Sunday, 5 May 2013

The Creation of New Sounds

It was 7am on a Monday morning, one day in 1989. I was shaving before leaving for work. My old Roberts radio was perched on the glass shelf over the sink, tuned into Radio 4, and ready to give out the morning news. Or at least I thought it was. But the tuning knob must have been slightly nudged  putting out something so full on.

switched on what came out was not the reassuring tones of a BBC newsreader but some banging party music. Sometimes, if the mood took me, I would listen to music first thing. But not this kind of high-energy music. This wasn’t my idea of breakfast music. But still, I liked it, and was intrigued. And I had never before heard breakfast time radio

Marshal McLuhan said: ‘Of course people don’t actually read newspapers in the morning, they just step into them like a warm bath.’ And that’s how breakfast radio music usually is. Warm and comforting to gently stir the brain cells into life.

After a few minutes the banging beats were ripped into by a jubilant, hoarse-voiced DJ: ‘And this shout goes out to the Camden posse and all those at Sunrise over the weekend.’ And then the high-energy music surged back in. I’d accidentally tuned into a pirate radio station. What didn’t occur to me immediately was that this show was not a backdrop to people’s waking moments, it was aimed at those who had been up all Sunday night and didn’t want the party to end.

A few weeks later a friend of ours invited us along to his 40th birthday party at a Greek restaurant in Soho, adding that he was taking us all to a club afterwards. Over the meal he explained to me that he’d been attending some of the illegal warehouse raves and others held in fields in the Home Counties that seemed to be outraging the press at the time. I asked him how he’d found out about them and he reminded me that he had a 17-year-old son from his previous marriage. 
"I heard him talking to his mates about them and told him I’d give him a fiver if he took me along with him." He then led us off to the club. "Here, take this, you’ll love it." That evening my ears and soul were opened. I left in the early hours of the morning feeling that I’d been welcomed into the warm and knowing fraternity of ‘Ravers’.

Musically I already felt privileged that my youth had been enriched by an era of dynamic creativity. In my early teens I went into a record shop and came across the strangest looking album I’d ever seen, Uncle Meat by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. I read on the notes that it featured a track described as ‘electronic water music’. I was immediately intrigued and took the cover to the counter to ask if I could listen to some of it.

Wisely deciding that this was probably not something that many of the other customers in the shop would want to hear, I was directed to a small listening booth about the size of a toilet cubicle. I sat there transfixed, staring at the white board sound-proofing on the walls, immersed in the strange but audaciously original music. My pocket money didn’t cover the cost of this double album, but my ears were permanently opened.

During the Seventies punk came and went while I was a drama student but we young actors were way too concerned about our appearance to pay too much attention to this scruffy music and fashion.

During the Eighties I heard little music that excited me and spent most of my music-buying time plugging holes in my collection with classics from the Sixties & Seventies.

To keep it simple, there were three main ingredients in the birth of the Dance music genre — well, four actually, but I’ll come to that one separately. In the previous decade the disco scene in the States had moved away from the Saturday Night Fever posturing into a more counter-culture genre of the gay clubs. 

The term ‘house music’, which was originally the bedrock of the Dance genre, describes a style of music which is often soulful but with an unmissable 4/4 drum and bass rhythm. A prime example is the much revered house classic Promised Land By Joe Smooth.

One theory is that the name emanates from an early Eighties club called The Warehouse in Chicago, where one of the resident DJ’s was producer Frankie Knuckles. A few years ago Frankie Knuckles’ contribution to popular culture was acknowledged by the City of Chicago naming August 26th ‘Frankie Knuckles Day’. Another theory is that the term house music comes from the fact that the clubs featured ‘house’ tracks associated with particular DJ’s in the same way that a restaurant might offer ‘house wine’.

Whatever the truth, DJ/producers gradually began to either press their own extended mixes or extend them live by mixing in additional sequences from another record. Around the same time these new techniques of mixing spread to both New York and Detroit. For some reason the music of electronic bands like the German group Kraftwerk seeped into Detroit and the city’s clubs pioneered a more electronic sound which came to be known as ‘techno’. Classic Detroit Techno Mix

Precursors of the Dance movement can also be found in the work of another German, electronics wizard and producer Giorgio Moroder, whose massively extended remix of the Donna Summers disco hit I Feel Love was a hit in the late 70s. 

A few years later Blondie released her single Rapture which used a rap sequence and welcomed rapping into the mainstream. These various musical ingredients were now converging to create the Dance genre.

The second ingredient was technological. Musical instrument makers Roland produced a new range of samplers and drum machines which brought complex studio techniques of sampling and looping within the reach of those with only a rudimentary grasp of sound engineering.

So now we have an emerging musical style but up till this point the separate strands that would create the whole were largely isolated in separate clubs. House and Techno was to be found in gay disco’s while Rap & Hip Hop was the currency of the ghetto clubs and parties. The music may well have remained fragmented but for the intervention of some young British DJ’s who not so much added a new ingredient but rather mixed them together.

Okenfold, Danny Rampling and a few other British pals discovered the joyous possibilities of house music when presented amidst the eclectic, inclusive spirit of the Ibizan clubs. They subsequently brought the music and style back to the UK and a movement was born which took most young people with it.

Just as in the early Sixties British musicians picked up the largely neglected genre of blues music, redeveloped it and re-exported it back to America, so Dance music that started in the US was given an added twist by British DJ’s causing it to exploded around the world.

Oh and yes, the fourth ingredient: MDMA or Ecstasy. For some reason Ecstasy was the perfect catalyst for the development of this music, just as a strong cup of coffee can kick-start your working day. It seemed to allow people to tune into the subtlety that lay behind repetitive beats, enabling them to perceive and enjoy what I would call the vertical element of a tune.

Traditionally, music is driven by a horizontally moving melody. Dance music, while featuring many memorable melodies, also seemed to pay a lot of attention to the vertical modulation of a melody. So, while many dance tracks didn’t have much progression in terms of horizontal melody, this was more than made up for with the inventive vertical modulation as sounds undulate, expand and contract.

There can be no doubt that drugs have been a major ingredient of previous musical and cultural movements. During the mod era amphetamines were the drug of choice and in much of the Tamla and Stax music of the time the soulful melodies were often underscored by a reliably repetitive tambourine beat which provided a useful metronome for Speed spaced minds. The influence of LSD and marijuana underscored much of the music of the Sixties, opening ears to new techniques of phasing and feedback.

I remember as a teenager listening to a new Captain Beefheart record when my mother walked in and demanded: ‘Why are you listening to that druggy music!’ I was shocked. ‘How did she know?’

During the punk era the use of drugs was more nihilistic and brought together a random combination of booze, speed, glue and poppers.

Shaving in that bathroom in 1989 I had no idea where this high-energy music of banging beats had come from, but I knew I was smitten. Shortly afterwards I heard a track which particularly grabbed my attention. It was called ‘Tears’ by Frankie Knuckles and featured the soaring, soulful voice of Robert Owens.
It wasn’t his voice that attracted my attention but the piano riff. Previously, most music production had centred on adding effects to existing instruments: fuzz and sustain to a guitar or double-tracking to a voice. But now it seemed that producers where casting aside any pretence that an instrument was real and were focusing on the quality of sounds they could produce from scratch. To me the riff in the Frankie Knuckles track sounded like a piano, but that was the thing. The riff resonated like a piano, but the percussive sound of each chord seemed more like a spanner clanking on a radiator. It struck me then that due to the technological progression of samplers and synthesisers it could in fact have been just that! (I don't think the following version is the one that I heard at that time but I have included it out of interest).

It was now possible to combine sounds to create completely original tones. A drumbeat could be made that would fragment into an arpeggios and each newly formed tone could then be reproduced across several octaves of a keyboard.I also became fascinated by the way in which samples were being used and for this I would like to use a sweet analogy. People reading this article in the Britain will be familiar with the sweet or candy known as ‘rock’ sold in seaside towns across the UK.
Rock is a brightly coloured stick of candy about a foot long, usually red, with a white centre. The clever thing about rock is that it comes with the name of the seaside town, where you bought it, built into the stick so no matter where you break the stick you will still see the word ‘Blackpool Rock’, for example.

So this is how the analogy applies: Say, for example, someone had written a song with the passionately sung line, ‘My darling I love you so much I would crawl across the world with no shoes on just to be with you’. (Well, you can see I’d never make a songwriter!) Now, in house music a producer might sample a segment of this song just taking the words ‘No shoes’ or even the word ‘I’. It seemed to me that because the whole stanza was imbued with an emotion (like a name running through a stick of rock) this chopped phrase could bring with it the same emotional power without all the details of lyrics. To use another analogy, it’s a bit like the principles of homeopathy whereby a minute extract of a substance is diluted to create a medicine which still embodies the essence of that substance.

As these ideas swam around my head I approached many of my contemporaries with a missionary zeal as I tried to introduce them to this revolutionary music. A number of them, branded with the prejudice of the music of their teens, simply dismissed ‘Dance music’ as ‘computer-generated music’. I wasn’t going to be stopped though. ‘Don’t you realise this music is based on the creation of new sounds?’

Moog synthesisers had been around for some time, but it seemed to me that their use had largely been gimmicky. Walter Carlos (later to become Wendy Carlos) had produced some interesting pieces such as the synthesised classical works used in the soundtrack of A Clockwork Orange. Clockwork Orange Intro Music

Otherwise though the Moog had been confined to producing silly psychedelic arpeggios, or as a grandiose backdrop for prog rock bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer where Keith Emerson had used the Moog primarily for its acrobatic abilities. Since then synthesisers had moved on and were becoming widely available to a host of new young producers out there willing and eager to push its limits.

Drum machines had also enjoyed a decent gestation period and had progressed from the biscuit tin robotic tones that provided the beat for many of the late Seventies disco tunes. Now producers had the technology to bring a much wider range of drum rhythms and tones to their productions and the beats got seriously complex. Bass guitars, which often ploddingly followed the melody, were invited to take centre stage and were freed up to create rhythms of their own so you weren’t sure if the beat was coming from a bass or a drum. True, some of these more subtle synthesiser effects had been starting to appear outside of House music, primarily in the arrogantly self-proclaimed New Age music. Leading this movement was record label Windham Hill. I really wanted to enjoy New Age music which was characterised by high quality musical production, but it wasn’t until I first heard Dance and House music that I realised why I generally found it so mind-numbingly boring: New Age music, in its search for blissful tranquillity, had largely eliminated the disturbing effects of rhythm. It was music without a heartbeat.

I know there are many who think music’s primary function is relaxation and therefore tranquillity might be an appropriate mood to aim for, but personally I had always sought out music that excited, inspired, challenged, amused and in fact reflected the complete range of human emotions. Yes, like everyone I do enjoy moments of tranquillity, but too much of it turns your brain to mush. If New Age music lacked a heartbeat, Dance music had a vital pulse. It made me want to dance!

Soon after the arrival of Dance music in the mainstream, New Age music was reborn under the guise of ‘ambient’ or ‘chillout’ music. The latter stemmed from the concept of music that was listened to as aural recuperation after a long night’s banging beats. This was New Age music with a gentle heartbeat. 

Ibizan sunset bar Café Del Mar began producing a series of releases that have provided lush accompaniment for countless aspirational TV commercials and holiday shows. It wasn’t until I arrived in Ibiza that I realised that this music, although seen by many as harmless background music, had a tremendous subtle power. When played at volume across a baking beach its complexity and power can take your head off!

La Ritournelle by Sebastien Tellier

Since the early Nineties the advance of looped beats has spread around the world. At the Womad festival (World Music and Dance Festival) a couple of years ago I was struck by how dance rhythms have now pervaded music from all continents and found a place in, for example, the unmistakable African rhythms of Mori Kanti and the haunting Japanese dub music of Kazufumi Kodamo. Some might say this spells the homogenising of international music, but I prefer to see it as a process of connection whereby different cultures are being united with a sense of the heartbeat of dance.

Since my discovery of dance music over 20 years ago I’ve enthusiastically followed its progression as it split into many rich and varied sub-genres — jungle, drum & bass, breakbeat, hard house, progressive, deep and minimal techno, to name just a handful. Then about 10 years ago came another technological development – digital DJing. I’d never had the pleasure of mixed vinyl and was at a stage in my life where I would have found it difficult to justify spending around £1,500 on a set of decks simply to pursue a possible new hobby. However, I already had a decent Macintosh computer and now could add on a mixing console for a couple of hundred pounds.
Once again I was immediately smitten. And so, in my late 40’s, I took the first steps to launch a new career as a DJ with a regular Friday night gig in a local bar where I began to hone my skills.

Since then I’ve held a number of residencies in London and Ibiza where my sets have developed into Eclectika Sessions — usually a set of several hours in which I indulge my eclectic taste for dance music in all its glory. I’ve largely turned my back on the club scene because they tend to be dominated by the tyranny of 130 beats per minute or thereabouts, depending on the genre being played. Personally I prefer light and shade and find concentrating on a single time signature exclusively almost as dull as the beatless New Age music.

I’m also fascinated by the idea of ‘framing music’. By this I mean the way that one style of music can offset another. If someone listening to one of my sets enjoys a gospel house track I’m playing, they might find that the beats will lead them and their musical appreciation on to a minimal techno track which follows it.
My preference now is for private parties or cocktail bars where the goal isn’t necessarily to fill the dance floor — though I frequently do — but rather to create an ambience and changing heartbeat, to initially reassure and then to stimulate the crowd. In other words, from canapés and conversation to full-on dancing and then on into the mellow mornings.

Many of my contemporaries who initially rejected ‘dance music’ have now either come round to it or are starting to murmur that they like some of it but don’t know where to begin looking for the stuff they like. If you are one of those many such people out there then I hope that over a number of articles I might be able to point you towards discovering some of this rich and exciting vein of contemporary music and also offer a few personal insights gained as a DJ.

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