the berghain column – may 2012

Bending the android

According to legend, in 1981 Bill Laswell entered an elevator in which he found Herbie Hancock on his way up. Wasting no time, Laswell gave him a tape which he happened to carry in his pocket. The reel held a demo track he had produced with a couple of friends in some downtown basement. Oberheim DMX drum machine, scratches and a synth hook sounding pretty much like a Fisher Price toy. There wasn’t much more to it. A couple of days later Hancock gave him a call. There’s an album he had to get produced and this could just fit. Re-record? No no, it’s great the way it is. We’ll make the other tunes just like this one. See ya, click. That demo gained some notoriety under the name of “Rockit.“

Some claim it was the biggest instrumental pop hit of the entire 80s. Sometimes I try to imagine how extraterrestrial this must have sounded back in the day. While Kraftwerk radiated their cool android elegance, Laswell put the robotic theme on steroids with his DMX aesthetics. Accordingly, the album was named “Future Shock” (after Alvin Toffler’s novel; the guy who also handed the term “techno” to Juan Atkins) – jazz critics didn’t hesitate to call it “future shit”, but like Tim Ferriss said: There are no statues erected to critics.

This outer space, never-heard-before quality is one of the greatest and yet hardest things to achieve artistically. Happens once in ten years, if at all. One shortcut, employed to great extent by Laswell too, is to plunder the infinite domains of “ethnic” music. From our perspective, it all sounds super alien indeed. You could impress the audience every day, with Bali today and Marrakech tomorrow. The other direction didn’t have to wait for long. There’s probably no culture on earth that didn’t get an electric guitar infused, followed by a Casio keyboard and finally by the 4/4 kick drum. An endless trail of migratory instruments, mostly traveling from Japan to the world. So much truly awful music came off this that we tend to forget that any form of musical innovation is following up on prior exchange: geographical, technological, ideological.

A Cuban friend once told me the following story: the slaves in the Southern States of the USA came from the same parts of Africa as those forced to work away in the sugar cane fields of Cuba. The reason that African American music is so dramatically different from Afro-Cuban music is supposed to be that drumming was forbidden in the plantations of North America. Two generations later the rhythmic tradition was broken. Since then black music in the US has been on the search for the lost groove, rebuilding it step by step. Since no one can remember the original, new discoveries regularly close the gaps, producing an unprecedented wealth of innovative genres, styles and music subcultures. Music became a field of relentless experimentation, as well as an extremely effective channel of getting the message of emancipation, capability, good intentions and pride out into the world. Alien elements were tested freely: European harmonic structures, marching band instrumentation, amplification, synthesis. Maybe something will fit here? In the 20th Century it became America’s strongest cultural gift to the world.

Music cultures are nothing but cumulated experience. Things get tested long enough to build knowledge about what evokes some feeling (in all its fine-tuned details) and what doesn’t. That’s what remains even when the complete concept cannot be restored or accessed anymore, as in the lost rhythms of the former slaves. If it is possible to abstractly extract the features of such experience in order to apply them to a totally different context, there’s depth although it feels alien (a rhythmic feel transferred to a drum machine, intonation contours transferred to synths etc.). This is the one thing that empirically built music (i.e. music based on experience) has got that theoretically developed music doesn’t. This has more often than not been misunderstood. The key is using the principle behind the phenomenon and not just its sample or surface. Brazil loops (quantized) and Afro vocals (retuned to western ears with Autotune) are so incredibly boring because all they transport is surface without the experience behind it. If one wants to appropriate from distant fields, abstraction is usually the more solid and rewarding route: peeling the surface, extracting the core. It is what African American music did all along: take those European marching band chords, then alter their timing, dynamics and feel. In other words, fuse ideas at the structural level instead of just throwing them together hoping something will stick. On Youtube there’s this clip from a party in Egypt where, as a climax moment, a keyboard virtuoso hammers the keyboard with his arms:

Could be free jazz cluster stuff, but thanks to the underlying Japanese engineering every note comes out “correctly”, that is, in the near-quartertone tuning of an Arabian Maqam scale. Some years earlier the keyboardist’s colleagues between Tanger and Bandung had inspired this technological upgrade by using the pitch bend wheel to retune the naively uniform even-tempered scales of synthesizers in real time, so the tones would match what touches the heart (can you believe even in the freestyle domain of modular synthesis most modules come with a normative 1V/octave tuning input for standardized pitches?).

Like grass grows over ruins, transforming them back into being part of the landscape, people bend the androids to make them fit their feelings. A robot sings about lost love.


Sidenote: On a personal note, and as a current application of this, I’ve been interested in extracting the pitch qualities of Bulgarian chalga music. The result is an abstraction of sampling, reducing the concept of the “sample” to just pitch / scale information and movements, i.e. tunings and pitch bend curves applied to synthesis. It is also a further addition to the family of “contour works” I’ve been developing.* What we usually think of as sampling is replaced by a pitch contour. I’m usually reluctant to delve into cultural territories I don’t understand. Being Bulgarian to some extent, I didn’t find trouble exposing the techno moments of chalga – and the chalga moments of techno. Here’s “Adem”:

* some contour works:

Le Sacre Du Printemps Edit: creating a 2nd layer composition intertwined with the original from differences in recording practice, revealing an electro-acoustic “contour”: noise shapes, microphone positions, mixdown decisions etc.

Fennesz “Remiksz”: erasing a linear sample collection by Fennesz and replacing it piece by piece with my own (through free association: which of mine resembles his?), so the original layout remains only as a ghostly “contour ”

Ghost Hemiola re-enacting the physical structure of The Grand Hemiola etc.