Electronic music is the most exciting and revolutionary thing that happened to music in the last 500 years. Plain and simple. Beyond genres and styles, its very own nature has meant —and still means— a radical reformulation of how we think of music, how we make music and, ultimately, what music is. But why?
In the “Why Electronic Music is so f**king great” series we’ll see… well, why electronic music is so f**king great through some of the music paradigm shifts it has meant during its first 100 years.
What is electronic music?
The sound of Here and Now
Do you know that German word, Zeitgeist? Zeit means ‘time’. Geist can be translated as ‘ghost’, ‘spirit’ or even ‘essence’. Originally an adaptation to German language of the latin term genius seculi, “guardian spirit of the century”, Zeitgeist means the spirit of the time. As Merriam-Webster puts it, it is “the general beliefs, ideas, and spirit of a time and place”.
Zeitgeist is the essence of the Now. And if there’s a soundtrack for the Now, it certainly is electronic music. The sound of Zeitgeist.
Electronic music owes its very own existence to the now. But before getting into that, let’s clear some things up: WHAT IS ELECTRONIC MUSIC?
The most usual answer is “music made with electronic devices.” But that’s not correct. Or at least, it is not complete enough as a valid definition. Is electronic music made with electronic devices? Yes. Should any music made with electronic devices be tagged as electronic music? Definitely not.
Take Depeche Mode, for instance. They use electronic devices, sure, but do they make electronic music? I don’t think so. What they do is to replace the traditional pop/rock instrumental range with electronic instruments. They use electronic timbres, but they play them the traditional way. That’s why Johnny Cash can cover “Personal Jesus”. Can you think of good ol’ Johnny playing, say, Alva Noto’s “Autoshape”? Hardly probable, isn’t it?
So, again, what is electronic music? My definition: music that can ONLY be made with electronic devices. Music born out of electronic and/or digital technology. Music which can only exist given certain technological circumstances. Music of the (technological) Now.
Electronic music is completely media-dependent: it simply can’t exist without the technology that makes it possible. Depeche Mode’s songs could have existed before Depeche Mode. They could have been written by a pop band using traditional pop instruments. Alva Noto’s couldn’t.
Pure electronic music can’t be adapted to other media. It can’t be performed with any other devices than those that made it possible. Non-electronic music, with very few exceptions, can be transcribed onto a graphic score and be reinterpreted with different devices that share a common language: a #C minor will be a #C minor both on a piano and on a violin, so to speak. But electronic sound doesn’t work like that. You can’t play a TB 303 acid bassline on any other device. You just can’t. Sure, you can imitate its tones on a double bass, for instance, but it won’t be a version, not even an adaptation. It will be a complete denaturalization. It won’t make any sense. And it will probably sound pretty ridiculous.
Can you think of this played with anything but a 303?
The dependency of electronic music on its media is so tight, so intimate, that it is actually the media that works as an aesthetics generator itself. Think about modular synths, for instance —and the words of Morton Subotnik in the “I Dream Of Wires” documentary: “I don’t want to make music as we know it”. Or the early 2000’s clicks’n’cuts —and glitches— scene, which was only possible when music software was flexible, powerful and reliable enough to atomize sound samples onto its minimum sonic expression.
Electronic music, so, is a consequence and a reflection of its technological context. It is the sound of the Here and the Now. The most contemporary of all musics. It is the sound of Zeitgeist.