The golden triangle of electronic music

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Art is a human creation made because it expresses emotion, meaning, or enjoyment, without the requirement of a pragmatic functional benefit beyond the aesthetic satisfaction it brings to the lives of the people who create it and who experience it.

Music may well be the most abstract of the arts. It doesn’t even exist all at once, but can only be experienced as a series of events over time. Unlike words, notes do not have a specific meaning. At its best, music can connect emotionally in a profound way with a sense of motion, flow, change, tension and release, although without denoting a particular scene or circumstance.

Within the realm of music, electronic music (including specialized synthesizer hardware, and computer processing through software) may well be the most abstract type of music. Notes can be played into a recording with music keyboards, guitars, drums pads, electronic wind instruments, even Bluetooth-equipped violin bows; but notes do not have to be entered live. If they are entered live, they need to not sound like the original instrument. Notes can also be entered by a composer creating musical lines beyond his or her ability to play – perhaps, with a mechanical precision, or speed, or evolution of extended floating spaciousness, beyond any human’s ability to perform!

This is a very exciting time for music. With the advent of computers, many of music’s past restrictions can begin to fall away, so that it becomes possible for more people to make more satisfying music, more enjoyably and easily, regardless of physical coordination or theoretical study, of keyboard skills or fluency with notation. This doesn’t imply a dilution of musical quality. On the contrary, it frees us to go further, and raises the base-level at which music making begins. It lets us focus more clearly on aesthetic content, on feeling and movement in sound, on the density or direction of experience, on sensuality, structure, and shape — so that we can concentrate better on what each of us loves in music that lies beyond the low level of how to make notes, at which music making far too often bogs down.

– Laurie Spiegel, musician/inventor, introducing her computer-assisted composition and production system, “Music Mouse” (1988)

Not that it always works!

“We had planned not to start with my electronic drum kit but with a drum cage that we built specially for that tour, with electronic sensors, I would make the sounds by moving my arms. Well sometimes our brilliant toy didn’t work and that night I was waving my arms and nothing was happening. They thought I was a mime artist!”

– Wolfgang Flur, former drummer for pioneering German electro-pop band Kraftwerk

Most commercial music these days is processed through a computer at some point in its production. The computer might serve as a replacement for a reel to reel tape recorder or mixing console, with the attempt in classical and jazz music to capture the most clean, distortion-free, accurate recreation of skillful live performance. In rock, earlier musicians learned how to generate crunchy fuzz from vacuum tubes and amplifier cones pushed to the limit; today, those same tones may come from an equation processed on the musician’s laptop. In pop music, sometimes everything but the original syllables are a digital fantasy and even the singing is digitally sliced and smashed into an automatically tuned and timed grid, for stars whose talents are more in modeling, choreography, and provocativeness than in any musical ability!

Even when this level of intensive processing is used, though, in pop songs the imaginary soundscape is usually a simulation of a simplistic, easy to follow, instantly danceable, obvious and derivative hit formula of whatever kind is currently most sellable and catchy for the masses these days; sounding dated and cliche before the year’s out, or even next week! This is a problem if the goal is to make enduring art with depth of meaning. It’s not a limitation, however, when the production team’s goal is to cash in or create a fad. Elana’s interest was in work of enduring artistic value.

Before electronic music could be put to such trivial economically driven, artless purposes, it first had to exist. It was pioneered and developed by generations of extremely inventive individuals experimenting with possibilities and, as with all brand new research expanding the frontiers of human understanding, not knowing what outcomes to expect. This vocabulary of techniques was developed over several decades. It was commercialized to make simplistic “see Dick and Jane” type of nursery rhyme level musical backdrops for the fashions of the day in pop tunes. At the same time, more innovative explorers of the artistic and engineering frontiers created far more meaningful works: lush, intricate, multi-layered, comprehensively designed works of substantially with a depth of detail – and sometimes, even sublime grace.

This work invites or even demands listeners to pay attention, and richly rewards those people who do so with a one-of-a-kind emotional and intellectual odyssey into the farthest reaches of technologically mediated arts and craftsmanship that has yet been made by humanity.

These works sometimes seem dated because of specific sound design or compositional techniques that had a flurry of use as they were initially made possible through new technological developments – just as Shakespeare turns out to have coined a lot of cliches!

The vast majority of the best work, however, is truly timeless in its linkage between sound and the human spirit, intriguing the minds and moving the hearts of listeners with enduring contact of transcendence, captured, for a moment, in waveforms and bytes.

While this might bring to mind of some “music for meditation” that brings about calmness through its subtlety, this is not to say that the music all came from meditation experts who help their audiences get a good night’s sleep! Although there is some overlap with the so-called New Age musical genre, many of the artists whose work captured Elana’s attention never publicly discussed any interest in metaphysical philosophies. If they have a spiritual perspective on life, it is part of their personal lives, not deliberately a focus for their music. Also, Elana only wanted to review instrumental music: no words other than perhaps some ooh’s and ah’s as occasional sound effects. Some of Elana’s favorite music is indeed gentle, and likely could align one’s chakras in a trance if meditated upon. But, this is only a small portion of the scene that excited her. Much of the music she loved is energetic. Either with or without guitars and drums in the arrangement, a lot of it quite simply can be said to rock out!

THIS is the work Elana sought to better understand and in celebration to bring to more awareness worldwide.
I don’t know if she was the original author of the concept, but she described her focus for Electronic Dreams as a golden triangle, or “goldtri” for short, with the three sides being Progressive, Instrumental, and Electronic.

* Electronic meaning that the primary sound source was not a microphone or pickup capturing a physical motion, such as a vibrating column of air, string or drum head, but rather that technology generated voltage cycles to be turned into sound waves.

* Instrumental quite simply meaning no lyrics.

* And progressive meaning that the work is original in its composition and production, perhaps including a level of detail and changes in the notes that would not be wasted on a symphony orchestra, perhaps with more straightforward melodies and structure but with original, unique new sounds to enjoy.

Some of this was predicted a long time ago:

We have also sound-houses, where we practise and demonstrate all sounds, and their generation. We have harmonies which you have not, of quarter-sounds, and lesser slides of sounds. Divers instruments of music likewise to you unknown, some sweeter than any you have, together with bells and rings that are dainty and sweet. We represent small sounds as great and deep; likewise great sounds extenuate and sharp; we make divers tremblings and warblings of sounds, which in their original are entire. We represent and imitate all articulate sounds and letters, and the voices and notes of beasts and birds. We have certain helps which set to the ear do further the hearing greatly. We have also divers strange and artificial echoes, reflecting the voice many times, and as it were tossing it: and some that give back the voice louder than it came, some shriller, and some deeper; yea, some rendering the voice differing in the letters or articulate sound from that they receive. We have also means to convey sounds in trunks and pipes, in strange lines and distances.

– Francis Bacon, “The New Atlantis” (published 1627, a year after Bacon’s death)

To learn the personal story of Elana’s and Chris’s involvement with this music, start here.

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