Just Because You Can, Doesn’t Mean You Should
As many of you already know, one of my great passions is making electronic music. Recently I heard the term (and I wish I could remember who it said it so they could be properly credited!) “organic electronic music,” which is a perfect description of where my own interest in it lies—that is, electronic music made from all-natural sources! I love nothing better than to take sounds from the world—voices, rocks, water, pots and pans, glockenspiel, marbles, whatever—and “mangle” them into something different. If all goes well, into something that moves and breathes like a living thing, like an instrument that doesn’t yet exist, or a creature imagining what it would be like to have superpowers.
Most of the electronic music that I find truly compelling is the sort that doesn’t sound that much like electronic music, and that is ideally so seamlessly integrated into a composition that one almost can’t tell where it is in the mix—it is treated just like another instrument, rather than as an “extra” element within a piece. Some call this type of music electroacoustic music, but to me it’s just music. Similarly, with pieces that are fully recorded and have no performers, or that have people playing laptops (I do this myself on occasion, and I don’t pretend for a minute that it’s interesting to watch), I think it’s important that the composition be just as thoughtfully constructed as any string quartet or orchestra piece. Even if the music is improvised. Obviously the way one makes a purely electronic piece is going to be different than writing an acoustic work, but the outcome should be the same; good music.
There is a ton of amazing electronic music out there, and more and more all the time, which is totally encouraging. I mention all this because always at the beginning of the electronic music learning curve (and often well beyond) is the enchantment and/or obsession with the technology involved in making the music. It is incredibly easy to become overwhelmed by the myriad options available and, in so doing, leap for the easiest options, or to get caught up in the laser focus of making patches in Max/MSP, PD, or even a vintage analog synthesizer. And once that perfect buzz, bleep, chunk of pink noise or loop has been made, after hours and maybe even days or months of building and programming, one wants (and deserves) to revel in that sound. But it’s important to remember that there has to be more, that the technology is not an end in itself, but rather a means to an end. Let’s not end up like the folks from Jurassic Park: “Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
There still has to be music, and making that happen is hard work. Just as much effort is required in learning to make good electronic music, as is necessary to write for any unplugged instrument or combination thereof.