In 1995, Electronica has become a nanotechnology, refrying the atoms of other musics into strange new hybrids. In the process, a lattice of invisible, interconnected networks has emerged to link disparate but like-minded musicians, labels and festivals. Rob Young maps the co-ordinates of the new urban music. This article originally appeared in The Wire 142 (December 1995).
At the Sonar Festival in Barcelona, June 1995, I was approached by a slightly built, gaunt-faced man who introduced himself in an American accent "Hi, I'm Mark Cunningham", he said "From Mars." He wasn't, as it turned out, a benign extraterrestrial beamed to Earth from the popular red planet, but the ex-trumpeter with the 70s New York No Wavers who blew, scraped and snarled themselves some of the way there, imploding before their trajectory could be detected. He splashed down in Catalunya, hooked up with Barcelona's industrial/experimental music scene, started blowing his horn through a MIDI backline, and released an excellent CD, Adios Jupiter, as Raeo, which hasn't made it outside the Spanish borders yet.
This is not history. But it indicates how electronic music is becoming an embarkation point for musicians previously thought to have somehow missed their ship, whose work was too new or futuristic or resistant to common understanding or just too out to be acceptable.
Take a map; pick a large conurbation: listen to the city. People barely out of their teens and elders languishing in cult obscurity are emerging from their respective hinterlands and fusing together to make music, and in the heat-exchange, the new technologies embraced by the post-rave generation are etching out a dispersed and unconnected network of experimental, unconventional and general square-peg musicians from the last ten, 20 years and more.
For evidence, look no further than festivals such as Sonar or Vienna's Phonotaktik, or an event such as The Wire sponsored Transgressions, two of which debuted this year (Phonotaktik in October Transgressions last month). All these events deliberately tried to unlock live and electronic musics from their segregated status in clubs, pubs or concert venues. To hear Jorge Reyes on the same stage as Scanner (Sonar), David Toop and Max Eastley shortly before Patrick Pulsinger (Phonotaktik), or improvising cellist Frances-Marie Uitti next to drum 'n' bass pioneer Alex Reece (Transgressions) provided often revelatory experiences, and the audiences' reactions showed that such seemingly disparate musics can circulate successfully in spaces that aren't shackled by 'ideology'. There was also an impulse towards other artforms: Sonar took place in Barcelona's Centre for Contemporary Art: Phonotaktik was loosely connected to a Viennese festival of modern architecture; Transgressions featured video, art and installation work, some created by the musicians themselves.
Less fleeting evidence of the existence of invisible but dynamic conduits is contained within Collaborations, a new compilation released this month on Lo Recordings. It's an incestuous album of specially recorded joint projects by 12 unlikely but mostly successful twinnings including Paul Schütze and Lol Coxhill: David Toop and Daniel Pemberton (the former 30 years older than the latter); MLO and Pere Ubu's David Thomas: Scanner and sound artist/producer David Cunningham; and Funki Porcini and The Mike Flowers Pops Orchestra. There are also contributions from Bedouin Ascent, Luke Vibert/Wagon Christ, Boymerang, Voafose (aka Jeremy Simmons, who released the Weirs album with Vibert on Rephlex last year), Jamois and Chant Tony Wilson (aka Zurich and The Occupiers, a contributor to Leaf Record's "Invisible Soundtracks" EP series). It's a brilliant, possibly unrepeatable document, full of mangled shapes, hyperactive drum 'n' bass, fertile crevices of noise: the intrusive ambience of the modern city.
This is the new urban music. Futurist sampladelia is a nanotechnology, refrying the atoms of other musics. If the rumblings of records such as Main's Firmament, Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works 11 or Lull's Cold Summer represent last year's impulse to dissolve music into a primordial soup, then the music on Lo Recordings or Tony Thorpe's Language label represents the first blooms of exotic flora in an unmapped new world.
Don't call it Ambient, because most of this stuff travels at hypervelocities and staggering gaits hardly explicable/believable in ballistic/osteopathic terms. Don't call it dance music, because anyone makes music designed only for the dancefloor right now inevitably sounds closed-off: 'dance' having somehow come down to mean, in the space of ten years, those regular, heartbeat-upping 4/4 kicks of TripHop's spongy half-speed headnod. Don't call it Techno either, because much of the music that follows replaces electronic preset sounds, timbres and rhythms, with sampled instruments played in real time technology not utilised as an end in itself but as a window on fantasy combinations of instruments and dream coalitions of musicians; unrecognisable noises in consumable form (someone once said you can sell any old sugary industrial by-product by coating it in chocolate). And finally, don't call it avante garde, because most of the younger artists in this orbit don't hear the difference; while the older ones have already had a bash and hit brick walls.
Techno discourse has focussed on the anonymity it offers to its creators and the flux it sets up between producer/DJ and listener, celebrated in statements such as "Each record is a crowd" (from a TechNet bulletin, 1995). The aesthetic is increasingly developing into music which we can still (just about) call dancefloor Techno: on the one hand the metal enjambements of Russ Gabriel, Mark Broom and the A13, Force Inc and BASIC Channel labels, and the Goa Trance caravan on the other, which attempts to derive political-spiritual significance from Techno by grafting high-octane ritual beats onto the ley-line trial East.
Yet post-rave Electronica is re-installing a kind of auteur aesthetic. This year has been characterised by a large number of arts 'finding a voice': the goofing, world-owes-me-a-livin' beats of Wagon Christ and Vibert's death-defying Plug drum 'n' bass 12"s: µ-Ziq's funky liquidiser beatboxes; Autechre's injection of hardcore energy into pure electrics; Scanner's tone-dialling Merzbau; Boymerang's systems Jungle; Panasonic's untouchable frequencies; Paul Schütze's fusion-piano drift over hazed, liquid interiors; Techno Animal's intricate studio bombast; Mouse on Mars's digital Tropicana; Oval's skipping digits...
Graham Sutton is a typical example of a musician who became disenchanted with the limitations of rock instrumentation. After releasing the Bark Psychosis album Hex in early 1994, and playing a final few gigs (by which time the drummer Mark Simnett was being asked to replicate Jungle breaks at speed on his kit), Sutton metamorphosed into Boymerang, releasing several singles on Tony Morley and Julian Carrera's Leaf imprint. "The band disintegrated because I was getting into using samplers anyway," he explains. "We used to sample a little bit, but never as an intrinsic part, which always annoyed me, because I wanted to get into that more. But as you say, I reached an impasse in how much further you could take it in that direction. I wanted to make things a bit tougher as well. And if you've got a drummer, it restricts what you do straight away. There was [Bark Psychosis] B-side which was trying to do drum 'n' bass with the drums, but it's pointless: you've got to get stuck in and get your hands dirty, make some tough decisions; which is hard if you've been working for a few years. It's hard for a drummer to take. So in that sense it's been quite difficult."
For the forthcoming Boymerang album on the new EMI subsidiary Regal, Sutton hopes to allay his dissatisfaction with available source samples by inviting 'real' musicians down to the studio in order to sample their unique sounds. "A trumpet player called Del Crabtree, a vibraphone player, double pass player, all friends, I want to use people that I know rather than them off records: Lee Harris [drummer with Orang and Talk Talk] is going to record me some breaks. I know I'm going to have unique stuff to play with rather than what everyone else has got. I want to try and get something to sound as distinctive as possible without it sounding up its own arse."
Apart from the well established, lucrative exchanges between classical orchestras, conductors and soloists, the only comparable situation in recent memory has been the interconnectedness of the jazz and improvised music world in the 1970s (look at the recurring names eddying over records released on the outwardly 'incompatible' ECM, Incus and FMP labels, for example).
However, the British jazz scene accumulated its own particular set of problems, especially its tendency to conduct its business in private - small gatherings passed on by word of mouth; occult and unglamorous jams in the upstairs rooms of inner city pubs; crippling political anxieties. "I went to see Lol Coxhill once" remembers Jon Tye, "in a local pub in Hackney. I thought Lol Coxhill, that might be quite interesting... I went up there, there's two people, bearded and with big coats on the music might have been great, but just because of the environment, there was no way I was going to stay up there."
In 1987 Jon was composing theme tunes for Channel 4 and making House tracks for Gee Street; then a colleague arrived back from the States with a pile of new 12"s from Detroit and Chicago. From that revelatory moment his career vectored through post-rave Ambient with his partner Pete Smith in MLO, but was frustrated by his record company's lack of commitment to the longer-term ideas. Lo, the label he formed as a result, still only two compilations and an EP old, is a jump at self-reliance. "I think things can now really mix up and be very attractive and cutting edge, and experimental - that doesn't have to mean 'no women allowed.'"
In the mediated rush at the end of the century to ossify cultural producers into iconic form (ready for immortalisation on CD-ROM), the central factor of 21st century aesthetics is being ignored. The most forward-looking labels, as with any industry or business, are those that are shifting the record process closer to the point and moment of distribution. Small labels such as ~Swim (founded by another musician whose career foundered during the 80s; Wire's Colin Newman) or Austria's Mego are self-contained production facilities and A&R sources. Mego's abandoned industrial unit on the outskirts of Vienna is a model HQ, with open-plan living space adjoining a fully equipped MIDI studio and separate computer area where they monitor their internet homepage, which includes possibly the first fully interactive on-line sequencer. Viewers can create a rhythm loop and e-mail it back to the label for use on a Mego recording, or keep the sound file for their own use; the labels are trying to expand the site's sound capacity into a full-blown virtual studio.
Like his former Wire colleagues Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis (the former now resident DJ at Blast First's Disobey club; the latter recording idiosyncratic Euro Techno under the name Halo), Colin Newman has been galvanised by Electronica's shift away from the attendant baggage of personality. "Since music has become more electronised," he says, "as you work, you are involved in an act of choosing, rather than in conventional playing where it's done in a slightly different way. If you work with sequencers, it's a matter of choosing which elements you want, and which you don't. And you can apply that right up the line: to making music, to production of another group, and also to a record label.
"It was liberating for us. If you can imagine the kind of musical generation where I started with Wire, you had to go in a very expensive studio to make a proper record and by the time you'd finished that, you were already well in debt before you'd even sold one record. And that's the difference: the financial thing can't be ignored, the fact that you put records out cheaply, and don't have to sell so many in order to make a profit. Which means records can be more adventurous as they don't have to sell."
This year especially, the tentacles of labels, festivals and artists have been interlinking across continents at a furious rate: from Reflective in San Francisco, and Astralwerks and Asphodel in New York to Sublime and Ryoji Ikeda's CCI imprint in Tokyo; down to countless European outfits, most notably Mille Plateaux in Germany, Cheap and Mego in Austria; and scores of UK contacts.
The ecology is delicately balanced: on one level, the prominent rise last year of James Lavelle's Mo' Wax label seemed to accelerate a gigantic warm weather front which swept across the chilled tundra of Techno - note how such artists as Wagon Christ, µ-Zig and Aphex have incorporated 'warm' drum sounds, 'natural' textures and HipHop or hardcore breaks into the overall fabric, where last year they were sounding like the Zanussi factory.
On another level, the flexible and open-ended culture that surrounds the new electronic music has enabled a number of musicians to come in from the cold of institutionalised electroacoustic experimentation. A prime example is American mutantrumpeter Ben Neill (a long term collaborator with Nicholas Collins, curator of Amsterdam's sound research centre STEIM, which functions like an open-access antidote to Pierre Boulez's impenetrable IRCAM organisation). Neill's new Astralwerks album Green Machine extends his already considerable enquiries into the manipulation and processing of electronic sound, but it carries with it a 12" EP containing a reconstructive TripHop-remix by DJ Spooky.
The music that arises out of such meetings isn't always brilliant, but that's only half the point: the sensation of signals being transmitted across great distances to benign receptors is palpable and invigorating. The result has been a hothouse in ferment, with some surprising offshoots: Jon Hassell appears on Techno Animal's Re-Entry album, while Paul Schütze has lined up a recording session with trombonist Julien Priester. The musical ecosystem has proved highly susceptible to viruses from outside - note the way drum 'n' bass latched parasitically onto so many tracks this year.
"I'm astounded at how good it is," says Graham Sutton, who was one of the first to bring drum 'n' bass across from the exclusive domain of the hardcore dancefloor into an aesthetic informed more by freeform rock. "Politically and socially it sums up so many different things for me; how you live your life, how you deal with people. I've always been into urban stuff. I've expressed that in different ways, but I've always been drawn to that side of things: looking around you; magical realism. But also the multicultural aspect of it; I think it's the most amazing thing to have happened to this country in a long while. To get different groups of people together: it doesn't matter what colour you are, it's not a black thing, it's not a white thing." He laughs at the simplicity of it. "It's just people who know what it's about, that's all that defines people who are into it."
For the title of their new remix compilation, Global Communication coined the word 'remotion', which is a good way of describing the new aesthetic that is taking shape around sample-based Electronica. The popular view is of cold, unfeeling music, an archaic notion born of the overemphasis in jazz, classical, rock and pop on conventional displays of 'emotion' through physical gestures - you have to attack a guitar to get an unusual sound out of it, but samplers are devices born to distort.
Jon Tye cites a German prototype as a prime influence. "Krautrock wasn't at all cold, yet it used electronics. Those bands weren't really live bands as such - Can played live, but worked out their ideas in the studio. But a lot of jazz stuff - Miles Davis, even "The Sidewinder", was put together with splicing."
For a precedent, go to the photo adorning the sleeve of Ralf And Florian, the third Kraftwerk LP by Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider. Although Kraftwerk went on to become archetypes of aloof, robotic minimal-pop, their roots were in this neon-lit basement full of oddly interfaced instruments, sawn-off Moogs, homemade guitars, all carrying the prospect of open-ended improvisation. The image is oddly tranquil: both musicians sitting comfortably, balanced and relaxed amid the chaos of wires and exotic components. One thing's for sure the music they're about to make is going to be headtrip rather than bodyrock.
"For the first time ever", says Jon Tye, "sequenced music is getting more varied. Previously it was programmed for particular moods, and people would go to that particular club when they wanted that mood: chill out, or whatever ..."
Tye's Collaborations swings the mood all by itself: from the plaintive vocal on the opening "St Christopher's Dream by Ragga & The Pylon King, through the MLO/Bedouin Ascent/Luke Vibert mix of "Ruff Dog", which replaces drum 'n' bass's metallic snares with slappy brush-drums and double bass. On "Vermillion Sands," Lol Coxhill's ghostly, muted sax adds voice and focus to Paul Schütze's sprawling synthwash. David Thomas mutters nervously over MLO's "Fish Shank" loop. David Cunningham's tape treatments add an extra mesh of interference patterns over Robin Rimbaud's telephonic net. How much of this generational overlap was down to chance?
"The whole idea was that people would get something out of doing it, aside from money," Jon explains. "I organised the session with Luke and Bis; I put David Toop and Bis together, which was great because Bis said he actually had David's album [New And Rediscovered Musical Instruments] when he was at school. He was thought to be really weird to be seen carrying it round when everyone else was into AC/DC. And Mike Flowers Pops/Funki, and Lol and Paul; David [Toop] and Daniel [Pemberton] I put together; David Thomas I got in contact with; for Scanner and David Cunningham, I met David and he was totally unaware of all that was going on. All he'd heard was [Toop and Max Eastley's] Buried Dreams album; the rest of it he was totally oblivious to. It seemed ridiculous, because he was such a big influence on a lot of people. I mentioned him to Scanner, and he said, "I've got all his albums!" Then I gave a CD of Scanner to David Cunningham, and he was like, 'Oh this is good' ... He's very critical, he doesn't like a lot of stuff, so that was part of the challenge, to try and think what would be a good combination, the people that would enjoy working together and would get something out of it. On a musical basis, Paul Schütze has since been talking about doing a whole album with Lol Coxhill. I thought Lol actually added a lot of elements to Paul's music that were missing; his stuff is very precise, and Lol is totally opposite. I gave [Lol] a cassette of the tune, but he was so busy that when he turned up to do the tune he hadn't listened to it all, but it didn't matter, he was so into improvising he just played.
And that close encounter with David Thomas? "It was fantastic working with him. He came down the studio and I played loads of loops, and we spent a couple of weeks just jamming and taking loops, seven two-hour DATs with all these loops of all of us playing live, me and Pete... I got him to pick something to work to, and he wrote the "Fish Shack" thing, sent us that on DAT, we put the track round it, sent it to him, he came down the studio with a lot of beer and crisps, and just sat on the sofa going, 'OK, this is OK, I can get into this, just drinkin' beer and eatin' crisps, this is cool,' and just suggested a few things. I'd like to hear the new Ubu album, but I get the feeling that this is more the area that he should be working in."
David Cunningham, who charted with the The Flying Lizards' "Money" in 1979, and then went on to become the regular producer for Michael Nyman until 1992, takes a more detached but positive view of the current scene. "A lot of the music I've been introduced to recently makes me embarrassed about what I was doing when I was 20. There obviously is a different attitude in the generation in their early 20s. Their ears are open again, because they're fed up with all the crap they're fed by the big companies. I'm not in the slightest bit interested in sequenced based dance music - that'll look after itself. I use sequencers as a very different kind of tool, which is the beauty of those machines - nobody uses them in the say way. What would really interest me is the interface between electronics - any kind - in the studio, and the live musician performing in that situation. Which is a long term interest, beginning the first time I heard Terry Riley.
I ask Jon Tye how he reacts when people call his music unemotional. "Good music always is emotional, whatever genre it's in. Certainly a lot of the stuff without vocals now is miles above stuff with vocals. Which is a jazz thing: the sax is the nearest thing to the human voice.
"We don't know how far it can go. Any sort of manipulation of sound is emotional, because that's what you're doing, manipulating your emotions so that other people feel emotional too. If you're involved in creation, that's what you want to do."
"It's a view shared by Colin Newman. "The music is so broad: you have some things which are extremely digital, and have a veneer of coldness, and some things which are analogue and warm, you get things which pull you in by their sheer power or sheer beauty. I don't think you can generalise. People are obsessed with narrative and that's to do with our culture, which raises up information in the form of words, as if this is the most important information that we can receive - something we can read with our eyes. Films, books are narrative: and it's something which people have got very attracted to. But actually music is able to communicate pure emotion beyond words, which makes it a very effective way of receiving sometimes extremely elevated information.
Perhaps this is just a blip in the acceleration curve towards the total virtualisation of culture so vividly chronicled by those Canadian terminal theorists, Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, in such works as Spasm and the forthcoming volume, Hacking The Future. Yet even the Krokers have taken to surfing the sinewaves of what they call "death-head Ambient crash music", and have become full-blooded DJs. While preparing this piece I received an e-mail from Kroker in which he told me about the couple's recent tour of Germany: they performed what he described as "a 'scan' of Scanner, sort of high-speed, recombinant loop performance of Scanner as the high priest of android ears, dead-air pixel imagery, and glistening sound-spores on his sonic skin".
Prepare for the alien invasion From Mars.
Many of the musicians and connections discussed here can be heard on the following compilations: Extreme Possibilities and Collaborations (Lo Recordings), Miscellaneous (Language), Statics (CCI), Invisible Soundtracks 1 and 2 (Leaf), Em:t 3395 and Em:t 5595 (Time Recording), Modulation and Transformation 11 and Electric Ladyland (Mille Plateaux), Full Immersion: Remixes (Swim), Mesmer Variations (Touch), Further Self Evident Truths 1 and 2 (Rising High), Endless (Manifold), Unentitled (These), 3 Fingers and a Fumb (Blast First), Mixing It (Chill Out), Throne of Drones and Swarm Of Drones (Sombient), Marci Dub Infection (Virgin).