted play, William Congreve wrote: “I’ve read, that things inanimate have mov’d, and, as with living Souls, have been inform’d, by Magick Numbers and persuasive Sound.”
The magical numbers and persuasive sound of electronica can make me feel a litle more in control on even the most chaotic days.
For your listening displeasure
The Internet Archive, where old new media goes to be embalmed, has a fascinating collection of what they call ephemeral films. Most are educational, industrial or promotional shorts for a specific time and purpose. They are consumer goods, to be used and discarded. The intriguing subsection here is AVGeeks, the work of fans and collectors. They make collages that form intriguing snapshots of an era or theme. There is no commentary and what you make of it, is up to you.
The word ephemera, I didn't know, comes from the Greek for “things lasting no more than a day”. It was first used for written or printed stuff not meant to be kept - pamphlets, flyers, cards, posters. Now it includes film and audio as well.
Vaporwave makes me think of those films. It was a music style that appeared in 2010 and disappeared as soon as someone gave it a genre tag. The roots were supposedly indie dance movements with quirky names like seapunk and witch house, but it sounds more like the musical version of what those video geeks do. Trademarks are synth samples from past decades, covering anything from techno pop to New Age instrumentals. These are reshaped and overlaid with drastic pitch or tempo changes and heavy reverb. Vaporwave tracks aren't tidy little compositions: they can fade in, end in mid-phrase, stick like old records and suddenly take off as if the artist got bored and decided to turn up the speed.
Listening to it is like walking through a half-deserted, dimly lit shopping mall after hours. Muzak seeps from every corner, bouncing off the high ceilings and hard floors. In passing, you might pick up bits of sound from TVs in a shop front and overhear snippets of conversation as window-shopping families amble past. The effect is curiously comforting, but also a little disturbing, which may be why some felt vaporwave was a parody and critique of consumerism.
The name links to vaporware, the term for products that are announced but never made. The music spent most of its brief life on sites like Bandcamp and Soundcloud. The folks at Wikipedia consider the major artists to be Chuck Person (since transformed into Oneohtrix Point Never), James Ferraro, Saint Pepsi, Blank Banshee and Vektroid (Macintosh Plus). That seems about right. Not everything under this tag is worth hearing. Some artists ended up making spa soundtracks as bland as the styles they were mocking. Sometimes a cheesy sample is just cheesy. And even in music that disregards structure, a little creative coherence goes a long way.
It's hard to explain what makes you play a vaporwave set. Maybe it is a quiet act of social rebellion, because it does hit the spot when you feel disgusted by some part of the consumerist life cycle. Maybe you're doing a tedious piece of work for money. You've been duped into a bad buy. You've just wasted an hour on a “rated” new TV show. The telemarketer from yesterday phoned again. You walked into a wall of Easter eggs in your supermarket. Your post box is crammed with flyers and a sports calendar with a fridge magnet on the back, brought to you by a grinning estate agent. A politician in a bespoke suit tells you to tighten your belt.
Vaporwave is like a cynical friend mocking these banalities - and you, for taking them so seriously. When the music becomes annoying, you've exceeded your dose. Move on. Come to think of it, aren't you feeling a little better already?
The true sound of music
For the life of me I can't understand why music companies don't boost their CD sales and reduce piracy by drastically lowering their prices and doing marketing telling the MP3 generation how much they're sacrificing for the sake of convenience.
To sweeten the deal, they can make the booklets and jewel cases an enjoyable part of the experience. I still crack a smile when I take down Beck's album The Information. It has just a graph pattern on the front and includes sheets of stickers, related to the songs, which you can use to create your own cover. The double album Manhattan Research Inc., featuring the musical experiments of electronica pioneer Raymond Scott, comes as a CD-sized hardcover book with the discs on the inside flaps. His story, classic pics of his equipment and background on each track make up 140 pages of fascinating reading and browsing.
As for sound, even old favourites sound new in a better format. A while ago I bought a turntable with a USB port so I could record some rare vinyl to my desktop. My brother and I tested it with a sentimental favourite from the ’80s. As the needle dropped, we were hit by a mighty wave of swirling, sparkling sound that ebbed and flowed around the room. It was as invigorating as a dip in the ocean.
The same happened when I downloaded some albums in FLAC format and a little player for them. Suddenly my desktop speakers opened up while the woofer shuddered with pleasure under the table. FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) can reduce a music file to half its size without losing any of the original audio. And if you must, FLAC can be transcoded to MP3 without the usual drop in quality.
Legendary audio company Harmon has released a short film, The Distortion of Sound, in which music greats like producer Dan Aoki, film composer Hans Zimmer and acoustic engineers explain why compressed music is as flat as a ringtone.
MP3s offer smaller files - you can store more of them and they can be streamed quickly. But the MP3 format isn't the only one option and it comes at a price. It doesn't deliver what the artist created and it dumbs down our ears. Many people now don't even realise how much they miss, playing or streaming MP3s on dock stations, tablet speakers or in-ear headphones. But recorded music hasn't been around for long and moved quickly from vinyl to compression. MP3s are just the current preferred format, not the last word in audio.
So try something else for a change. Go retro with a record, spin a CD or explore lossless formats like FLAC. Listening to MP3s is like looking at low-res scans of paintings. It's not the same and it's not what the artist wanted you to have. We look for quality in everything else we buy, so why not in music, something that is such a big part of our lives?