A short history regarding the influence of electronic music in my life.
Forward: This post has been published as much for myself as for you. For some reason I found it important to capture my feelings on this subject and publish them. Thus, it’s my great pleasure to document them in public for your consideration. As per the motivation for this blog, I enjoy the discretion and ultimate finality of subjecting my thoughts for criticism, therefore you are an important judge of my ideas, or a witness to my madness, however you choose to interpret your role. This post is over 2700 words long, so grab something to eat, a drink, and enjoy.
I had a ‘moment’ a couple of months ago. A defining moment of burgeoning reflection. I had been asked what drew me into the electronic music and DJ scene – a music and community that has carved a permanent niche in my psyche. It gave me pause when I was asked this, not because no one had ever asked me before, but because of the genuine interest, coming from a person who knew me before I got into it and knows me since.
I have asked myself this question before, because it has perplexed me at different points too. See, I’m not an enthusiast of any other kind of music whatsoever. Sure I “like” other music, but the sheer span of distance between my almost organic and intrinsic passion for electronica versus my modest-at-best enjoyment of any other genre is enormous. I don’t think they’ve built a bridge that long and tall yet. I also invested heavily into the music in every aspect, including, for a time, it’s culture. I have had my wonderful wife along for much of the ride, and she’s provided me balance and steadiness throughout. I’m forever grateful to her for our partnership.
So the story goes something like this:
My affinity for electronic music started before I even knew it. At the turn of the nineties I was a big fan of the likes of MC Hammer, Snow and Vanilla Ice (yes, I’ll admit it). I was just a young lad at the time, barely a teenager. I recall many nights staying up well past my bedtime, huddled under my sheets and listening to Calgary’s late night radio – AM106 and their nightly “Top Ten at Ten.” MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” was a hit then – it aired most nights and I loved that song and those like it. Being so young, I didn’t buy a lot of music, except for the odd cassette tape. Couple that with other priorities in life like school and friends and such, musical discovery took a serious back seat.
A year or two later, MC Hammer started being replaced on the Top Ten at Ten by Pearl Jam, Oasis and Smashing Pumpkins, all of whom I despised. Well not them, but their music. I’ve never liked rock n’ roll. I continued to buy the very odd tape and CD, including MuchMusic‘s Dance Mix ’94 and ’95, which included tracks by the likes of Enigma, Reel 2 Real, 2 Unlimited, Technotronic and Haddaway. With the dissipation of my favorite tunes on the radio, however, and with music not being particularly important to me at the time, nor knowing what to look for in the music section of CD stores, I stopped listening to music nearly altogether between 1995 and 1996. I was music-less, and over this period I grew to understand and appreciate that something was lacking.
I was in my grade 11 year in 1996, and, like any other band student (I played tenor saxophone), was reliably found in the band room most often, especially for practices. One day, a fellow band student happened to play something on the band room stereo that caught my attention. It stopped a conversation I was having. It was nothing like I had ever heard before, and entirely perfect to my ears. The song had flowing melody, haunting synth, and huge, rolling bass lines. I asked him to play it again, and again, until the other students protested. Turns out the track – Consensual Worlds – was on a CD called Semantic Spaces by Canadian duo Delerium. What was this I was listening to? I was decisively and unquestionably enamored. I couldn’t get it out of my head. I bought that CD in short order.
My dad took an interest in Delerium as well – whether for his own enjoyment, to share in my enthusiasm or because we only had one stereo in our house, I do not know, but the two of us listened to their music quite a bit together. It certainly helped that my Dad had a kick-ass stereo system, including a PSB sub woofer the size of a coffee table in our living room. I can viscerally remember my Dad driving me to an early morning dentist appointment before school one day. Sitting in the chilly car in the parking lot of the shopping centre the dentist’s office was in and holding a brand new copy of Delerium’s second release – Karma. I remember peeling off the plastic wrap and inspecting its contents. This new album contained collaborative material with the likes of Sarah McLachlan and the famed original version of Silence.
You know, it’s hard to conceive of a time before the internet; before the likes of Google, iTunes and Discogs.com. Back then, if you found music you liked and wanted more, you were hard pressed to find it, unless you happened upon a music store employee who understood what you were looking for. It wasn’t entirely my fault that it was taking this long for me to fully understand the music I had always been growing in love with – there weren’t “electronic” sections in the music stores yet. Delerium, for example, was routinely found in the “alternative” section, amongst Weird Al Yankovic and books on tape. How archaic. And it was for this reason that I slid back into a fog of musical apathy and unknowing for another period of time.
Heading to university in the fall of 1997, music had once again taken a back seat in my life. I was going away to school – to the University of Victoria. I was legally still a minor in my first year, only 18 in a province where bars admitted 19 or older. I hung around with friends who were fans of all sorts of music, but not dance music. My next door neighbor in residence was trying hard to be seen as a hardcore snowboard fanatic, and therefore had punk and hard rock playing constantly. I can’t tell you how many times I heard Pennywise‘s Bro Hymn get played. I even learned how to play it on guitar.
In second year I became more cognisant of my musical tastes, yet still unaware that Delerium represented an entire genre of music that I would come to enjoy. While one friend constantly belted out U2, whom I enjoyed most of the time, another friend named Cliff introduced me to trance – a style of electronica that could be labeled dance music. He had big and horribly commercial box sets called something like Best Ever Trance 1, 2, 3 and 4. In my ignorance I rather enjoyed these, or at least a few songs on each CD. I wasn’t sure what I was listening to, but I do recall borrowing them from him on several occasions. Around this point I was somehow introduced to Robert Miles, who had recently released his famous album, Dreamland. I soon bought it.
On a fateful evening, after one of the most calamitous days of my life, Cliff and his friends took me to the bar to decompress. The bar was Evolution and a DJ from Seattle named Donald Glaude happened to be spinning. This was the first time I’d ever seen a real DJ mixing records. Despite really enjoying the music, I couldn’t understand what he was doing. He was frantically turning knobs, moving needles and changing records, but none of his actions seemed to correspond in time with the music. And what were his headphones for? I didn’t get up and dance, rather I sat back and watched from a relative distance.
In my 3rd year, circa 1999 turned 2000, I could often be found at Vertigo, the campus nightclub, each Thursday night, if not more often. Vertigo had a great sound system and was an altogether great club – one of the best in Victoria at the time. Meeting friends, hanging out and struggling to improve my consumption tolerance was the order of the day each time out, and I was having a blast. It was a relatively drunken stupor, one evening, that drew me up to the DJ booth to introduce myself to the guy on the decks, DJ Mischiff, aka Adrian. I wrestled my way through the girls to tell him how much I liked what he was playing and to buy him a drink. I really did enjoy what he was playing and told him as much: his top 40 club tunes were way better than the other bar’s top 40 (this is where you insert tongue into cheek). Jason Nevins’ and Run DMC’s “It’s Like That” was a favorite, as was Daft Punk’s “Around the World,” and Mischiff served them up tactfully and liberally to the masses every night. I asked Adrian if I could hang out on occasion and watch what he was doing. Truth be told, this was more of a strategy to beat the line-ups and avoid cover charge than pure Catholic interest, but I can only say this aloud now because the results superseded the motives (sorry none the less, Adrian). He said sure, and not long after, I was hanging out with him three nights a week. Adrian was, and probably continues to be, a genuinely nice guy and eventually he mentioned that I ought to show up at the beginning of the night, because that’s when I would maybe get a chance to try my hands on the CD decks. So I did.
I began routinely arriving at about 8:30 pm on Thursdays. This was when Adrian was provided the freedom to play what he really liked – all sorts of deep, dark and moody atmospheric tracks that didn’t have club vibes or lyrics, but shook the foundations of the building. The rhythms were reminiscent of African tribal beats. Reminiscent, in fact, of one of my Dad’s old albums – Paul Simon’s Graceland, which I remember enjoying a lot in my early years. Adrian would tell me that this was the sort of thing that he enjoyed listening to the most, but that he could only play at the beginning of the night. When people started to file in, he had been told several times by the manager to switch to club tunes because that’s what people wanted and that’s what people were drinking to. A couple of fortuitous club nights later in the year, and having discovered this new taste in music with friends and roommates, I became compelled by this music that satisfied every bone in my body.
By the time my third year ended, I moved home to Calgary and informed my parents that I was saving up for a mixer and turntables over the summer, despite literally never having touched a turntable before (club and radio DJs traditionally used push-button cd decks, while electronica DJs used vinyl and turntables, until turntables moved to digital beginning about 2002). And, as many people know about me, for better or worse, I followed through. The rest, I suppose you could say, is history (or at least another post for another time).
I’ve always thought of electronica as a beautiful collision and symbiotic relationship between rhythm and melody. Some sub-genres, specifically house, but also techno, drum and bass, and electro skew more towards rhythm, while others such as trance, ambient and chill tangent more towards melody. I find that progressive house and the now nearly-evaporated sub-genre of progressive trance are more down the middle. So what does this music do for me that is so consuming? I’ve tried to figure that out, and here’s what I have concluded so far:
The repetitive principle of electronica, the methodical progressions in tempo and the gaining and receding layers of complexity are the most compelling elements. They allow me to melt within each song and consider its environment, rather than pay attention to a lyric or a musician. Similarly, the 4:4 rhythms of both 4:4 beats and breakbeats provide an exotic, if not ancient foundation upon which the tapestry of this futuristic music is woven. And despite the similar tempo and drum beats incumbent on nearly every electronica track, the variations and variability of each track is nearly unlimited. It’s a juxtaposition – the entire genre of electronic music shares commonality across its spectrum, and yet the opportunity to be wildly different is perhaps unparalleled versus other genres in music. Why? Partly because electronica is entirely that – electronic. Instruments and drums are actually sampled sounds which are then placed into a music program from which a song is built. The lack of live instrumentation or performance confounds some people, including my dad, who enjoys music as a performance art. I, on the other hand, see the electronic and artificial aspect of the music as offering a limitlessness in its possible composition.
With pop music, for example, the formula has become almost predictable. I would suggest this is because there are far greater limitations in how pop music songs and those of other live performance genres can be written, played and scored based on the reality of the limitations and imperfections of its musicians and those faced in real-time performance and recording. This isn’t meant to knock live music; live performance is an art in itself that I appreciate. The thing about electronic music is that the final product can be written and assembled with flawless execution over countless hours, involving any degree of complexity or simplicity. In no other type of music are composers so scrutinizing.
The attribute of electronica that I appreciate the most is that it provides the most direct path to the genius of the composer, being that there are minimal instrument and live recording limitations. I think it’s a luxurious position to be in for an electronica composer to know their kick-drum will be perfectly timed and produced each and every beat. I should note that I fully respect both live instrument performance and electronica (and the hybrid – no pun intended – of live performance electronica); it’s just that I enjoy one more.
I also have a great respect for the DJ (to clarify, ‘underground’ or performance DJs, not radio, wedding or bar DJs) – he or she who combines tracks of their choosing to provide a different performance art aspect to the electronic genre. Consider someone who can compose their own concert based on other peoples’ music, or their own, and deliver an experience that is entirely different and unique than if one had listened to the same music in a different order or as songs by themselves, qualified by their skill and measured by your real-time perception. Not unlike a painting: every piece of art is derived from the same palate of colors, but the end results are so completely different. The canvas of music is unending, and the entire musical experience incorporates layers and fluctuations of tempo, intensity, and volume over a short or very long period.
Long after I’ve stopped DJing, my love for this music remains unwavering. That said, the direction many of my favorite producers and DJs have gone in recent years (since about 2005) has disappointed me quite a lot. Many of my idols are now playing musical styles unrepresentative of their earlier years, to an audience who I am not sure truly appreciates it. To me at least, today’s electronica for the most part does not carry the same meaning as it did at the turn of the century. Whether or not this is symbolic of the direction of the genre as a whole, I don’t know, but my enthusiasm for finding new artists is lacking and that’s having an impact on finding new music to enjoy. Fortunately I have many great friends who continue to toil their trade and provide me with just that little bit of kick to get me through my days. Thanks to each of them and all of my influences along the way.