The interdependence of experimental electronic music with minority groups and urban countercultural movements.
A large debate has been airing around the transcendent nature of contemporary progressive electronic music and its subversive impact on present day musical and cultural scenes. The discussion of revolutionary aspects of ambient and striking sounds in modern day avant-garde experimental electronic music of the 21st century is an emerging field that deserves further research development and attention. The role of music and noise in creating controversial electronic musical tracks that influence individuals is a crucial aspect to study and review. Of most importance is the exploration of how the creation of a “grey area” in electronic music subtly roots for contemporary countercultural — popularly denominated as “hipster” — music tendencies and “underground movements” resembling those of previous decades.
How does this controversial modern day electronic sound, essentially what some people may call noise, influence countercultural movements and activism through instilling specific sounds into the daily lives of listeners? How is it influencing changes in musical tastes and dis-tastes? How are soundscapes integrated to a larger extent into music through this practice? Do these sounds have a psychological effect or create movements and trends within society? And most importantly, to what extent do they incite and support revolutionary thinking and social change?
An already extensive body of research exists surrounding this topic, as electronic music has been emerging, growing, changing and transforming ever since technological music experimentation began taking place. It is often called “experimental electronic music” and at times involves “sound art” and elements of “noise”; often Implemented by bands, musicians and producers such as Arca, Crystal Castles, Alt-J, and Empress Of. Some, such as Joanna Demers, claim these effects to be the future of music, however, commonly, they appeal to a minority and are more popularly used in alternative/indie musical tracks, platforms and playlists. Nevertheless, I am thrilled to embark on a journey of exploration which can contribute to this body of research, as I consider there to be a lack of extensive findings or specific studies regarding the minority groups, and modern day countercultural “hipsters” and “activists”, who are often influenced by these electronic musical tracks. One of the regularly dismissed issues in progressive modern day alternative electronic music discourse is the concept that this music is a somewhat underground movement, a statement, a subtle form of noise and revolution. With that in mind, this field catches my interest and therefore prompts my further discussion of the subject area.
When talking about marginalised groups in terms of electronic music audience, I mean the crowd willing to escape the frameworks built by mainstream pop culture. This crowd seeks another form of self identification and comfort through sound that shapes outlooks on the world and unites countercultural masses. Alternative electronic music has been around for decades, emerging with dance music in the 1970s, which at that time was a frontier largely dominated by the LGBTQ community and marginalised groups such as black-americans and latinos. These clubs were largely disheveled and underground, establishing themselves as forerunners of these countercultural trends surrounding the initial stage of what in the present day is often known as alternative electronic music — from clubs such as Rhonda in Los Angeles to Paradise Garage in New York, both established in the 70s (Garcia, 2014).
So, who listens to electronic music now? A large majority of its modern day audience consists of the youth striving to question authority — the “anti-mainstream” hipster culture of modern day society. Yet, most of these musicians, producers and listeners still identify as queer in accordance with the discussed genre’s historical roots. Not only this, but a large portion of given music, also known in urban slang as “high music” or “stoner music”, is currently associated with drug consumption. This is because disco beats have become more mainstream than ever, and modern day progressions are now falling into deeper obscurity to differentiate themselves from the general current. Experimental electronic music is also often associated with creativity and flux of imagination, perhaps due to its links to LSD or its effect on the brain. This effect ranges from ambient tranquillising sounds that create an evasive space to almost escape reality, to disturbing uncomfortable counterintuitive dissonant sounds that can integrate someone further into the awareness of reality and therefore awaken inner rebellion. Furthermore, it often integrates sound art and what many would denominate as technological “noise”, creating a synthesised ambiental atmosphere that with headphones almost seems to send sound signals straight through your head and juggle your hearing senses. This music and its perception is also prominent amongst the rebellious youth, bohemian youngsters, artistic “hipsters” and present day “grunge” urban teenagers — the image of the idealised urban outcast. On that account, these sounds almost seem to be making an active countercultural statement.
Let’s take the example of Arca — also known as Alejandro Ghersi — a Venezuelan producer, mixing engineer and DJ currently residing in London. Who struggled with his homosexuality since a very young age while living in a wealthy family and an isolated elite community in south America. Having gone through trouble with self-identification and acceptance, he found escape in his music. His countercultural rebellious nature shines through his debut album, Xen, released on November 4th, 2014 — an electronic psychedelic sound, claiming to portray an in-between state of sexuality and any kind of identity. A state of mind and discomforting sound through which you can relate and find your identity no matter what you are feeling. Combined, the afore mentioned factors imply that each listener of his music can be whoever he or she wants to be. Ghersi searches for odd, uncomfortable, unusual and unexpected twists and combinations of tunes to place in songs, and essentially finds comfort in discomfort. Electric currents of sound art, buzzing, and recognisable electronic sounds with indistinguishable words make up his music — such as in the single “Attractions”, his collaboration with Sylvain Chauveau. Thereby, in this way he reaches out to the larger audience of misunderstood teenagers struggling with their sexuality and self-identification (Frank, 2014). This case-based individual example is almost directly related to the historical idea of the emerging 70s queer club culture and its prominence. These transgressive sounds and electric noises aim to represent the transmission and transgressive nature of the journey of self-identification. His habitual lack of words or hardly distinguishable dialect is an almost secretive whisper that longs for interpretation, a message only at the ears and understanding of a few.
Essentially, Arca does not form part of a singled out exceptional case, but of a rebellious group of “outcasts”. Let’s take the pressing example of Crystal Castles, a Canadian band that blends the electronic, electropunk, and synthpop genres. A band celebrated worldwide amongst the modern day indie and punk population, who’s former lead singer Alice Glass was an outcast raised in a strict family, and who escaped from home as a teenager and joined a punk community. Their style has been described as “ferocious, asphyxiating sheets of warped two-dimensional Gameboy glitches and bruising drum bombast that pierces your skull with their sheer shrill force, burrowing deep into the brain like a fever.” To listen to Crystal Castles, according to the BBC, “is to be cast adrift in a vortex of deafening pain without a safety net. You get the feeling you could do anything in the world, but that ‘anything’ would ultimately mean nothing.” Alice Glass often comes out with remarks such as “the mainstream hates women” and says that modern day mainstream artists “sell sex to children”. This in itself is a form of activism, and stands hand in hand with feminist movements and other battles for rights, therefore directly links to their sound in its non-confrontational aesthetic nature, similar to the non-conformity of activism. These feministic activist movements directly represent the countercultural ideas and meanings behind this music genre; an approach that only seems to be reasonably taken on by non-mainstream underground bands. Which are famous amongst a specific group of people that can question authority by stating that they are not part of it. Much like abstract art, they create a statement that can be debated and put forth as a symbol for anything that comes to mind, awakening the listener’s senses in a manner that raises the will to question.
What is more, Grimes, also known as Claire Elise Boucher, an electronic experimental synthpop musician, is described by the New Yorker as a “noise musician” producing “pop for misfits” (Sanneh, 2015) — in this case more anime comic-con geeks than anyone else. It almost seems like the variety of tastes never ceases, and there is a sub-genre of electronica that fits every single type of marginalised or “misfit” kid/individual out there. Her music plays with its deceitful nature, as one of her most upbeat songs, Oblivion, is said to depict sexual assault — a more profound and parlous matter than her sound might initially let on. Her songs create a sort of paradox, with her electronic voice taking over the track, along with electronic sounds that often fall into pop-like dance music — generally upbeat with a certain gist of ironic sadness and playful nostalgia. She is perhaps the least experimental of the thoroughly discussed artists in terms of the integration of sound art, but still stands for alternative tendencies and utilises ambient sounds that at times almost feel flowing and atmospheric within a wholesome creation of a dance-like tune.
Similarly, the Californian electronica/synthpop musician and producer Empress Of, Lorely Rodriguez tackles many “explicit” topics such as sex, violent breakups, and issues such as closeness and alienation. She in some way creates a protection of the female identity and challenges minor stigmas, thereby can also be interlocked with feminist activism and questioning of the taboo surrounding mental illness — in addition to her latin-american identity, one of the marginalised minorities initially discussed. Lorely implements electronic sounds that are mostly meant to represent “sexual rhythm”. In her debut album, Me, she encompasses and covers the whole spectrum of factors and features of experimental electronic music and its distinct sound through the use of both her voice and electronic synthesisers. The distilled sound of her music appears to be perfectly placed and situated in the track and record; “making each song more focused and tenacious.” The song “Everything Is You” begins the album with just a pinging bell tone, finger snaps and a lone vocal, asking, “Should I be afraid?” Only a few other instrumental sounds appear, with a predominance of bass tones, and only slight hazy chords that in a cliff-like structure “cut off abruptly”, “a pattering programmed high-hat, sporadic bass tones.” The vocals of these records arrive in pieces, harmonising and fading in and out of the song, “sometimes wordlessly pulling away”, such as in her track “Water, Water”. The melody, as in most of the songs on the album, is a “jumpy dotted line sketching sharp angles, a nervy but utterly precise zigzag.” In more positive songs, such as “How Do You Do It,” the beat moves toward electronic dance music and the tunes grow more symmetrical. “But there’s always tension somewhere: in a tinge of dissonance, in an insistent syncopation, in the spaces she refuses to fill in” (Pareles, 2015). Perhaps this is the most subtle example of culturally revolutionary electronic music, but the sounds implemented do certainly seem so, and like is the case for most of the other artists discussed, minority groups comprise the largest part of Empress Of’s audience — in particular young hipsters, bisexuals and latinos.
The countercultural tendencies explored run through a large number of alternative electronic music bands, and are created by and for who some people would denominate as outcasts, “minority groups”, or simply for those who want to feel a little different. It is often music that particularly resonates with the “getting high around the corner” kids, the photographers, film directors, the painters, the actors, the environmental activists. Moreover, all the bands explored within this study involve the implementation and fusion of music with technology in the process of creating given tunes, mostly synthesisers. “Technoculture” creates “exoticizing tendencies”; and technology is linked to “subcultural activity” (Lysloff, 2003). This phenomenon has been around for years — “there’s more to this piece than reminding ourselves that queers were historically important for dance music, or that they’re still musically relevant now” (Garcia, 2014). This occurrence is about the link of counterculture and the subversive nature of experimental electronic music in the present day, a futuristic outlook that remains and will remain present amongst marginalised minorities or those who seek to understand or integrate themselves within one.
For this study, I chose to focus on the cultural context and the less technologically complex sounds within experimental electronic music. However, the presence of the further obscure and intricate sounds should not be dismissed. Even though sound art is implemented in the case studies discussed, the field allows for a much more in-depth expanded study. Additionally, I acknowledge that most of my inclusions do indeed involve more “listenable” tracks that could serve as an introductory basis for new audiences intending to join the force of listeners of given genre. Nevertheless, for the purpose of this particular research, how sounds and our perceptions of such create these experimental music tracks that awaken senses which incite human reaction and response, much like both the natural and artificial daily soundscape environments around us, should be understood. This particular “reaction and response” pattern spawns a somewhat cult-like musical trend, where consumers remain loyal and listen not only for the aesthetic pleasure of sound but also for emotional meaning. Yet, the aesthetics of these particular sounds also play a crucial role in awakening the listeners attention and directing it towards activistic causes. This is achieved by either creating a space of detachment, a form of passive resistance through ambient sounds; or thorough the heightening of emotions calling for action. Said reaction and response to sounds forms a unison in a music-dominated world of clubbing and online audio/media exchange. The ongoing increase in the blending of music and technology, alongside the accessibility and multi-functional use of synthesisers, is perhaps why this countercultural trend has incorporated itself in this singular world of experimental electronic music.
The priorly discussed artists implement elements of experimental electronic music advanced by other experts, such as the works of various artists compiled in “An Anthology of Noise and Electronic Music Vol.7”. Which is a 2013 compilation of experimental avant-garde sounds, “a wonderful account of infinite inspirations”, resembling those pioneered by John Cage himself. The compilation contains the technological tones and at times penetrating noise that can resemble or hint at the aesthetic value and intention of the artists studied in the presented case studies. The semi-academic online publication “PopMatters” reviews this album as an “engrossing voyage into mind-expanding experimentations and frequently ear-splitting notes.” This review is one quite reminiscent of the ones discussing artists such as Arca, Crystal Castles and Empress Of. Disc One contains “varying doses of decaying noise and corrosive drone on their respective and powerful tracks.” While Disc two contains “delightful amounts of pandemonium, all dunked in industrial-strength acid.” And Disc Three “tweaks the nerves completely with its menacing minimalism.” All these sounds are the basis and starting points from which the above explored artist have extracted inspirational material from, to implement in their own work and develop increasingly dynamic sounds (Hayes, 2013).
Although perhaps these at times anti-mainstream electronic music genres and sub-genres are another way for the youth to artistically dissent from the mass, a portion of teenage angst that looks to defy all that commands it to conform with the “norm”. Be that as it may, the redundancy of such outlook does not encompass all case scenarios and the general sonic influence of experimental electronic music on individuals. Hence, even though the discussed field of experimental electronic music remains somewhat concealed in terms of the relationship between the sounds produced and their cultural impact, it is an emerging sphere of study. Many producers and musicians have discussed the matter of their sound as well as its source and origin, however, as a cultural crusade, this movement requires further thorough exploration, and gives way to some interesting open ended conclusions and assumptions that should be regarded with further closeness and broader scope — as a major phenomenon, as opposed to a singled out occurrence.
Soundscapes (a playlist of commercialised alternative electronic music):
An Anthology of Noise and Electronic Music Vol.7 (experimental electronic music):
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Sheila Whiteley. 2013. “‘Kick Out the Jams’: Creative Anarchy and Noise in 1960s Rock” In Resonances: Noise and contemporary music, edited by Michael Goddard, Benjamin Halligan and Nicola Spelman. New York: Bloomsbury Academic: 13-23.
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“Resonances: Noise and contemporary music”, edited by Michael Goddard, Benjamin Halligan and Nicola Spelman. 2013. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.
Lysloff, René T. A., and Gay, Leslie C. 2003. “Music and technoculture.” Middletown, Conn: Wesleyan University Press.
Alex, Frank. 2014. “Venezuelan Producer Arca on Gender, Hope, and His Brave New Album.” November 4. Accessed November 6th, 2015. http://www.vogue.com/3622411/arca-producer-interview-xen/
Adam, Bychawski. 2012. “Crystal Castles’ Alice Glass: ‘The mainstream hates women.’” October 2012. Accessed November 3rd, 2015. http://www.nme.com/news/crystal-castles–2/66920
Luis-Manuel, Garcia. 2014. “An alternate history of sexuality in club culture.” January 2014. Accessed October 25th, 2015. http://www.residentadvisor.net/feature.aspx?1927
Kelefa, Sanneh. 2015. “Pop for Misfits.” September 2015. Accessed November 2nd, 2015. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/09/28/pop-for-misfits
Jon, Pareles. 2015. “Review: ‘Me,’ by Empress Of, Has Cool Assurance and Jumpy Lines.” September 2015. Accessed October 29th, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/10/arts/music/review-me-by-empress-of-has-cool-assurance-and-jumpy-lines.html?_r=0
Craig, Hayes. 2013. “An Anthology of Noise and Electronic Music 7.” November 2013. Accessed November 15th, 2015. http://www.popmatters.com/review/175375-an-anthology-of-noise-and-electronic-music-seventh-and-last-a-chrono/
Crystal Castles official. “Crystal Castles ‘PALE FLESH’ Official” YouTube video, 2:59. November 8th, 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SmTWi6kz3-k
GrimesVEVO. “Grimes – Oblivion” YouTube video, 4:11. March 2nd, 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JtH68PJIQLE
EmpressOf. “Empress Of – ‘Water Water’ (Official Video)” YouTube video, 3:42. June 8th, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iwo_HeW4G-Q
Anastasia, Budko. 2015. “Soundscapes” Spotify Playlist. https://open.spotify.com/user/117140344/playlist/0HazXs0RWonHo0KxZ6UKJo
Various Artists. 2013. “An Anthology of Noise & Electronic Music, Vol.7” Spotify Playlist. https://open.spotify.com/album/68jd2YgjZUO3ZXT8jXCuQp