Human Aesthetics

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Electronic Music: Then, Now, and Later

by Aryo Adhianto
Translation by Ferdi Zebua

As a music genre whose age has exceeded a century, electronic music of course have accumulated a warehouse of context regarding human civilization history and its socio-cultural movements, technology, and art form progressions within it. Now, as ‘home’ to thousands of youth today in all manners of their musical activities, the electronic music ‘area’ has even stretched wide to all corners of the world—no exception in Jakarta, Indonesia—from ever since it was pioneered in the lands of Europe and Americas in the 19th century.

So how is electronic music truly perceived today by the young? And what will be its ‘fate’ in the future?

Electronic Music in the Mind of Jakarta’s Youth

To track and retrace the true meaning of the phrase ‘electronic music’, which has been borrowed and used by the youth in their craft today, turns out not to be an easy task; at least for me and my fellow musicians of Jakarta who operate within the electronic music area.

Syafwin Bajumi, a record producer and 8-bit musician, tells us that electronic music is a response by musicians and/or sound technicians towards technologies that developed at our times. “Because technology was created to simplify human life, then there happened a big leap in the music field when man began creating electronic-based equipment which ‘eased’ musicians in creating and pushing the opening of new possibilities never thought of before.” He says.

Meanwhile Reinhold Makasutji, more popularly known as Leno, a DJ and songwriter, says that electronic music is basically a process of designing sounds. He opines, “The electronic music that I am familiar with through my DJ-ing is how we explore and search for new kinds of sounds which we seek using hardware resultant of electronically based technologies such as synthesizer keyboards, effects, and computer software. It’s all about bleeps, glitches, and the future sound of music.”

Somewhat similarly to Syafwin’s opinion, Muhammad Fahri—popularly called Gonzo—a musician utilizing analog music equipments, opines that electronic music is a result of human behavior in creating technology. But he adds, “Because its scope is so wide, to me, electronic music is now a kind of umbrella for all other kinds of music.”

From their point of view, we more or less see a picture of today’s views on electronic music, which thought there are differences in points of view, there still exists contextual similarities within them, and that is technological development. It is true, that technology with its myriad functions and uses has successfully ushered the creation of various new possibilities within the music world. Starting from synthesizer keyboards, samplers, effects, to microphones, amplifiers, and mixers, they are but a few among the many products given birth by technological developments within the music area. But then, if today all those tools are also used by almost all other kinds of music, can we say that all music of today is electronic music? And if the answer is no, then what differentiates electronic music from other kinds of music?

“It is hard to answer that. But of course the humans who use them are one differentiating factor,” Leno answers. “As I had said earlier, electronic music is about the process of searching for a certain kind of sound. So maybe if that process is used in other music genres such as rock, jazz, or even pop, then to me rock remains rock, jazz remains jazz, and so on. Only maybe later the media or ‘industry’ labels them into electronic-rock, electronic-jazz, and so on.”

Syafwin adds, “Yes, it seems human behavior takes on an important role in differentiating electronic music from other kinds of music, especially the urban youth. Because it is within the cities that technological development first reached the public; and as far as I know, electronic music almost always takes off from within the modern, urban context with all the life dynamics and issues within it. And then the youth with their intense explorative and experimental soul then sees electronic music as a forum they find most ‘compatible’ to their urges and creations.”

Within that point of view, electronic today seems harder to identify its authenticity, more so within this era where aesthetic experience is increasingly ‘distanced’ from artistic achievement. Because if electronic music is said to be very dependent on technological development, how then can it be born over a hundred years ago, at a time where concepts regarding modern cities and equipments such as synthesizers or computers were even be yet to be imagined?

Electronic Music in Amy Knoles’ Mind

“Well, it’s basically my instrument. That was I control the sound…” answers Amy Knoles, a teacher of electronic percussion at CalArts and member of The California E.A.R. Unit. “I went to the rehearsal of Morton Subotnick’s opera “Hungers” and there was waiting for me a MalletKat—a sort of electronic xylophone. The first time that I struck I note I knew that it would be my instrument of choice. I could play any type of sound that I could imagine on it. I could play electric guitar, or samples of a child singing, sounds backwards then forwards, anything! I found my compositional voice thru electronics.” she adds.

From this standpoint, it could means that electronic devices are really just a mere vehicle. Electronics— as Amy put it—apart from using it to seek new possibilities in music, even also use it as a medium to learn new things, as she later told, “I had never written a note until I had a Yamaha TX-81Z, an Akai S900 and Mac in my possession. Practicing for pieces that I commissioned, I decided to try my hand. My first real piece came from a mistake. I was programming a rhythm track on my MAC (a 512 at the time— 1984) that was to trigger samples of the text “Men in the Cities”. I was creating a musical response to the series of drawings of the same name by Robert Longo at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The track was supposed to trigger words on the S900 sampler but I send it down the wrong MIDI channel and it triggered pitched synthesizer sounds on my TX-81Z instead and “Men in the Cities” was born! Electronics have given me my music voice ever since.”

And as a teacher of electronic percussion at the California Institute of Arts, of course Amy have come into lots of contact with the younger generation. And in this manner where youth are within the era where electronic music is more often associated with music which driven by technological advancement, are the perceptions and approaches they use in practicing music different from what Amy does?

“I work a lot with young people in this genre and I see many different approaches. I find that the work that I do is well received by young people,” she answers. “I’m also happily seeing that the gestural manipulation of electronic sound is now possible on devices such as iPhone or iPod Touch. I can put that in the hands of my dancer and have him move the sound as he moves.”

Amy Knoles, as a musician and composer with a strong background in western Classical music, of course understands well her Western context. How electronic music is rooted in a cultural movement which started in Europe and the Americas in the 19th century, to today. How ‘futuristic’ devices and gadgets that we can easily get from any stores around are based upon context which created by humans; not the opposite way around. A very fundamental aspect which quite often we do not realize.

Electronic Music from Time to Time

As has happened earlier, a firm definition of electronic music itself, to this day, remains a never ending debate —try asking five friends around you, and you will have five different definitions. But one thing that can be accurately traced is that electronic music is rooted in Western classical music and the cultural movement behind it.

Looking back on the history of arts in Europe, especially in France and Germany, in the 19th century, electronic music was born at a time of transition from the romantic era with its “arts for arts’ sake” spirit, towards impressionism with its background of the industrial revolution, between the years 1895- 1905. When we look at the contextual contact between those two eras, where the romantic era’s art movements (such as its visual and musical arts) lean upon exploration of aesthetic and intellectual exploration post-enlightenment, while the impressionism era has its arts as a ‘radical’ response towards the already present and ‘established’ art forms—not to mention the context of the industrial revolution (where there happened great technological developments) behind it—and so little by little I begin forming an image of why electronic music was born at that era.

When we interpret electronic music as an attempt to find new possibilities in music, especially in the exploration of sound, then we must begin from the development of western classical music itself. Because as we know, the structure of western classical music are based on the four pillars of geometry, architecture, astronomy, and physics. So we can imagine how rich the exploration and experimentation of music and sounds in the aesthetic arena of the time.

And so was born great composers such as Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel in France, and Arnold Schoenberg in Germany, with their efforts to break past the limits of ‘beauty’ succeeding in creating new possibilities in the aesthetics of music-making, which then became the distinctive music of the impressionist era—including in them ideas regarding electronic music; which is the emphasize of droning tones and dissonance harmonies or ‘un-stability’, then the development of ‘unconventional’ music scales for the time, such as whole tone scale or chromatic scale, with ‘shorter’ music structure such as nocturne, arabesque and prelude—in contrast with the symphonic music structure of the baroque and romantic eras.

And one important thing to know is the impact of Balinese gamelan music when it was first heard at the World Expo of the 18th century, which then inspired the birth of what is labeled as ‘20th century music’ in the development of structure in western classical music, including in this case electronic music. It is these movements which then inspired the next composers and instrument makers of the European and American lands such as Edgar Varese, Erik Satie, Olivier Messiaen, Iannis Xenakis in France, Karlheinz Stockhausen in Germany, Luigi Russolo with his “The Art of Noises” in Italy, Leon Theremin in Russia, and then Morton Feldman, John Cage, and Lee de Forest, and Robert Moog in the US, to carry further the breath of what had been done by their forbearers: which is to comprehend, explore, and develop sounds themselves into a new aesthetic scheme of musicianship.

But now the question is if we interpret electronic music as the process of seeking and exploring sounds, isn’t this also what is done by other kinds of music, such as say, traditional music? Then back to my question at the beginning, what really differentiates electronic music from other kinds of music?

Based on data and facts which I have attempted to present thus far, I will answer that it is the musical structure which would differentiate electronic music from other kinds of music. What had been done by Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luigi Russolo, or John Cage truly stands upon the process of exploring sounds and the seeking of new possibilities in music. But all of this is of course based on the classical music structure of the impressionist era which I mention before. From this answer thus I would conclude that no kind of music is defined by their music-making process or instruments. That later the ‘naming’ of music genres such as dub, electronic, and gamelan music eve was then named based on the processes or instruments used; but still, what defines the music as dub, electronic—and its ‘sub-genres’ like techno, minimal-tech, electro, etc—or gamelan, at the end still is the music’s structure.

Electronic Music in the Future

But what happens in further developments, the term “electronic music” became used and developed widely along with the wider use of electronic tools such as the magnetic recording tape and electricalwave-based musical instruments (Theremin, Moog, Hammond, etc.) in the aesthetic and artistic achievement of musical compositions done by young composers of the time.

Then when the industrial revolution happened, where technological developments caused large-scale changes in the fields of manufacture and transportation, electronic tools such as recording equipment and analog synthesizers which at the beginning was quite very expensive and difficult to transport because of their massive size, became more affordable and accessible to the whole world due to industrialization. The term ‘electronic music’, which at first was ‘exclusive’ within the area of ‘serious music’ would then became commonplace used in the popular music arena, to this day.

In the information era of the 1980s to the 1990s, the use of the term electronic music further developed, especially in the popular music area. Inventions such as the personal computer, music software (Cubase, Propellerhead Reason, etc.), digital synthesizers and the Internet along with the social medias within it, had great impact on the process of music creating among the younger generation of the world. It even feels now that it is these instruments which pushed the creative process of their users in reaching artistic achievement, instead of the other way around.

And so if this is how it is, is the context of electronic equipment as no more than a vehicle for exploring sounds, such as like at the beginning of their creation, no longer relevant at our current era of today? And if the answer is no, then how is the ‘fate’ of electronic music in the future?


 Interview with Syafwin R. Bajumi, Reinhold Makasutji, Muhammad Fahri, and Amy Knoles conducted on November 2010

Aryo Adhianto

Author: Aryo Adhianto

A Former Chief Editor of Listen to the World

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