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Early Modulations: Vintage Volts

(Caipirinha Music)

By Jim Dorling

Early Modulations: Vintage Volts is the second in a series of three CDs assembled by Caipirinha Productions in connection with Modulations, Iara Lee's 1998 documentary about electronic dance music. The first disc, the official sound track to the film, loosely traces the evolution of electronica from Donna Summer to To Rococo Rot; the third, which has not yet been released, is supposed to feature up-and-coming artists. The second, the most unconventional of the three, contains nine pieces of modernist electronic music produced between 1939 and 1967. The others will no doubt be found in the high-traffic pop department, but I had to go all the way to the back of Tower's classical department to dig this one out of the neglected 20th-century computer music section.

In his treatment for Modulations, posted on the Caipirinha Web site, consulting writer Peter Shapiro includes a quote from Italian futurist Luigi Russolo: "We must break out of this limited circle of sounds and conquer the infinite variety of noise-sounds." He goes on to imply that by "noise-sounds" Russolo had in mind anything remotely like Kraftwerk or the X-ecutioners or the Bomb Squad. In his liner notes for the CD, Rob Young--Shapiro's boss at the British magazine the Wire, the only music publication out there that treats experimental musicians like rock stars-- puts the same spin on similar statements made in the late 30s by composer John Cage. The connection has since been parroted by pop music critics all over the place, but it's a hell of a stretch. No music worked harder to rid itself of regular patterns than postwar modernism--whether through the mathematical rigors of the serialist tone row or the total indeterminacy championed by Cage--and no music is more committed to intense repetition than electronic dance music. Nonetheless, I'm intrigued by the possibility that a popular audience might at last embrace the most esoteric and downright unlistenable music of the modernist tradition now that it's been associated with the modern equivalent of disco.

One guy who doesn't seem to buy the Early Modulations worldview is Karlheinz Stockhausen, who in the movie is variously hailed as the godfather of electronica, the first dub mixer, and the father of hip-hop. But Lee's interview with him, posted for a while to the on-line magazine Perfect Sound Forever, was taken down at his request, and none of his work appears on Early Modulations. His reluctance to endorse the project is no surprise: in a 1997 interview for the magazine Seconds, he spoke pretty plainly about his opinion on popular music: "The music that is related to fashion, which means to what is in the air, and to what people buy and to what a lot of producers can sell--this is one type of music, you see; it is adjusting itself to existing demands, taste, advertising, et cetera. Whereas the music that I am aiming at since 1950 does not accept this kind of relationship between me and the people. Because I do what I hear inwardly....So there is an enormous difference between Utility Music or Commercial Music and Art Music."

Stockhausen's comments are elitist, probably because he is part of an incredibly small elite: the handful of composers who have made it to the 21st century but still belong to a European conservatory tradition dating back to the 1600s. These survivors--Cage, Xenakis, Boulez, Penderecki, et al--are the last music makers to have the attention of an international audience while remaining free from the whims of the market. Composers in the generations after them face a choice between dukin' it out in the popular marketplace, where Philip Glass makes symphonies out of David Bowie albums, or accepting the oblivion of academia, where guys like Milton Babbitt and Charles Wuorinen keep hoeing the same old tone rows. In a 1998 Wire interview, Arnold Dreyblatt, a second-generation minimalist whose work has caught the attention of the under-30 set, expresses his appreciation of the fringes of commercial music as an environment that is actually more conducive to avant-gardism than academia: "When I performed live with a 'pick-up' band with Jim O'Rourke and some of his friends in Chicago last year, it reminded me of the devoted attention I got performing in the East Block [sic] in the early 80s. In comparison to all this, what we used to call the 'New Music' scene in the States seems to me completely bankrupt, without any audience and drying up."

A collection of disco, Kraftwerk, Abba, a little John Bonham, Lee "Scratch" Perry, the Incredible Bongo Band, and the J.B.'s--that you could call the "roots" of techno, since it's the music that both preceded and influenced techno in its development. But Early Modulations is something much more interesting. It's a collection of music that dates from 30 or 40 years before techno, that isn't dance music, that isn't popular music, and that most of the people who play or enjoy techno never even heard until recently. It isn't really the roots of anything--it's the last gasp of a dying art-music tradition.

"Now that purely electronic production methods have filtered through to the domain of pop music, the generation of artist-technicians which Vintage Volts celebrates is rising out of its perceived state of obsolescence," writes Young. "These strange lunar fruits arrive from the past just at a moment where popular electronica tries to take another evolutionary leap." His imagery makes the rediscovery of modernist electronic music sound like astronauts unearthing the moon monolith in 2001. Early Modulations isn't really about where techno came from--it's about where the compilers, elitists of a different sort, hope it might be going: the white-shirt-and-tie-clad artist-technicians seen manning computer banks in the black-and-white photos in the booklet are as alien to today's DJ crowd as the highly advanced race known as the Krell were to Dr. Morbius in Forbidden Planet. They've been wiped out by their own supergenius, and all that's left of their mighty civilization is the inexplicable fragments of music on this compact disc. Only now, thanks to recent advances in electronica, are we able to decipher their work and maybe take up where they left off.

The market wasn't ready for electronic music the first time around--has electronica prepared the world for its second coming? The recording industry has become diversified and decentralized of late, encompassing hundreds of relatively successful independent labels that cater to the increasingly specific tastes of their very proactive audiences. So within the larger subculture of dance music, there does seem to be an audience eager to buy music as unmelodic, arrhythmic, and abstract as anything produced by the 50s avant-garde, and labels such as Caipirinha, Mego, and Mille Plateau are able to meet this demand without having to resort to funding by grants or traditional patronage.

But let's go back to the 50s for a minute. Let's visit the studios of Nordwestdeutscher Rundfunk in Cologne--home to one of the first electronic music facilities--and distract the artist-technicians there from their painstaking tape splicing and card punching. Let's tell them that we are emissaries from the 21st century, and that in our time the work they are doing has been all but forgotten. Classical music has become a subset of New Age, and the only people who give a rat's ass about elektronische Musik anymore are DJs who play the records for teenagers in discotheques.

They'd freak out. Though research at NWDR started in 1951, nothing done there was given a public demonstration until 1953, and the piece presented at that time, Stockhausen's Studie I, was considered an aesthetic failure. No works were broadcast until 1954, and the first aesthetic success, Stockhausen's Gesang der J√ľnglinge, wasn't produced until 1956. Throughout this five-year period of extremely limited productivity, interest in and funding of the work at NWDR remained high. But it is unthinkable that any contemporary market-reliant artist could eat up five years in R & D and still be considered relevant. Even the most marginal recording artists are under pressure to turn out a new record once a year or so and to follow it up with a lengthy promotional tour. Today's in-demand sound artist leads a slacker version of the corporate-jet-set lifestyle. Composing has to be done on the run; "writing-rehearsals for new record" gets penciled into a busy itinerary between a remix and a fanzine interview. You can't expect the kid to just sit down and knock out works on the scale of Stockhausen's Hymnen or Xenakis's Legend of Er in the two months he has off from touring.

Iara Lee says that it's all about the cut-and-paste aesthetic--the film, the label, this CD. It is therefore fitting that the CD cuts electronic music out of the dead end of avant-garde modernism and pastes it in front of today's popular dance music: behold, the history of electronica! The most audacious thing about this is that it's taking, not because there is really some basic essence shared by Stockhausen and house music but because history is written by the victors. Since DJs have a voice in today's culture and aging modernist composers don't, they are free to dig electronic music out of the dustbin of history, leaving the large body of nonelectronic stuff by the same composers behind: "Wait a minute, don't toss that out yet....OK, I'll take all these, you can burn the rest." We can anoint these guys the godfather of this and the granddaddy of that, but will the content of their work come through? Or will it simply provide more fodder for ravenous samplers?

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