Saturday, October 06, 2007

The Artistic Legitimacy of Electronic Music

Rap collective Wu Tang Clan made pop music history the other day by winning the right to license a sample from the Beatles. This event precipitated an argument in online music industry forum, the Velvet Rope, which pitched music production traditionalists against electronic musicians regarding the artistic legitimacy of modern production techniques.

Essentially the question is this:

Is music created by electronic means as legitimate as that which is created by traditional means?

It seems like a straightforward enough question, but given the relatively short history of recording itself, I was only able to arrive at a definition of ‘traditional means’ after some thought. And it’s quite an unwieldy definition, but here it goes:

Traditional Means of Music Production: Performed by live musicians expertly interpreting a previously written musical composition, whether together or one at a time, at the direction of a dedicated Producer, Engineer and/or Creative Director, which is then recorded in a multi-track environment; and its component elements modified, mixed and prepared for radio, broadcast or other distribution so that the resulting composite recording is simultaneously experienced upon playback as both a precise document of that moment in time, and as the best and most definitive performance possible of the composition in question by the artist/s performing it.

Contrast this process with the philosophy that defines ‘modern electronic music production’:

Modern electronic music production accepts that all sound sources –music, machine, noise, environmental sound, conversation and even prerecorded sounds– constitute viable elemental material for the experimental collage and composition into audio works, and that such resulting works are in fact musical in nature.

The irony of the contrasting definitions is that the latter methodology, in the form of musique concrète, wasn’t an afterthought but born nearly simultaneously alongside traditional means of music production. By this I mean the development of musique concrète occurred at roughly the same time as reel-to reel recording gained popularity. By this perspective so-called modern production isn’t so much traditional music production’s younger sibling as it is its fraternal twin.

That said, let us say that traditional musicianship, composition, arranging, theory, engineering/audio production are unique and expansive fields of study such that any one will consume one’s entire energies in order for a person to master it to one’s fullest potential. This has been demonstrated to substantial effect countless times.

By that standard, an electronic musician, being one whose craftsmanship draws from across all these skill sets, cannot possibly master them all, or even just one if he or she attempts to continue a cursory study of each. Therefore, the syllabus of an electronic musician results not in a virtuoso but produces a musical generalist.

This is by no means such a bad thing:

Walk into any modern music production facility and you’ll invariably find a musical jack-of-all-trades playing all the instruments of a composition he or she composed, arranged and/or programmed; dropping in samples and sound effects; directing other various musicians, singers and sound designers; producing a broadcast ready arrangement work. The result may sound like an experimental electronic music band one day, or it may sound like a jazz ensemble, classical orchestra or hip-hop track the next.

One might further note that any performance, no matter how traditional, –how live or alive– once transformed into an electrical current by pickup or microphone becomes ‘electronic music’.

This last point is exceptionally demonstrated by African band Konono N°1, founded over 25 years ago and who play traditional instruments through a handmade sound system –built from old car parts, megaphones and discarded amps (!). Each band member’s individual performance is traditional, but the effect of the collective amplified performance –as it spills out of the speakers– is a distorted, distressed Pan Africa Post Modern sound that is deeply infectious and absolutely electronic.

Follow this train of thought long enough and one invariably loses one's mooring regarding what is and isn't traditional; what is and isn't modern; what is and isn't electronic. In fact, come to think of it:

Isn't all music, once conducted through a pick up or microphone, electronic?

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