June 18, 2003

Stylistic Conventions Which Thwart Cross-Pollination

I've been thinking about assumptions, fashions, and expectations which prevent the academic and popular experimental community from collaborating or furthering each other's work. Here's a few quick concepts I plan to explore in the next few days.

1. The Beat
Academic electronic music avoids it now. It was possibly more fashionable while minimalism was briefly in vogue, but the post-minimalists seem to have little sway in academic electronic music now. The spectralists are in the vanguard (yes it's true it's just another name for Boulezianism) and new complexity (yes it's true it is just 70's complexity re-hashed) and the beat has taken leave.

Popular experimentalism seems to require a beat? Why? We're exploring, we're not necessarily dancing. What's with the obsession that even the most exploratory electronic music groups like Autechre have with a beat? Is it fear of losing audience share? Is it a fear of succumbing to accusations of 'intellectualism?'. I believe it's a little of both.

2. Tonality
Academics say if tonality is used in a modal or simple way, than its popular music, i.e. junk. You find very little music with white notes these days at an ICMC concert. Why is that? Is it purely fashion? Is the C Major scale that played out?

Popular experimentalists require white note adherence, or at least simple scales. It's true we find noise, but when a melody asserts itself it is uniformly white note based. Why is that? Again, is it a fear of being accused of intellectualism? How is music exploratory if it has to have a beat and must contain only white note melodies?

What is especially interesting is that both parties, the academics and the the popular electronic experimentalists will deny these assumptions, even as they practice them. Why is this? Fashion has unspoken rules, obviously, but must fashion prevent cross-pollination? Is fashion constrained by the arbiters of taste in each community to the point of incomprehensibility?

Posted by jeff at June 18, 2003 08:54 AM

Jeff -- I'm glad to see that people are beginning to address these issues.

I can't speak for every composer, but I know that my interest in electronic music is discovering ways to treat noise (as in found sounds or other concrete examples) in the same developmental ways as traditional tonal melodies. I have the luxury of doing this while I'm under that academic shelter that encourages it, and I'm not under a lot of pressure to reach any one particular audience. There's also the obvious aspect of getting to play with the infinite possibilities of timbre and sonic motion with electronics, and when you have those sorts of possibilities at your disposal, why confine your machines to what conventional instruments can do?

That being, said, I'll also be the last composer to ever dismiss more popular conventions, and if it makes you feel better, there are those composers in academia that embrace popular forms and encourage their students to not be so dismissive of them, so progress is being made.

Maybe the reason that neither camp will acknowledge the stylistic envelopes that they've sealed themselves in is because neither wants to see themselves as afraid of reaching across those boundaries. But if you see the dichotomy, then certainly it's obvious to others, and if those others speak up, then maybe the gap will close a little. In the meantime, I'd recommend taking a listen to some of the works of Shawn Naidoo and Joseph Waters, both of whom write electronic music that's not afraid of the beat. Joe is also from that generation of composers that got their start in popular music, much like myself.

Posted by: Dan McGarvey at June 18, 2003 08:50 PM

Although some of Autechre's best material has been actually beat-less in the conventional sense, their whole ideal is about the restructuring and in a sense, progressive decay of popular music such as hip-hop and techno, from which their oeuvre descends. Thus they aim to maintain certain conventions that are key to those two original genres - the beat - and push the "beat" out a bit. Excuse the pun ;)

Posted by: devon at June 20, 2003 02:25 PM

About the beat: electronic music began as means of creating something new, doing things that could not be done with traditional instruments, at all. Examples: Gesang der Junglinge, Fontana Mix, the first 'concert of noises'. the genre got started by people who were not interested in imitaing existing instruments or styles. So, in a sense, for electronic music, it is traditional to be radical. Working with the beat, well, after Stravinsky, Varese, ... show me something a decent percussionist can't do.
I recently heard a band from Iceland playing in Amsterdam. A computer was making IRCAM- like sounds, electric bass player was making Metallica-like sounds, and drummer was making 'boom, chick' (really polka beat, but loud). I got the impression that the audience was ignoring the computer, and getting off on the drummers 'groove'. That may be one reason why 'academic' (please give me your defenition of academic music) composers are not interested in the beat.

Posted by: mm at June 21, 2003 04:44 PM

I think that Devon's point above is right on target. It is important to look at the path through which many popular experimental musicians came to experimental music. Hip hop and other sample based music seems to be the link between non-experimental popular music and experimental music. Hip hop for many people is what made them realize that music is not static, sounds are malleable. However, beats are fundamental hip hop; if they aren't always there, they are usually implied. So (I think) people create a certain allegiance to the fundamentals of a music that expanded their musical horizons. There is a little bit of irony in it to me, but to this extent I do not think it is done as a way of antagonistically distinguishing oneself from the academic world. It is not so intentional and conscious.

Posted by: Steve at June 21, 2003 11:52 PM

I'm not claiming that all academics or all experimentalists eschew this or that, I'm suggesting that these assumptions get in the way of the potential for cultural cross-pollination. Counter-examples abound (check out pomomusic.org's trackback URL).

I know a lot of academics that are great counter-examples. But we musn't let our own counter-examples prevent the honest acceptance that academia has reasons for promoting stylistic conformity, as does the popular experimental music. Individual agendae themselve, walk like me, rock like me, the market forces of tenure and of uber-stardom themselves encourage the dismissal of styles.

Posted by: jeff at June 23, 2003 08:52 AM

First sorry for my English.
For any reason one thing is popular and the other isn't. Better not mix things. The best popular music (electronic or not) is festive, ritualistic and provided with beat and simple scales. Don't turn it into a pretentious complexity when it has its limitations.

On the other side music after modernism (electronic or not) has much more ambitious aims not attainable by just including more kitsch and "strange" sounds on it. No one who has an academic formation ever wonders of reducing his work to the poorness and easiness of mere popular means of composing (mostly cut and paste).

The question of beeing electronic or not is just about weather you use a brush or a spatula.

Posted by: Virgilio at July 1, 2003 06:52 AM