Techno Schmechno: a postmodern approach to electro

nicaIn searching for a properly post-modern style of music, it may be better to look at the electronic music scene, which began with house music in the early to middle 80s, rather than at hip-hop. It is true that the hip-hop artist generally disappears into the narrative of the music to the extent that many of their lives are a direct reflection of what they sing about: gang violence, drugs, racism, alienation in the US, etc. but here already we encounter two problems. One is the existential choice of reading: if we do read these lives as reflected, or as ghostly risings out of formal lyrical narratives called rap and hip-hop, which lend to the narratives distinct anthropological and sociological connotations of a symbolic as opposed to structural order, or at least blur the concept reality (qua the signified) with rapping (qua the signifier), then one perhaps makes the mistake of naturalising signs which are altogether become ambiguous, to the extent we have blurred an idea about nature with a structural and then formal aspect of the narrative anyway. To do this makes the historical or real experiences of gang violence, drugs, racism etc. little more than lame stereotypes or pastiches of the rap, now become Rap, or somewhat almighty in terms of its myth. Whence, though originate these themes? To read as above, is altogether too much myth construction. Either the reality of experience is annulled as signified, in favour of structural or formal readings, or rap narratives suck the lifeblood out of experience and turn it into symbolism. The other way then to read hip-hop, and this is where one encounters the second problem, is to commence with real experience: to see this art as a function of the artist’s experience, or even to annul the artistic dimension in favour of pure type of expression: cathartic, violent, confronting – this may salvage a political dimension, but that’s not very post-modern really. Nevertheless the primary elements for hip-hop to cross over into post-modernism were there, and post-modernism here primarily connotes a logical conclusion, which makes explicit the absence of a delineation between a staged performance and a real event. These elements should however include not only critical analyses of lyrical content and its performance, but, and which is lacking, also the formal dynamics of mechanical production and reproduction as triggered by such technologies as synthesisers, samplers, sequencers and drum machines.

House music (now dead), and all its post-house sub-styles, ie, acid house, new beat, techno, and then the great proliferation from techno-pop to hardcore trance, jungle and other recent idiolects of electronica have more recognisable post-modern functions, in terms of musical form, which I hope to convey in this essay. I prefer to use the term idolect rather than style or genre here as micro-genres of electronic music have distinct paradigmatic features, mainly connoted by the universal use of certain technical forms such as the use of rhythm, tonality etc. We may, in general, call these forms, parametrical (see endnote 1) features which tend to index the whole of electronic music as a syntagm: as an integrational or cardinal form, the individual contents of which look metaphorical, distributional and catalytical (see endnote 2) . For example, the typical 4/4 time signature, which as a sign denotes a typical ‘dance song’. Wider shifts in content signify the proliferation of what we might have called styles, although the proliferation of these is so rapid, the styles are so short lived and there are so very many of them that it is quite possible for a ‘style’ to be introduced on one album and then never to reappear. Therefore it is better to read electronic music overall or integrationally in terms of its syntagm as vertically parallel to other kinds of music (eg heavy-metal or AOR) and to read styles as individual lexicons rather than as evolving movements, especially in the post-techno era. An example of this is Melbourne (Australia) musician Guyver 3’s album Perception Camera (if?: 1996), which occasionally contained recognisable elements of jungle, trance and techno but was generally so idiolectic that it would be necessary to invent a whole new term/style to categorise it. Another example is Pan(a)sonics Kulma (Blast First: 1996), which wholly employed what one might call mechanical pastiche by using analogue machinery within a distinct wider context in which the dominant paradigm is production using digital technology, but then became stylistically indistinct due to a subsequent lack of historicity: the band itself is an anonymous entity: it fiercely resists contextualisation, its idiolect was not drawn upon by others. Here are two examples: I could cite many more, but the exponential growth in categorical or generic styles is actually a result of electronic music’s utter loyalty to mechanical production and reproduction which leads to a distinct waning of affect. I quote Jameson in this context: ‘The end of the bourgeois ego, or monad, no doubt brings with it the end of the psychopathologies of that ego – what I… call the waning of affect. But it means the end of much more – the end, for example, of style, in the sense of the unique and individual brush stroke (as symbolised by the emergent primacy of mechanical production). As for expression and feeling or emotions, the liberation, in contemporary society, from the older anomie of the centered subject may also mean… a liberation from every other kind of feeling as well, since there is no longer a self present to do the feeling.’
All the above may be quite clearly seen in electronic music above all because of its dependence upon mechanical production for its syntagmatic existence. The first big idiolectic explosion here was acid house circa 1987/1988 (originating in Detroit some years earlier. No one knows exactly who wrote the first acid house song or what it was, and rightly so: it’s a rather irrelevant argument. When acid house became big it was often hailed as a new resisting movement, the ‘new punk’ or the ‘punk movement of the eighties’. This was because, in line with the punk ethos, which uses simple guitar, drum and bass; acid house could be done by almost anyone with a sampler, sequencer and programmable keyboard. Little theoretical knowledge was required and acid house acts popped up from nowhere and everywhere before popping back into the general vacuum or total flow of electronic music. Some important distinctions from punk as a syntagm were quickly discerned however – acid house was extremely minimal, even more so than punk with its “vocals, three chords, and drums” formula. Most acid house songs consisted of little more than a simple drum machine pattern, a bass line that was very distinct in that it always employed sharply defined phasing techniques (whence the definition ‘acid house’) and some sampled vocals, often lifted from other songs. Here is the first discrete example of monadic absence – all that I just described was produced electronically. The form of the song was always extremely repetitive and hypnotic, focussing on quantity, while the concept quality remained in the background. Sequencing one or two quite short musical phrases produces this type of electronic music. Sequencing involves electronically copying and pasting a musical phrase or phrases in a very similar way that one might copy and paste a paragraph on a word processor. The analogical equivalent to much acid house (and other idiolects of electronica) would be a paragraph pasted and thus repeated over and over again. Thus the presence of the musician literally almost becomes irrelevant, as the machine produces almost all the music. Musicologists (and fans of guitar rock) might criticise this sort of composition as slack and unoriginal but that would be missing the point. This music nonetheless sounded incredibly fresh and new – it was a whole new way or syntagm of making music, challenging the traditional concept of composition. The ethos behind it and its means of production actually required the waning of affect by intuitive absence and extreme repetition. This ethos signifies the instrumental (in the ‘utility’ sense echoes of Max Weber perhaps) features of electronic music, and the word hypnotic as I used it above is important. Why ‘acid’ house? Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll – acid house was made primarily to dance to while tripping on various forms of LSD and ecstasy and the late eighties saw the creation of the phenomenon known as the ‘warehouse party’ which later evolved into the now notorious (usually outdoor) ‘rave’ – where lots of acid and ecstasy (mainly ecstasy) are consumed, and acid house, techno and trance etc are danced to all night long. Electronic music as we now know it is primarily a music of utility; it is not so much listened to at home for aesthetic enjoyment as it is frantically danced to at clubs, parties and raves while high on the substance of one’s choice in order to attain a special magical and transcendent moment. I would suggest that when such a moment is indeed reached there can be no better way to describe it than by recognising it as the post-modern ‘intensity’, where intensities have conveniently replaced or deferred for now the problem of representative meaning. This is also why electronic music is better at post-modernism – because the whole dance and drugs culture which centre this music may be said to be based on the search for the ultimate aesthetic intensity, not through the authentication of affect or ego, but through the extreme loss and negation of the self by use of repetitive, hypnotic, mechanical dance music and also by drugs. Perhaps to be intense equals to be high, but I don’t want to start sounding religious here.

Another reason that hip-hop proper branched off into house et al may well be political. Hip-hop as such was never really amenable to a capitalist music industry, which equates political safety with commercial success. Hip-hop has always had more of a counter-cultural aspect to it, from Afrika Bambaata’s and Grandmaster Flash’s earlier performances out of the New York ghettoes to Public Enemy’s very distinct articulations and expressions of political protest. MTV is a good case to cite: it wouldn’t even play Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean until CBS threatened to withdraw the use of its other artists, and when MTV played the whole seventeen hours of Live Aid in 1985, they cut the one hip-hop act on the bill out: Run-DMC. The focus of house and its follow-ons into the nineties has always been more on the dance floor it seems. The Summers of Love of ’89 and ’90 were much more about a subculture of hedonism and pleasure than any distinctly political culture, which sub-cultural scene seems to have continued from there. It would be difficult to see electronic music ever becoming distinctly political as it thrives on a depoliticised ethos in any case. One of the more conspicuous features of all the idiolects since house is a genuine lack of personality cults. Where hip-hop retains a focus on the artist, often by immersing the artist entirely within its narrative; house, techno and so forth abhor the artist. To focus on the artist would detract from dance musics instrumentalising connotations. Often the names of electronic acts are strikingly obscure – this is the list of acts that appeared on a Melbourne electronic compilation Blue Sector Vol. 1: Amnesia, the Headmaster, TSM, Stride, Foil/M24, Prime 8, Tonto, Voiteck, Zen Paradox. Numbers (808 State, Apollo 440, U96, Front 242), unidentified abbreviations (TCH, JX, SQ16, PGR, MR V, X-Project) and meaningless or ambiguous words (Tonal Plexus, Marmion, Klatch, Datura, Autechre, Drax) most often appear. Are these nick-names of people, names of drugs, of bits of technology or more sinister things? All of the above (certainly Datura is at least a drug, and SQ16 stands for 16-track sequencing) and more probably. In any case the reader may sense that a certain anonymity is strongly indicated – an anonymity that hopes to signify the consumer and intstrumentaliser of the music. Live concerts are not known of in the conventional sense either. When bands do play ‘live’, the gig often becomes a paradox for the consumer. One example is a Black Lung gig in Melbourne, 1997. When Black Lung commenced playing he, she or they (actually a he and sometimes she as well), they made a remarkable statement by leaving the curtains closed. Actually, the venue they played that night doesn’t have any curtains so they placed some there temporarily. The ‘band’ wasn’t seen at all and the music ended up gelling and becoming almost indistinguishable from the music that the DJ played before and after the ‘act’. The curtains acted as a contiguous symbolic bar, sequestering the signifying artist from the signified music on an historical level. The music then became dehistoricised: it took its form wholly internally rather than presently; the terms became reversed, as on a CD: music became the empty internal signification of the absent artist who was fulfilled in image and concept only. Those people who weren’t already too out of it to know the difference had problems deciding what to do. Dance? If not, then chat with friends? In any case, there wasn’t anything to look at and the atmosphere was more like that in a cafe than anything. Sit around in little groups and get stoned perhaps…

So here we have an example of mechanical reproduction without a source, a move from the symbolic to the structural wholly opposed to the ethos of hip-hop, which is all spectacle and exhibition. All that remained was the electronic music, which seemed to proceed from the infrastructure of the club itself, like a type of digital epiphenomenon but with no particular analogical supervenience or parallel. Indeed as one punter exclaimed when the music stopped for the night – “what happened to the band?” Good question, but apparently they had already played. Had we seen them though, we would have seen two people sitting behind some keyboards and mixers not doing anything except occasionally twiddle some knobs. Black Lung were probably well aware of the visual poverty of their show compared to a traditional rock concert but ironically the device of the curtains as opposed to, say, a visually distracting laser show, produced a much more disorientating effect Essentially and formally there is exactly no need for a human presence to play the music here.

What we have is a deferral of the problem of artistic legitimation in favour of legitimation as cultural product. Electronic music does not so much refuse legitimation as a product but to that extent a product is all it is. It is not possible to legitimate the artist when the artist is absent from the process of identification. There is a total flow to the phenomenon of electronic music. Any one piece becomes indiscrete, when on the dance floor songs are beat-mixed to the same speed and/or pitch so that gaps both of form and space are perpetually absent, barring the event of complete breakdown, in which case it is the music that disappears and not the song. This flow is similar to that of TV and radio. If ‘dead air’ is anathema there then ‘dead beats’ are anathema in the techno club.

The song is itself deconstructed in another sense as well: the remix. The remix (then better known as the extended version) became the defining phenomenon of dance music in the eighties. But in the extended version, the original song was still very much signified. The extension usually consisted of an extra three or four minutes inserted at various points of the original song. It was quite easily possible to formally identify various bits of the song as original bits and extended bits. But in the nineties the remix usually plays with the very concept of the original song, completely restructuring all the tracks and sometimes dispensing with the original vocals altogether. A good example in dialectic terms is the remix single by Underworld, Born Slippy (Junior Recordings: 1996). Five versions of the song are offered here. The first is the short version which is a straight edit of the long version which sounds like what we might have called the original version because it is the one which was played on radio, TV music shows, and appeared in the movie Trainspotting, from which it gained its popularity in the first place. Note how originality is here constructed not at all in terms of production though, that is, original because it was the first version to appear because all versions appeared pretty much simultaneously. A dialectic between broadcast culture and club culture becomes apparent here, because clubs usually eschew radio mixes and vice versa. Often the consumer who gets to know a track in a nightclub and subsequently buys the single nowaydays may be quite disappointed when he or she discovers the version they know and love is nowhere to be found on their disc as it is a limited edition DJ’s mix or something similar. Originality is here then wholly constructed out of context, as an arbitrary apparition dependent on place of ‘broadcast’. Originality is then also dependent on the consumer – the consumer literally constructs originality all by her or himself. The artist has already disappeared behind a formally impenetrable wall of technology anyway, so the artist is no source of authority here, as the artist is the one who has prostituted what is left of the song out to various remix engineers. I say prostituted because the artist pays the engineer (often DJs or fellow techno acts) to put their ‘body’ in terms of concept onto the song and make it sound other.

The second version on the Born Slippy single is the Darren Price mix. We now lose all the musical tracks from the short version, but retain the original vocals. The new musical tracks share a conceptual equivalence with the short version too, ie, the melody is retained. So Born Slippy is still quite easily signified – a formal connection is retained. Once we get to the third version, the Darren Price remix, we are in deeper deconstructive waters. All signs of the song we knew as Born Slippy have disappeared, a wholly other musical piece takes its place. Nonetheless it’s still known by its name and as a remix. It’s not another song. Listening closely for signs of the song we thought we knew, it seems that the song’s speed is still the same. Maybe that’s the signifying link? It seems so, because when we get to the fourth version: the Alex Reece mix the musical elements are once again wholly replaced, but the beat does sound familiar in an ambiguous manner. In vain we make the link though, because once we get to the fifth version even the signifying beat disappears in what’s called the deep pan banstyle/alex reece mix. I chose this example because apparently it offers a dialectic of deconstruction – we began with the conventional short version and gradually all the formal signifiers disappeared. But if we apply this commentary fairly then no version is really anymore authoritative than any other. It was, after all the context that we saw as defining originality, because, if I was a DJ, I would have license to call any of these versions Born Slippy by Underworld.

Maybe then it would be better to join all five versions together and the whole piece as one song. Indeed one can do that, but this is only to defer the problem of definition into its own particular mini-total flow constucted by naming. It doesn’t really solve the problem, as one might as well go all the way and call every techno song Born Slippy by Underworld. The whole interest in anonymity and confusing the definition of songs has a certain attitude of glee or jouissance about it. On the other hand, it may well be that if anonymity is assured by the use of mechanical reproduction, the artist seems to remain present, albeit in a ghostly type of manner, by appealing to idiolect, and this is why there is such a proliferation of idiolects in the electronic scene. As formal significations are dispensed with entirely, eg, songs, musicians, melodies, lyrics etc. a type of individuality returns out of its repression to haunt this music. But are we talking about the ‘unique and individual brushstroke’ or just the fact that different brands and types of brushes, pallettes and paints are being used in different combinations? That is, can we sense artistic presence here or just the fact that this piece uses a Roland DX-100 and a Jupiter 8 while that one uses a Casio and a Yamaha?
End notes
1. As an element which remains constant for the whole duration of a piece of music. See N. Ruwet.

2. See Barthes, Roland (1977) “Structural Analysis of Narratives” in Image-Music-Text.

Jameson F. (1991); “Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.