Sweaty Machines 

And smooth Modulations

Wednesday, Sep 2 1998
Director Iara Lee's Modulations, a feature-length documentary about the evolution of electronic music, is a calm, clear overview of a frenziedly advancing phenomenon that's among the most significant cultural developments of the 20th century. Intercutting alternately dreamy and pummeling flashes of industrial workaday life, space shots and slow-flowing nature scenes with talking-head commentary by many of the heavy hitters in the electronic world, the film is replete with that new, silken, inviting kind of blue-cold look, relying on its talkers and its nonlinear hodgepodge of imagery to convey what it has to say.

It's a good guess that much of Lee's interviews ended up on the cutting-room floor, because her subjects, not usually the best at articulating the whys and wherefores of what they do, seem pithy and provocative; she edits like many a modern composer, paring away that which doesn't resonate with simplicity. Lee and writer Peter Shapiro focus on the computer- and synth-driven music that's come about since the early '80s, dipping into its earlier stages in the '60s and '70s in Germany, and necessarily going back earlier to the pioneers who laid the foundations for that work. It was the Industrial Revolution, really, that led to electronic music; perhaps, the film suggests, things got started with Luigi Russolo in Italy in 1913 when he created "Modernist" music with Rube Goldbergesque machines that clanked, boomed, whistled and groaned in mechanical rhythms.

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In one scene, French musique concrete composer Pierre Henry describes his '50s experiments with the manipulation of magnetic tape. And to see and hear the German legend Karlheinz Stockhausen is thrilling; some believe him to be the major figure in 20th-century music, bigger even than Cage, because, as former Stockhausen student Holger Czukay of Can points out, he not only taught us that making music could reflect a way of life, but he invented practical methods for making new sounds. Stockhausen's ideas about timbre, compositional process and the physiological and even spiritual characteristics of audio frequencies have had an enormous impact on contemporary music theory and practice, which several of Modulations' interviewees acknowledge.

I'm reminded of something funny I read in the English magazine The Wire a few months ago. A writer got Stockhausen to listen to recordings by several of the hot new electronic musicians, a few of whom had cited him as an influence, and he straight-up dissed them all back to school, saying their music relies too much on hypnotic repetition and ice cream chords; he said that this new music is content to serve as a slave to the utilitarian (i.e., dancing). When his comments were read back to the young composers, they defensively proclaimed that Stockhausen is too intellectual.

Their point was that he'd separated the body from the head. Much of the new electronic music stresses the need for the dance, one reason why it has met with resistance from American rock critics, who are generally unfamiliar with the practice. One of Modulations' more valuable contributions is a lucid description of the rise during the early '80s of house and techno music in Detroit and Chicago, which took their cues from the electronic musicians of Germany such as Kraftwerk (with hip-hop following suit shortly thereafter). In these burned-out American ghettos, DJs like Derrick May and Juan Atkins built a bridge from disco; exploiting the funk inherent in the industrial age, their music became a means of escape via sweaty machines.

Modulations depicts an artistic and sociological evolution that eventually concerns making sense of our modern times, when there is too much to see and hear and do and think about, when beliefs and values have come unglued as a consequence of class wars and their violence, in Detroit and Chicago, or in the fall of the Wall in Germany, or in the yuppification of England, in the general corporate numbing-down that's shaping everyday life the world over. Future Shock author Alvin Toffler is dragged in to quote Descartes to the effect that we solve a problem by breaking it into pieces; Toffler says we're good at breaking things into pieces, but not at putting them back together.

Putting the pieces together is what the digital revolution has been very good at. Modulations even becomes poignant when it hammers away at its subjects' need to hybridize (and to express much faith in Eastern religions) in order to cope with life's overload. Making sense of this music's evolution has been difficult, in part because of its rapid splintering into sub-subgenres (acid techno, gabber, hard house, progressive house, nasty ghetto house, speed garage, artcore) and the attendant factionalizing - all this tribalism. (Speaking for my homies, by the way, where are all the West Coast artists and women in this film?)

Modulations steers clear of too much cornball rah-rah about electronic music, and incorporates comment from several artists who warn that, like most things nowadays, this potentially unifying force is in danger of becoming just another multinational money game. German electro-punk Alec Empire is especially dire, and urges fans and artists to adopt a more literally political stance to counteract the rave culture's essentially hippie love & peace & drugs foolishness.

Dehumanization, obviously, remains the common complaint about all this electronic music, as if listening to it or making music with computers and machines is going to end up limiting our relationships with other people. Maybe so. But from a musical standpoint, it is tremendously exciting to witness the rise of something like jungle or drum 'n' bass, two genres of music that would not have been possible without digital technology, a fact that Modulations wisely emphasizes. To paraphrase what Pierre Henry says in his segment, electronic instruments finally make it possible for composers to output the complex music swirling around in their heads; electronic music, too, is questioning traditional ideas about the span of emotions that music should address, or whether emotional impact is the point at all. Perhaps most important, electronic instruments' accessibility, variety and power make it possible for people who are musical but have no training to participate in the creation of a new art form. Their input is having a huge impact on the sound of music and on what we consider music to be.

Reach the writer at jpayne@bluefat.com

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