Wednesday, April 25, 2012

R&D (rhythm & darkness)

A quotation from Amos Childs of Bristol's Young Echo crew that I read at the end of the day yesterday in this great feature on them nicely clarified some thoughts that had been oozing around the edges of my mind earlier in the day:

"I think what people miss about the essence of dance music is that it wasn’t originally a safe, boring thing," says Amos, getting back to the purpose behind Young Echo. "All of these styles that people are doing quite boringly, house music, dubstep, techno, whatever, they all started out very fringe, almost punk things, and I think sometimes people forget that. It can become all about keeping a crowd happy."

With Death Grips having released their album The Money Store recently and thus being on my mind, I was finally moved to buy their album from last year, Exmilitary (that's the Bandcamp-based link; I couldn't find a digital version on Amazon, Boomkat, Juno, or iTunes; had I known at the start of the search that it was on Bandcamp, I would have gone there straight away). It had been on my radar for quite a while, and I wanted to get fully acquainted with it before progressing to The Money Store. The synthesis of hip-hop/nuum/juke electronics with an industrial/noise rock/hardcore punk sensibility (and samples, which were a great callback to my 2008 hardcore immersion) is just a total sweet spot for my musical taste and arrives at brutal sonic destinations that I'd been away from for too long.

As I went to bed last night with Death Grips' hooks burrowed into my brain and Amos' spot-on words freshly received, I thought about the frequently posited linear spectrum of electronic music's functions: at one end, simply being intended to get you jiggy and/or euphoric on the dance floor; at the other end, being a vehicle, via headphones, for solitary inner-space journeys. A piece of music that nails both of these can then be regarded as an ultimate dance music achievement. But with a little thought it becomes obvious that there can be far more dimensions to (electronic and other) music's function than just those two poles, noble though they both are. I think another important purpose of music — not ALL music, of course, just some, as with danceability and spirit-transportability — is to rattle your bones, to get you spooked, to bag you up and roll you into a dark forest at night and leave you there with only the creatures with glinting eyes to keep you company. When electronic/dance music accomplishes this while remaining danceable, something truly special is going on; the rhythms and the darkness slip right over into the realm of ritual and the occult. I think that could be part of the reason why old-school jungle is such a hallowed realm for so many producers and listeners in the dubstep diaspora, myself included, via the darkness and weirdness of the bass combined with the still mind-blowing percussion science, ominous and transportive and funky at its best. This is what Death Grips, Lightning Bolt, 36 Chambers, deep industrial techno, Burial, Shackleton, crazy dark interbass tunes like Objekt's "Cactus," and certain strains of post-punk do for me as well; it seems to be part of the stirring-up that Young Echo are doing, and it's what I am striving toward in my own productions.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Production vs. DJing: a personal snapshot

Up until maybe four years ago, the distinction between producing and DJing electronic music was a bit muddled in my mind. In college and for a couple years after, when I was making my first computer-music experiments with Melody Assistant, GarageBand, and then Reason (which is what I still use to this day), I had fun trying to figure out an artist name for myself, and often such names would be prefixed by "DJ," even though I had no intention of actually being a DJ. I think I was inspired by names of combination DJs/producers who use that nomenclature, such as DJ Shadow. More recently, as I became more immersed in learning about electronic music and the people making it, the distinction easily sorted itself out in my head, and I was glad not to have made such a dumb naming mistake, although in a way it could have been pretty funny if I had.* Of course, it's not even a necessary thing for those who primarily or exclusively DJ to use the "DJ ..." form consistently or at all: for instance, each of that triumvirate of non-producer DJs reigning in the UK bass scene — Ben UFO, Oneman, and Jackmaster — is usually referred to without the DJ prefix. The prefix seems to not really be that much of a thing these days in areas of EDM I keep up with, except in the footwork scene (e.g. DJ Spinn, DJ Rashad, DJ Roc, although they too seem to be frequently referred to as just Spinn, Rashad, Roc, etc.).

To this day I'm still pretty uninterested in DJing myself. I appreciate the art of curating a good selection of tunes to accomplish a certain effect or feeling, or progressing narrative of feelings, on the dancefloor, and I certainly appreciate the challenge of transitioning between tracks — beatmatching and etc. (I still don't fully understand how to do that; it still seems magical to me.) I think one reason I'm not really into the idea of doing it myself is that I'd feel like I'd need a truly encyclopedic knowledge of dance music to be successful in it, and even whether that's true or not, I don't want to have to develop such a repertoire — I much prefer building up a deeper but narrower appreciation of a limited number of albums at a time through many repeat listens. Which seems like a rockist stance, never mind that I don't listen to rock at all at the moment! In addition, if I did DJ, I would probably want to use vinyl records for the physicality of it, but on the contrary all the music I buy for home listening is digital for precisely the opposite ends: I don't want the physical bulk of accumulated vinyl crowding up my living space. I also have misgivings about the environmental impact of all that plastic — not in terms of disposal, because I would intend to hang onto the records pretty much permanently, but in terms of needing petroleum to produce them in the first place. On the other hand, I don't know much about the sourcing of raw vinyl for cutting records, maybe a lot of it is recycled. That would be interesting to learn about.

Because my listening habits (except for listening to my own productions) tend strictly to playing through full-length single-artist/group albums, I don't listen to many DJ mixes either, although sometimes one will pique my interest enough to do so. Andrew Ryce's Pitchfork review of Pinch's Fabriclive 61 mix makes it sound really compelling. For one thing, the sonic palette sounds just like my cup of tea — Ryce reports that "the music here is damaged, blackened, and always foreboding, no matter what tempo it's pounding at or what genre it might be interrogating" — and damaged, blackened, foreboding dance music is my ideal listening experience at present, as see in my previous post. In addition, the mix's structure is quite interesting for a couple of reasons, first in that Pinch starts and ends in the middle of the same track, "Venom" by Distal, setting the mix up as conceptually cyclical rather than linear, and second in that the first part of the mix explores 120-area house tempos, then transitions through a beatless Roly Porter track into the second half, which is at 140-area dubstep tempo, and then that transitions back down to house speed through Illum Sphere's "Promise a Secret," after which "Venom" returns to tie things up: so the mix is separated into two distinct tempo halves. This combination of cyclicality and dichotomy immediately evokes the cycle of day and night for me, though given the overall darkness of the sounds throughout, maybe it's more like ... night followed by a day blackened by an eclipse? I dunno.

So anyway, a mix that has a clear structure like that, as well as a compelling and consistent sound, is interesting to me because those qualities are what I like in a single-artist album. But the single-artist album still wins out because I want to hear that full-length statement from a single source, although obviously the DJ putting together a cohesive mix can be considered the "source" as the curator and composer of the macrostructure of the mix. Still just doesn't quite suit me. I think one small, really silly part of that is that I want to avoid duplicating tunes in my library, so I don't want to hazard getting a DJ mix if a tune from it might be on an artist album that I have or would want to get. But the main thing really is that I prefer the single-artist statement of the album.

*Why, meanwhile, did I choose the name Marktplatz, you may possibly wonder? (Update 2018: Changed named to Uusikalke. That's for another post maybe?) Well, I'm part German, and German is the language I speak best besides English, and I appreciate Germany's role in electronic music going from Kraftwerk and Stockhausen all the way through to Berghain, so I liked the idea of using a German word. "Marktplatz," meaning market square, connects to my interest in public, social urban spaces, which in turn connects to the social space of the dancefloor. I also sort of like the dissonance between the English cognate "marketplace" and its capitalistic abstract meaning on the one hand, and my near-total lack of commercial ambition for my music on the other. I may possibly also have liked the look and sound of MSTRKRFT as a band name. At least I didn't blatantly copy it and call myself MRKTPLTZ, except on Twitter, but at least that's lowercase.