May 23rd, 2012

Dances With Words

Following up on the last post/review, I’m running the next in the triad I described there: a series of book reviews written over the last few years which together bring matters of form — and its institutional (re)production — to the fore.

This one — a review of Mark Butler’s Unlocking the Groove: Rhythm, Meter, and Musical Design in Electronic Dance Music (Indiana 2006) — was written first of the three, and is a lot less recent. Indeed, this first saw the light of day (if in the dark corner of a subscription-only music theory journal) way back in 2009, though I wrote it in 2006! And here I am finally sharing with you in 2012. Don’t ask me why it took so long. (One funny result is that one term I use throughout, EDM — an umbrella-term long wielded by scholars of “electronic dance music” — has in the last year or so become a new buzz word in the music biz, more or less akin to electronica in the late 90s. I do not mean it in that way here.)

Ok, I’ll tell you, at least in part, what took me so long. One reason I’ve not re-publicized the review until now is that I had an email exchange with the author where he bristled at the treatment the book was receiving. “Thus far, then, my work has been reviewed solely by ethnomusicologists,” he explained to me, since at that point — the point where he also happened to be up for tenure — the only reviews to emerge were by me and Vijay Iyer (who, no, is not an ethnomusicologist). Butler also took umbrage at my suggestion that disciplinary pressures served as a significant force in producing his book. He wanted to own it as a work of theory, which I understand, and which I agree with.

If that’s the case, I guess I still find such works of theory lacking. And I’m glad that one of the premier journals of the field, Spectrum, gave me the chance to say so, even if the implication to Butler was that they didn’t care to send it to a theorist. I can see how one might feel doubly on the margins in such a situation, and as a (white) popular music scholar trying to work in either Music or Africana Studies departments, I can relate. All that said, I’m happy to report that Butler received tenure some years ago and enjoys some stature as a Professor with a big P. I, on the other hand…write a well-regarded blog.

Anyway, here’s one thing I said in my emails to him, to put too fine a point on it:

Frankly, I respect your work immensely and I’m glad that you’re doing it. The gist of my review is that, for all of the book’s strengths, it still seems reigned in by the rearguard of Eurocentric/elite/art theory. I’d rather read the book you’d write if you weren’t up for tenure, if you know what I mean.

I mean, I do think it’s important to be generous in a book review, but I’m no fan of simple summaries. Given how much time goes into them (and how little career reward), I also think it’s important to say something with teeth — to take the opportunity to make an essay out of it. That’s what I was invited to do by Spectrum at any rate.

So, although Butler’s objections gave me pause, I still stand by the piece and its critiques — which are, in my opinion, more about institutions than about one particular scholar. And I remain proud a few turns of phrase, which aspire to the ideal I’m arguing for. At least, I do think I finish with a kicker of a kicker:

…music scholarship not only needs more theorists that dance, it needs more theory that dances.

And though I don’t think I myself often (ever?) match up to that standard, it’s certainly something to strive toward, and I’m heartened by increasing signals that the sea is changing in this regard. I’ll excerpt the juicy intro below, but it’s far too long to reprint here in full; if you want to read the whole dang thing, here you go.

Music Theory Spectrum 31 (2009): 192-99

WAYNE MARSHALL

Butler, Mark J. Unlocking the Groove: Rhythm, Meter, and Musical Design in Electronic Dance Music. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006, xi + 346 pages.

In an infamous exchange set up by The Wire magazine in 1995, Karlheinz Stockhausen was asked to comment on music produced by several contemporary electronic music makers thought to be, according to well-worn narratives, his techno-musical heirs. Taking the so-called “Technocrats” to task, Stockhausen decried their use of what he called “permanent repetitive language” and recommended that they each listen to various compositions of his own that might lead them away from “ice cream harmonies” and other “kitschy” indulgences. To Richard D. James (a.k.a. Aphex Twin), he offered the following advice:

I think it would be very helpful if he listens to my work Song of the Youth, which is electronic music, and a young boy’s voice singing with himself. Because he would then immediately stop with all these post-African repetitions, and he would look for changing tempi and changing rhythms, and he would not allow to repeat any rhythm if it were [not] varied to some extent and if it did not have a direction in its sequence of variations (Witts 1995, 33).

Yoking his unrepentant elitism and staunchly Eurocentric modernism to Adorno’s critique of the culture industry and the fashioning of fascism, Stockhausen raises the specter of corrupting, repetitive “African” rhythm yet again in order to assail a track by Richie Hawtin (a.k.a. Plastikman):

It starts with 30 or 40—I don’t know, I haven’t counted them—fifths in parallel, always the same perfect fifths, you see, changing from one to the next, and then comes in hundreds of repetitions of one small section of an African rhythm: duh-duh-dum, etc., and I think it would be helpful if he listened to Cycle for percussion, which is only a 15 minute long piece of mine for a percussionist, but there he will have a hell to understand the rhythms, and I think he will get a taste for very interesting non-metric and non-periodic rhythms. I know that he wants to have a special effect in dancing bars, or wherever it is, on the public who like to dream away with such repetitions, but he should be very careful, because the public will sell him out immediately for something else, if a new kind of musical drug is on the market (Witts 1995, 33).

Although Stockhausen and the Technocrats seem to talk past each other rather than truly converse (“Do you reckon he can dance?” asks James in a cheeky retort), the exchange is a valuable one at least insofar as it provocatively puts questions of (electronic) musical craft in the context of a broader conversation about the cultural connotations and social implications of quite divergent—if, for many, rather related—musical aesthetics. The value for today’s music theorists, perhaps, is that Stockhausen issues a challenge, at least to those whose iPods place Hawtin next to Haydn, to find a new language, a more appropriate poetics to describe, defend, and even to dissent from today’s “electronic music.” For it would seem clear that Stockhausen demonstrates to anyone who values the kind of music one hears in “dancing bars,” or wherever, the utter inadequacy of traditional (or even avant-garde) music theory for understanding the power and, if one must, the complexities of electronic dance music (EDM).

The central position of repetition in the debate, and its dubious racialization as “(post-)African,” is not only deeply revealing of the texts and subtexts at hand, it directs us to the vexing question of so much discourse around electronic dance music: how to argue for the aesthetic value of deeply repetitive music—a quality utterly taken for granted and celebrated by EDM devotees—without falling into two common traps: (1) searching for the hidden complexities of seemingly simple sounds; (2) foregoing any sort of music analysis at all, in favor of socio-cultural exegesis, and thus implying that EDM does not need it (but also, perhaps, does not merit it). A great many journalists, cultural critics, ethnomusicologists, practitioners, and aficionados have been involved in the intertwined projects of explicating and celebrating EDM as social phenomenon, as cultural product and practice, and—if, ironically, less commonly—as music. Music theorists may be (fashionably?) late to the party, but I reckon they can dance (if they want to). More important, I reckon that if anyone can convince the Stockhausens of the world (if one could possibly posit such a singular plurality) to attend more closely, and openly, to the forms and contents of EDM, it would be music theorists. The next obvious question, of course, might be: why bother? But let’s set that aside for now.

[Read the rest here.]

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. mjb  |  May 27th, 2012 at 6:45 pm

    After reading your review, and not having read Butler’s book, I can’t help but put Aphex Twin’s use of the word “dance” under the microscope. Stockhausen apparently doesn’t strike him as the kind of guy who has ever deliberately experienced music in an intensely intoxicated state of mind—regardless whether that delirium is achieved through dance or drugs—much less produced any music intended to evoke, heighten, or simply provide ear candy for people in such a state. James, however, certainly has produced such music, as it is part and parcel of vast portions of the EDM repertoire, though not always directly or deliberately. At the very least, I would expect at least some acknowledgment from Butler, if not also your review, that many-an EDM artist barely understands even rudimentary music theory; instead they strive simply to combine trippy, mostly rhythmic material in what is, for them and people on the same wavelength, a transportive, escapist, aesthetically pleasing lifestyle-soundtrack that’s similar to and compatible with that which is already in the air at the time. In techno’s case especially, it’s quite often written with the intent of “sounding reallyfuckingcool when you’re on [the artist's psychedelic drug of choice]” and being “something a DJ would want to play”, and not much more thought goes into it than that. (…and I’m tempted to think Stockhausen would also regard every aspect of this situation as boringly, distastefully “African”, wouldn’t he?) Perhaps the realm of psychedelic aesthetics is beyond the scope of Butler’s analysis; I certainly wouldn’t want to be tasked with trying to quantify it, myself…and maybe that’s very much the point Aphex Twin is making, as well: yes, there’s a bazillion repetitions of perfect fifths in parallel, a bazillion trees preventing you from seeing the forest… or maybe he just meant dancing, just like he said. ;)

  • 2. wayneandwax.com » N&hellip  |  May 29th, 2012 at 11:14 am

    [...] the 3rd review/polemic in the 3-part series I’ve been running here (see parts 1 and 2). This one’s the most recently published, hardly a year old! (That’s not bad for lag, [...]

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Wayne&Wax

I'm a techno-musicologist, internet annotator, imagined community organizer.

I left my <3 in the digital global, but I reside in Cambridge, MA, where I'm from.

I represent like that.

wayne at wayneandwax dot com

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