Saturday, September 20, 2008

Spaceship Moog

For the synthesists of the late 1960s, as Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco point out in their fine book Analog Days (2002), to be properly recognized for their efforts on a recording was a real problem. They claim that within the recording industry during the late 60s, the status of a synthesist was institutionally ambiguous: was he or she an artist, or a technician (the latter being analogous to a computer programmer)?

Was the actual creation of original electronic sounds—the patching and programming—an artistic, or engineering achievement? With all its dials and wires, it was perhaps not surprising that producers and record-industry people regarded the Moogist as being more like a recording engineer….The record industry just did not know how to deal with this hybrid machine-instrument and its operators; it defied the normal categories. (125)

This fundamental ambiguity of electronic music has persisted to the present day. As Robert Ray points out:

Sampling and sequencing, go the current complaints, make musicians unnecessary: you can make records now entirely by recombining bits and pieces sampled from other records; you don’t have to play a musical instrument at all. (70)

Virtuosity, in other words, no longer seems relevant when it comes to music, just as rhetorical eloquence is no longer relevant within a culture that more and more communicates through emails and text messages. Early “Electro-pop” (or “Techno-pop”) groups, especially those of European origin such as Kraftwerk, exploited the ambiguity surrounding the synthesizer within the music industry: Were synthesists musicians, or merely technicians, patching the correct cables and tweaking the proper knobs? Songs such as “Showroom Dummies,” “The Model,” and “The Robots” seemed to underscore this fundamental ambiguity: art, or artifice; human, or simulacrum?

“Electro” was a British term used to designate early ‘80s African-American dance music that primarily used electronic instrumentation. Perhaps the essential Electro recording (and certainly a key recording of "old school" Hip Hop) is Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock,” a 1982 single featuring AB’s rapping to a (Roland) 808 drum machine and a sampled melodic figure from Kraftwerk. According to David Toop, in his article, “A to Z of Electro” (1996) that can be found here, the genre of dance music known as Electro “was black science fiction teleported to the dance floors of New York, Miami and LA; a super-stoopid fusion of video games, techno-pop, graffiti art, silver space suits and cyborg funk.” While Toop suggests important precursors to Electro are figures such as Sun Ra and George Clinton, it perhaps might be important to remember that, in the 60s—meaning early in its historical reception—the (Moog) synthesizer was strongly associated with transgression, transcendence, and transformation (see Pinch and Trocco’s Analog Days). These trans-itive associations with the synthesizer seemed to have informed all its subsequent developments in the 70s and early 80s, especially evident in the work of George Clinton (who strongly influenced Afrika Bambaataa), with his creation of his idiosyncratic space mythology, in which his own experience with cultural marginalization led to a strong association with the Alien Other.

Given the recent resurgence of Electro, we perhaps might do well to understand its origins in the Moog--and all its subsequent offspring, such as the drum machine.

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