Tuesday, June 17, 2014

"Who is the Bach of EDM"?

Someone, and I think it may have been Saul Bellow, once said, "who is the Einstein of the Zulus?" What he meant by that, of course, is to point out that different cultures have widely different kinds of achievements. I once put up a post about the varying musical qualities of different nations and how, for example, Argentina and Brazil are powerful musical cultures while Chile and Mexico tend to be musically far less creative. In Europe we could look at the adjacent countries of Italy, one of the greatest musical nations, and Switzerland. Quick, name three great Swiss composers! Ok, name just one.


Ok, I'll give you a name: Frank Martin. But his music notwithstanding, it is safe to say that Switzerland is a musical nonentity. Spain has a rich musical culture, while the adjoining Portugal, seems not to. I just want to point this out without trying to delve into the history to try and answer why. It would be extremely complicated, I am sure. For example, at first glance, you might want to say that Argentina is so musical because it attracted large numbers of Italian immigrants. But on the other hand, Brazil was colonized by Portugal, not a strong musical nation. And in the Caribbean we have Cuba, a very strong musical nation, but right next door we have the island of Hispaniola, shared between the nations of the Dominican Republic and Haiti, neither of whom are much renowned musically.

So I won't even try to figure out the historic or cultural reasons for these differences. Instead, let me try to link this to my title: "Who is the Bach of EDM?" EDM stands for "electronic dance music" which I might neutrally characterize as music designed for dancing that is based on an unvarying computerized drum track at 120 beats per minute and achieves a minimal amount of variety with synthesized melodies and harmonies above that. Here is a typical example:

Now if there were a Bach of EDM, he might be deadmau5. Here is a selection from a recent album:

So the "Bachiness" of that consists in merely waiting for about 1:40 before hitting us with the 120 beat per minute bass drum. In other words, the synthesized noodling (which sounds a bit like Jean-Michel Jarre or Yanni) precedes the 120 drum track. Uh-huh.

Speaking of Yanni, Amazon sent me a little email the other day announcing the "Hot New Releases in Classical Music". A new album from Yanni was item one, followed by an album by Almira Willihagen, the latest child soprano, a collection of Sheldon Harnick (Broadway musicals), the original cast recording of the musical "One Touch of Venus", and then, finally, the complete Beethoven string quartets with the Tokyo String Quartet who retired last year.


But back to my topic. I suppose it is merely the truism that different genres delimit the creative possibilities in different ways. In fact, in "genre" music, such as EDM, a Bach will not arise because someone who is interested primarily in exploring musical possibilities will soon move out of the genre, thereby disappointing all their fans.

The interesting thing is how liberal and supportive of all manner of musical exploration the autocratic patrons of the 18th century were. Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy must stand at the head of the list for his decades long support of Joseph Haydn, but the various nobles of Vienna who commissioned Mozart and Beethoven must get some praise as well. Not to mention the town council of Leipzig who put J. S. Bach in charge of the music for all three of the important churches of the city.

Speaking of Bach, in his spare time he invented the keyboard concerto modeled after the violin concertos of Vivaldi. Here is Trevor Pinnock playing the Harpsichord Concerto No. 1 in D minor:


Rickard said...

Hmm, yeah, it's quite strange how some nations are more musical than others. It could be something genetic but I think when looking at the musicality of a whole country it's probably more about the social aspects. For instance people in a developing country might not afford to let their kids have some kind of musical education. And speaking of education, it might be hard to find good music education or enough general music education in elementary school. Plus if the culture in general is more musical, i.e. listening to more (classical) music and more knownledgable about music then there might be more encouragement and motivation to compose. There could also be other factors such as letting foreign talent do the work (i.e. in the case of England with Handel, Haydn etc.) or a great composer overshadowing everyone else (for instance Norway and Edvard Grieg). Of course, every country is different so the factors are different from case to case. It would certainly be an interesting research area to investigate why a country is less musical than others and also why a country is more musical than others. That way you can compare and see what is wrong in the less musical country and what to learn from the more musical country. Of course, the sad reality is that most people live in a World of pop music and don't care about encouragement of classical music (composition).

Yes, creative freedom to not be bound by genre is very important. That's the beauty of classical music, it's music with no genre bounds, which hopefully is created for the purpose of beauty of some kind (does not matter whether it's agony, trance, joy, sadness, anger or just plain good music).

Bryan Townsend said...

Can't think of a single thing to add to that, Rickard!

Shantanu said...

These juxtapositions of Bach and EDM just make me grow really pessimistic sometimes - I realize that classical music in today's world is entirely esoteric.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think that there are a couple of reasons I do these juxtapositions. The first is that it is how I make a musical argument. It is so hard to reduce music to what you can describe in words that a better option is to point to the actual music. Listen to this, now listen to that, hear the similarity/difference?

The other reason is that I really believe that some people at least, when they hear Bach and EDM side by side are going to go "wow" and start listening to a lot more Bach. Well, it happened to me, at least!

Christopher Culver said...

I'm not sure deadmau5 is a good example, as while he has managed some mainstream success, he is also mocked by many cognoscenti for the simplicity of his music.

In the 1990s, memorable DJing basically required three skills: beatmatching, mixing in key, and an ability to read the crowd. That in itself requires some measure of talent, as DJ can tell you: when they started out, they cleared the floor, while when an older peer came on, he was almost instantly able to bring everyone back.

But DJing has changed vastly since the turn of the millennium due to complex software replacing two straightforward vinyl decks. A progressive house DJ today basically has to remix tracks on the fly: he has a library of thousands of tunes, and depending on the mood of the crowd, he has to judge with no prior preparation what vocal track to pull from one tune, what synth track to pull in from a second or third track, and what bass/hi-hat track to pull in from yet another. And he has to do that night after night, even when exhausted from jetlag.

Yes, at times the music can be left playing without invention, but consider that some DJs play for 16 hours at a time and need the occasional pee break.

It’s pointless to compare anyone to Bach, but it must be noted that just like within rock (which saw the progressive rock era, Radiohead, etc. who sought new sounds and a level of "complexity" inspired by classical music), EDM also has its cerebral side.

Also, EDM is not at a unvariable tempo of 120 BPM. Genres range from as low as 110 BPM to as high as 180 BPM, and of course a DJ will move across part of that space during his set, as it is key to the tension/release cycles that drive long-form pop music.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Christopher. I welcome input from someone with greater familiarity with the EDM scene than myself. But I boggle slightly at the concept that there are cognoscenti in the field of EDM. I appreciate your description of the skills involved and of the advances in technology.

It certainly may be the case that there are variants from the 120 bpm, but I want to refer you back to a post I did quite a while ago on the development of EDM in which every example that I randomly chose from Donna Summer, through the Eurhythmics through deadmau5 all used exactly that same 120 bpm tempo. Here is the post:


Maybe you could give me an example? Because there is no way I am going to do that research! If I listened to an hour of EDM I would need medication and probably some follow up trauma counseling!

Christopher Culver said...

If you go to YouTube and type in "X BPM" where X is a value between 100 and 200, you'll readily find dance-music tracks at the given tempo.

As for moving across a significant span within that range, you're unlikely to hear that on YouTube because a DJ can't reasonably move faster than about 10BPM an hour, the maximum length of many YT videos. This is something you'll here over a long set, and then (to hear the BPM get very low, with perhaps the music being stripped of its drum track entirely) at the DJ's afterparty.

"If I listened to an hour of EDM I would need medication and probably some follow up trauma counseling!"

One reason I bristle at negative comments against EDM (as opposed to someone saying "It's just not my thing" and moving on to what he enjoys), is that essentially the same repetitive features and trance-like state can readily be found in plenty of non-Western traditions (or even within Western cultures, just look at tarantism in southern Italy), and one would like to avoid suggesting in any way that these people's musics are in any way inferior to a given Western composer.

The use of music for "shamanistic" purposes or for community letting off of steam is just a perennial part of the human artistic drive. But as I said above, one reason a certain scene within EDM appeals to me, is that with the use of software, the DJ can create entirely new and unexpected combinations of elements drawn from four or five separate tunes at once, allowing one to look at the previously familiar in a new way. So, it’s music that can be listened to emotionally or cerebrally depending on one’s mood. I think that’s a good thing.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Christopher, I didn't know you could search YouTube in that fashion. And I appreciate your informative comment. You make a very good argument for the aesthetic validity of EDM, though it is an EDM I am not sure I have ever experienced.

Yes, you are quite right tarantism and probably other examples are found within Western music and are ubiquitous in non-Western music. When I say that I can't listen to much EDM, this certainly disqualifies me as an objective researcher. As a composer, though, I prefer to avoid a great deal of music!

As I say, I appreciate your argument. One thing though, do you really want to take the position that any kind of music, tarantism or any other, is NOT inferior to a given Western composer? This would seem to obviate all aesthetic judgment, would it not?