Essays on Technology and Culture

I Sing the Music Electric

There’s a joke I see bandied about online that amounts to: “How do you perform live electronic music? You push ‘play.’”

Having friends who make and perform various forms of electronic music for a living, this joke always rubs me the wrong way. Sure, you have people who whose live set is based around taking a laptop on stage, pressing play, and then either dancing around, singing karaoke, or both. I think these acts are both the exception, and utterly boring. I’ve seen live electronic music shows that are some of the most compelling, exciting, and visual shows of my life. [1]

The joke also plays up a dismissive attitude towards electronic music that has plagued it since its rise in the 1970s as not being “real” music, and—simultaneously—putting “real musicians” out of work. The act of creating electronic music is as much composition as playing: the artist must create the sounds, arrange them, or at least establish the parameters for the machines to generate them. Even 100% generative electronic music has a human element, in that someone must create the algorhithms that generate the music.

For me, it’s the sounds that make all the difference. I’ve been fascinated by electronic sound, probably from the first time I heard “Lucky Man” by Emerson, Lake, and Palmer on classic rock radio, and it’s epic Moog solo. Sure, you can use a synth to recreate the sound of real instruments, but I feel like that’s a waste. It’s the strange, alien sounds of synthesizers that attract me more than their ability to recreate something else. With a single instrument, you can create stunning beauty or harsh noise in a single note—or both at the same time.

The best electronic music to my ear is the the sort that straddles the human/mechanical divide, with rich melodies and voices contrasted against rigid, mechanical rhythms. Something about the juxtaposition speaks to me. It’s a metaphor, in a way, for the symbiotic human relationship to technology. The music is stronger with both human and technological aspects, much as so many of our other creative endeavors are.

And, of course, a lot of it you can shake your butt to. That’s never a bad thing.

  1. The nature of Kraftwerk shows is such that I can forgive their video tech for checking email while performing, though.  ↩