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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Some Words on Electronic Music

Cos sometimes it ain't all Mozart.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The brothers Phil and Paul Hartnoll, better known as Orbital.
Longtime readers of this blog may know that my interest in music extends beyond the concert stage and the opera house. And in this two week period before the launch of the 2013 season (with the first New York performances of the opera Anna Nicole) I'd like to write about some different genres far outside the "normal" parade of Mozart, Mahler and modernism that makes up the bulk of Superconductor content.

Today, let's talk about electronica.

Electronic music flowered in the 1950s and '60s. Composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen, who manipulated tapes and speaker systems to create otherworldly, futuristic sounds. In England, Terry Riley experimented with sequencers, programming numerical data into early synthesizers to create tone patterns. (This technique was borrowed by Pete Townshend of The Who when he wrote "Baba O'Riley.") In France, composers like Pierre Boulez experimented with musique concrète , fusing electro-acoustic sounds with prerecorded tapes to explore new possibilities of composition.

Following in Stockhausen's footsteps were musicians like Edgar Froese, the founder of Tangerine Dream. This German outfit has had a forty-year career, and their early records like Electronic Meditation, Atem and Zeit were the start of something new in music. Across the English channel, Pink Floyd were also experimenting with space-rock structures, samples of everyday sounds and speech introduced into music, and manipulation of tape speeds and wire recorders on tracks like "One of These Days." Their Number One album The Dark Side of the Moon contained muttered responses to interview questions around Abbey Road Studios, sometimes buried deep in the mix.

The early electric pianos and synthesizers were cumbersome, expensive devices. Devices like the Mellotron used taped sounds triggered by a piano keyboard. Robert Moog's giant synthesizers required musicians to manipulate cables and plugs much as church organists work banks of organ stops. The Wurlitzer, Farsifa and later, the Synclavier pushed the envelope and became an accepted part of pop, rock and jazz. Other developments like the guitar synthesizer (made by companies like Roland and SynthAxe) and the "keytar" (designed to let keyboardists move to the front of the stage with a strapped-on keyboard) were less successful.

In the 1980s, the rise of MTV coincided with a decrease in the cost of electronic instruments to produce another explosion in the number of acts using electronic sounds. Developments in percussion (including electronic drum pads) became common, and hit records resounded with the oompa-thump of "gated" (electronically treated) drum sounds. The last component was the development of hip-hop, as DJs used samples, scratched turntables and mixers as instruments to create new beats. In New York and Chicago, artists like Foetus and Ministry added a harsh edge to the electronics, creating "industrial" music.

Finally came the 1990s and the rise of so-called "electronica" artists--musicians whose art was a combination of turntablism, synthesizer manipulation, and sampling. British artists like William Orbit, The Orb and Orbital (no relation!) became in-demand both for individual albums as well as their remixes and reconstruction of other artists. In America, Nine Inch Nails, The Chemical Brothers and Moby led the way, with the latter achieving platinum success with a record (Play) built largely around samples of old blues records. Rock bands added DJs and released remixes of their songs on CD singles.

Electronic music is still being made today, with new artists and genres pushing the envelope every year. That said, here are five albums worth investigating:

Tangerine Dream: Zeit (Ohr, 1972)
This is more than four decades old and still sounds fresh. The fourth TD album features synths and mellotrons and four songs over 15 minutes in length. (Also by the same artist: Electronic Meditation, Alpha Centauri, Atem.)

Nine Inch Nails: The Downward Spiral (Interscope, 1994)
Recorded in the same Los Angeles house where Charles Manson and his band of followers murdered Sharon Tate, this is a beat-driven journey into depression, sex and suicide. The industrial genre's answer to The Dark Side of the Moon is also for the most part a one-man show. The credits read "Nine Inch Nails is Trent Reznor."  (Also by the same artist: Pretty Hate Machine, Year Zero.)

The Orb: The Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld (Island, 1991)
"What were the skies like when you were younger?" This question (taken from a taped interview with California songstress Rickie Lee Jones) starts a long psychedelic head-trip best experienced on a good pair of headphones. Dr. Alix Patterson's The Orb mixes psychedelia and "ambient" sounds, producing a chilled-out sound driven by deep, throbbing bass. (Also by the same artist: U.F.Orb, Orbvs Terrarvm.)

Orbital: In Sides (Internal, 1996)
Phil and Paul Hartnoll have had a long career exploring techno, break-beat and other types of typically fast electronic music. This is their fourth album, notable for its swirling first cut "The Girl With the Sun in Her Head" and the 28-minute harpsichord-driven epic "The Box." (Also by the same artist: Orbital 1, Orbital 2, The Middle of Nowhere.)

Moby: Play (V2 Records, 1999)
Electronic music's mega-hit mainstream success peaked with Play a slick, commercial record that retains its honesty through  samples from classic blues singers on its opening tracks. When the album  shifts to party anthems ("South Side," "Bodyrock") you're ready to join the celebration. (Also by the same artist: Everything is Wrong.)

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