Electric Influence


Photo by Brian Sacawa

The preliminary differentiation of musical categories by means of this reasonable and usable criterion of “degree of determinacy” offends those who take it to be a definition of qualitative categories, which–of course–it need not always be. Curiously, their demurrers usually take the familiar form of some such “democratic” counterdefinition as: “There is no such thing as ‘serious’ and ‘popular’ music. There is only ‘good’ and ‘bad’ music.” As a public service, let me offer those who still patiently await the revelation of the criteria of Absolute Good an alternative criterion which possesses, at least, the virtue of immediate and irrefutable applicability: “There is no such thing as ‘serious’ and ‘popular’ music. There is only music whose title begins with the letter ‘X,’ and music whose title does not.”

Milton Babbitt, “Who Cares if You Listen?
(The Composer as Specialist, 1958)

In 1937, composer John Cage foreshadowed the use of electronic instruments to “make available any and all sounds that can be heard.” It wasn’t long before his prediction would begin to be realized, yet could Cage himself have foreseen the scope with which electronic music would be integrated into our modern world? From underground hip hop (People Under The Stairs) to internationally hailed festivals (DEMF, MUTEK) and artists (Daft Punk, Bjork); from the sophisticated, innovative beats of Aphex Twin to the “soulless electronic pop” sprinkled into the minds of listeners by Lady Gaga (as she referred to her own music in an interview with The Guardian); from funky Nu Jazz to fast-paced car commercials; and from experimental, avant-garde shows at IRCAM to commissions by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, electronic music is a ubiquitous voice in contemporary culture.

Throughout history, musicians and historians alike have sought to qualify music into periods, isms, genres, subgenres, and camps. Not only relegated to classical idioms, music of all styles has been peppered with divisive definitions, rivalries, and, as a natural byproduct of such things, stark restrictions. Yet despite all of these categorizations, what is finally emerging is transcendence beyond such minute distinctions. Looking back over the past decade, perhaps the defining characteristic of early 21st-century music is that the once (often bitterly) divided schools of musical thought are becoming irrelevant in today’s increasingly pluralistic discourse. Indignant and sardonic commentary is seldom printed in musical journals or reviews nowadays (though I imagine the relative safety of intimate social gatherings affords composers and critics a much-needed outlet for their more acerbic thoughts). Indeed, would the deliciously rabid cat-fighting of Schaeffer vs. Stockhausen or Schoenberg vs. Stravinsky or the blanket disdain of Boulez for anyone not a disciple of Boulez find a supportive audience in the current didactic conversion towards a globalized fusion of cultural ideals?

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Though a pervasive, polarizing divide between “high art” and “popular art” still exists (a split enforced throughout the centuries by philosophers and historians delighting in their common derision for “lower” art forms), such categorical definitions are quickly evaporating, particularly in the American musical scene. Innovative concert series across the country successfully program multiple genres of music within the same evening (often with electronic-based artists), and are conspicuously forging a new archetype for the concert-going experience. In 2000 Joel Chadabe predicted as much, writing in Computer Music Journal:

At this particular moment in the history of computer music, the flow of ideas between high art and popular art seems to have a particular significance. Indeed, the protective parapet that has long kept high art and popular art mutually exclusive seems to be showing signs of vulnerability. It seems that we are about to enter a new cultural architecture that we cannot yet describe; yet we are aware that technology is changing the world and that it will also change the world of computer music.

So where do we go from here? What is the future of “classical” music when the far reaches of a composer’s mind can be fantasized, realized, synthesized and digitally reproduced within a matter of hours, all from the comfort of one’s own bedroom, all without using a single performer or acoustic instrument? While the symphonic orchestra maintains its status as an important tenant of classical music culture, one cannot deny the cyborgian evolution that is encompassing all walks of life in the 21st century—naturally the increasing digitalization of modern society must find also itself represented in the arts. Traditionalists still extol the virtues of acoustic instruments, established mediums, and historical creations, and vociferously defend centuries of classical tradition and its artifacts. Their conviction is admirable, and their passion for preserving our cultural genealogy is imperative in today’s disposable, distractible, digitally obsessed society. However, polarization between traditionalism and modernism is detrimental to the human spirit; true progress cannot be celebrated if only a select few are privileged to receive it, understand it, and benefit from it. Music technology and computer music are brilliant fields of research, yet the advancements in musical and scientific discovery are sequestered and generally confined to academic circles. The average person knows what an orchestra is but more than likely does not know what a gestural controller is. The average music aficionado can easily identify the melodic strains of a violin yet probably has never heard of FM synthesis. Though electronic music is pervasive in popular art forms, the sounds penetrating the ears of its audience are more then likely 4/4, 120 bpm deep house beats or high-energy, techno-driven laptop performances—experimental, esoteric sounds traveling through multi-channel sound diffusion are generally not found on the dance floor. Yet these two worlds are not so far apart, and collaboration between the two seems an obvious progression in an ideal 21st-century music model. Examples of this can be seen in the music of Jonny Greenwood and Owen Pallett, both of whom use Max/MSP (traditionally used by academic composers) to elaborate their electronic sounds. Indeed it is telling that the company that makes Ableton Live, the renowned music software used primarily by electronic DJ’s and producers, recently co-released Max for Live in partnership with Cycling ’74, the company that handles Max/MSP. The move effectively merges these previously somewhat disparate fields of music creation.

The increasingly successful merging of “high art” with underground art and/or “popular art” can be viewed in the numerous efforts of performers to straddle these two worlds. Innovative projects in this vein are rapidly gaining popularity; pianist Jade Simmons’s partnership with hip-hop producer Robert Reynolds, pianist Kathleen Supové’s collaboration with techno DJ/producer Jeff Mills, and The Knife’s foray from electro-pop into opera are but a few exciting examples of a new paradigm being forged in music, one that eradicates the now-hollow boundaries of genre, form, and tradition. As such projects become more abundant, the dissolution of preconceived notions and prejudices towards art outside one’s sphere of definition has naturally grown more prevalent. In defining this new course, the audience has grown more accepting and adventurous, contemporary music finds itself increasingly hip.

Intent on exploring these questions, I sought conversations with four progressive individuals who consistently utilize new technologies, forms, and sonic palettes to cross boundaries and expand the listener’s expectations for sonic art. Though each descends from traditional classical music studies, each composer/performer/sound designer uniquely merges this foundation with other influences such as trip-hop, noise-rock, dance music, and computer science to create innovative and distinctive electronically infused sounds. Whether wielding an iPhone as a controller (Ken Ueno), using NASA recordings as sound sources (Mason Bates), supervising a hemisphere of laptops (Rebecca Fiebrink), or morphing Brazilian rhythms into dark, ambient sonorities (Ricardo Romaneiro), each represents a unique approach to electronic sound production and performance, successfully cultivating and interfusing their diverse musical experiences into inventive compositions and projects. What follows are intimate discussions of each composer’s work, personal experiences, and philosophies, and their ruminations on life and musical art in the 21st century.

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Julieanne Klein

Praised for her expressivity, warmth of sound and “astonishing vocal colors,” New York-based soprano Julieanne Klein is a versatile singer renowned for her ability to bring dramatic interpretations and exquisite beauty of sound to complex contemporary music. A devoted champion of 20th and 21st-century music, she has performed and premiered works throughout North America and Europe, including Montreal, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Baltimore, London, Manchester, and Hvar, Croatia. Klein has an intense passion for electronic music of all scopes and completed her doctorate in the area of voice and live/interactive electronic music at McGill University (Montreal). She has presented lectures on this topic at McGill University, California Institute of the Arts, and Chapman University, and will present a lecture at the Vienna University of Music and Performing Arts in November 2010. Upcoming performances include a world premiere by Zosha Di Castri with the JACK Quartet (New York) and a full concert of voice and live electronic works written for her (Montreal, Vienna).

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