Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Volts from the Underground

Mainstreaming electronic music's avant-garde

By Douglas Wolk

APRIL 10, 2000:  The experimental guitarist Eugene Chadbourne once wrote that "of course every vital, free-thinking, convention-shattering cultural movement that only the real hipsters know about eventually turns into a car commercial." That's true (poor dead Nick Drake's consolation for his VW ad is that Pink Moon is one of the top sellers at Amazon.com), but its flip side is that every desperately esoteric academic innovation in sound eventually becomes something you can boom in your car stereo. That's what an avant-garde is for: its artists are, literally, the front lines of an aesthetic invasion force, and if they're the first ones to get picked off by the marketplace, they're also the ones who get to establish a beachhead.

Ohm: The Early Gurus of Electronic Music 1948-1980 (Ellipsis Arts), a new three-CD-and-book set, wouldn't seem to be packed with hits. It's mostly beatless and academic, short on classic pieces (even within its parameters) and long on formal experiments with timbre and technique and process. Its metallic, computerized tones and extended whooshy hums can be almost too familiar to notice. Listen to it with the thought that nobody had ever done this stuff before, however, and it becomes a lot more revelatory. Richard Maxfield's 1959 "Sine Music (A Swarm of Butterflies Encountered over the Ocean)" is six minutes of sine-wave tones in what our ears perceive as random order and lengths. (They're not, exactly, but whatever.) Its sound is practically a cliché now, the audio equivalent of a spaceship control panel with lots of flashing lights; I instantly associated it with the beginning of Propaganda's old synth-pop tune "p:Machinery." But somebody had to make that sound for the first time, and Maxfield was that person.

Paul Lansky writes in Ohm's liner notes about the year and a half of "backbreaking work" it took to construct his three-minute 1978 piece "Six Fantasies on a Poem by Thomas Campion: Her Song," with its gradually shifting stringlike tone that emulates a human voice. This turns up next to Charles Dodge's 1972 "He Destroyed Her Image," a short study in breaking down voice synthesis into something that sounds unspeechlike. If these seem primitive and rudimentary now, that's because producers of the moment just have to press a button to get something like Cher's "Believe." And if the sound of the theremin (a version of Tchaikovsky's "Valse sentimentale" is played by virtuoso Clara Rockmore) that opens the set was once the essence of futurism, it's now more like retro-futurism, a shorthand signifier of what we once thought the future would be like before we had any idea.

Some of Ohm does hold up for musical reasons. There's still nothing quite like Edgard Varèse's 1958 "Poem électronique," eight minutes of abstract timbres (they generally don't try to imitate anything in particular) and ragged chunks of tape-altered sound suspended in silence as if in aspic. And Holger Czukay's "Boat-Woman-Song" is the kind of loop and juxtaposition almost every college radio DJ has attempted -- Vietnamese folk tune plus medieval European incantation -- but it works stupendously well.

Ohm stops at 1980, when technology had advanced far enough that academic electronic music was no longer a field to itself. But the innovations of its composers had permeated the groundsoil of pop, especially in dance music, where a mechanical beat was exceptionally useful. The story picks up again on the popular front with Machine Soul: An Odyssey into Electronic Dance Music (Rhino) -- actually, it jumps back three years to Donna Summer's 1977 "I Feel Love." Partly assembled by Moby, and (to judge from its liner notes) condensed from a planned four-CD set and suffering from licensing difficulties, Machine Soul is a real mess; it's got huge hits sitting next to little cult items and also-rans by artists whose important records weren't available. Instead of collecting pieces that used electronics in important or original ways, it honors influential artists who happened to use electronics -- there's no other reason to include Newcleus's terminally stupid "Jam on Revenge" or Fluke's ultra-generic "Absurd."

Still, Machine Soul has the novelties of Ohm so deeply embedded in it that it takes them for granted. When you hear the two sets together, the wobbling synth tones of Gary Numan's "Cars" seem like a hyped-up recapitulation of Otto Luening's 1952 tape experiment "Low Speed," and the metallic, overtone-laden drone that underpins it comes from the same impulse as Alvin Curran's 1978 "Canti Illuminati." The waves of noise and whistling that keep things interesting in M/A/R/R/S's "Pump Up the Volume" are cousins to Pierre Schaeffer's 1948 train-noise collage "Étude aux Chemins de Fer." Put some drums and singing over the clipped, backwards-sounding mechanical chords of Raymond Scott's 1959 "Cindy Electronium" and you get something very much like Inner City's "Big Fun." Yes, a lot of recent electronic-music experimentation has moved away from the academic world of Ohm and boomeranged through the dance music of Machine Soul into post-beat tone-hacking esoterica. But give it another 10 or 15 years and it too will sound like pop.


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