The combination of digital technology and the easy accessibility of samplers and computers have irrevocably changed the way sound is produced and perceived. As electronic music moves further away from the conventions of the club culture that spawned it to become a profound means of expression in its own right, a new breed of musician is emerging to forge new directions in Ambient and Techno with the parallel sciences of multimedia and electronic networking. Here we profile four such acts: Global Communication, The Black Dog, Bedouin Ascent and the Sähkö collective. This article originally appeared in The Wire 131 (January 1995).
Global Communication: Evolution theorists
I'm sitting on a sofa in the West Country, asking Mark Pritchard about projecting yourself into a machine, about machines talking to each other, about intuition At that moment, for no obvious reason, his two dogs erupt in an incredible barking fit, sprinting down the corridor ina mad rush. Yeah, that. How do you translate that inside your kit?
It is a small house at the outermost rim of Crewkerne in Somerset, poised dead at the spot where the row of cottages trails off into scraggy fields littered with twisted metal sheds and scraps of chicken wire. The interior appears in a state of total flux. Move unexpectedly, and a parrot sets up an insane hollering. At the rear of the expressive household, in a tiny soundproofed room looking out at a knot of trees, Pritchard and his colleague Tom Middleton have established the operations room of Evolution (named after a Carl Craig track); which is to say, the creative team that's been putting out records under the names Reload, Global Communication, and Link. Still in their early twenties, their output and scope of reference is phenomenal. They were making Jungle plates on Pritchards Recoil imprint as far back as 1991 (Mark still DJs on a Yeovil pirate), and since the release of the Reload album A Collection Of Short Stories on Infonet last year, bolstered by the Global Communication 76:14 album last summer, they've had to stem a tidal wave of remixes/rethinks for artists like Aphex Twin, Jon Anderson, Chapterhouse, The Grid, Palmskin Productions
Their interest and assimilation of new and untried technologies is based not on a blind wager on bogus notions of futurism, but on the gut desire to create and connect. Middleton speaks of creating an emotional music, bound in to the relocation of funk human feel within the music's warp and weft. Listen to the dusky sweep of GC's Ob-SelonMi-Nos, Reloads Le Soleil Et La Mer, their trumpet-soaked Natural High remix for Warp 69, and all their excellent forthcoming Link material. Cross-reference with a few of their avowed heroes: Herbie Hancock (their latest EP is called Maiden Voyage), David Sylvian and Tomita; and hope that they carry out their plans to use live instruments next year. Hey presto they've discovered the lost legacy of fusion.
There's also a strong utopian impulse behind their activities. The project increasingly thrives on interaction, collaboration and feedback from listeners. "There is Global Communication occurring", says Middleton. "It's a way of encompassing everything, different arts and forms of expression and getting it to people. I want to take the music industry for a ride, take liberties, set up a network that will help other people out. A lot of our friends are really imaginative people with original ideas, getting stifled and losing faith in life because there are so few outlets. Global Communication can be a chance for the people who communicate with us to feed back with bits of philosophy and writing, and share that with the world again, and that will perhaps get people to contact each other, get people to talk a bit more." "We've had feedback from a 50 year old guy whose been into electronic music for years; from a Russian radio station; and from a school where the students had to write down their feelings while listening to 76:14,"adds Pritchard.
With so much input feeding their heads, it seem extraordinary that they find it so easy to project themselves into so many machines, systems, personae. "The main problem is we like so many different styles; we end up going off on many different tangents," explains Mark. Recently we've been setting ourselves more of a brief. Its just an extension of our personalities really, Tom says. An extension of what were feeling. I know there's definitely an aspect of my character, the feminine side, that a lot of blokes don't tune into. He gestures towards the Aphex aural exciter, whose frequencies cause sexual arousal, and the Akai sampler. That is an awesome bit of kit, with so much potential. There's too much laziness; just bang hit the preset. Later, he adds: Its all about science, thats what it boils down to the science of manipulating eclectic sounds, recycling sounds andbringing them up to date, or taking them into the future. On the lasttrack on the Reload album, says Mark, all the beats are in Junglestyle. But instead of using breakbeats we used weird electronic noises. Thats why it sounded so different, because it wasnt totallyinfluenced by Detroit or European Industrial or experimental composers. We were taking things from Jungle, jazz and classical music instead, andthrowing it all together. It made a completely new sound.
But there are new sounds appearing all the time, and youve got to keepon moving. On the next GC album they plan to explore a theme: Seasons, Senses or Elements. We want to try and incorporate live musicians withelectronics, says Mark. I'm going to get my guitar out again, and Tommight play the cello. And weve had some mad ideas, says Tom, abouttaking it to a multi-sensory level and researching into human behaviour. Itd be interesting to develop this music as a kind of therapy.
GCs relationship to their music resembles that of gallery
curator toexhibit they create a space and a climate for sounds,
ideas andresponses and like the best founding fusion music, its
open andspiritual and funky. Were definitely thinking in terms of
music thatlifts you to a higher plane, says Tom. There is a vibe
thats beenlost were disappointed in the lack of soul and funk
injected intothis electronic music, and when people say its
soulless, on the wholetheyre correct. Global Communication is for
just emotional music: soul-nutrifying sounds that hit you straight
in the stomach. Link wassomething that Mark started off
Electro-funk. Theres still plenty offun to be had with aspects of
House, Electro, and jazz-funk, without the serious vibe you get
from a lot of Techno producers. Arent there anynegative aspects to
what theyre doing? Well, says Mark, Its harder to make mistakes,
which is a shame sometimes.
There is Global Communication occurring. Its good to talk.
The Black Dog: Spanners in the works
In the guiding animus of electronic culture, the cult of personality isa dated irrelevance. Which is why the three members of The Black Doghave undertaken so few interviews during their five year career. Thereis a personality behind the music, in the music itself, so you dontneed words particularly, says Ed Handley, the goateed third of thetrio. I think its important to know that the people making musichaven't got bad intentions, that theyre honest. But interviews dontreally prove that either way.
I suggest to the group that I'm speaking to them as a cell in the greatcollective Techno brain machine, of which they are one tiny butinfluential synapse. I like the idea of a like mind, says Ed. Aswith many of their contemporaries, The Black Dog, who describethemselves as a multimedia company to encompass their computergenerated art, video and e-mail activities, are driven onwards by thethreat of inactivity their own, or that of other musicians who dontseem so interested in pushing at the musics limits. Youve got tokeep yourself interested as well. If youve made sequenced music forfour years and suddenly it gets tedious, youre forced into doingsomething different just to keep the enjoyment there. Thats whatllhappen with loads of electronic musicians itll diversify, take in newelements and become more original. The situation will force it.
Ed, Andy Turner and Ken Downies first album for Warp last year wascalled Bytes in retrospect, naively geeky. Spanners, 1995s firstwork of genius, draws upon a wider and more intensely-worked set ofsource materials, and the tracks are characterised by an abundant senseof efficiency: everythings up and running smoothly, the computers arehappy. People have said that some of our music is really good fordoing the housework, and keeping busy to. I like music for thatpurpose, just keeping you busy when youre alone: motivator music thatyou dont have to concentrate on. Its multi-purpose music, agreesAndy Turner, looking up from his copy of The Idler. The way its puttogether, its everything youve heard: a combination of all your audioexperience to date. Its sort of macrocosmic, suggests Ed. Itreflects the journey of us as individuals, as well. If you want to callit a journey, its the journey to death. It's the passing of time, music.
Ken Downie isnt present at this meeting, but his responsibility is theBlack Dog on-line bulletin board, which recently exploded on reaching1000 users. The band were once quoted to the effect that they used ahuman feel to look for a computer soul. Id have expected the opposite(swapping the words human and computer). Ed: Yeah, I dont knowwhere that came from. Probably had too many smokes. Computersdefinitely dont have intelligence; they communicate with maths, whichis a really pure form of communication that doesnt have personality orego. So in a way thats a reflection of the human soul: purecommunication. Thats what you aim for. So maybe they have what weourselves most want.
We're back to the proliferation of like minds. Do they feel a part of aglobal network of artists, or, as certain theoreticians would have it, cultural producers? Andy thinks so. Yeah, there is a community. Wespeak to other artists, not necessarily people making music. Thereseems to be two sides at the moment, Ed advances. People who want topreserve the old order, retain the power structure, and then theres theother side who are willing to change it. Action is the best way to dealwith any problem, so theres no way were worrying about the concepts ofwhat were trying to do, were just trying to be truthful. And theequipment helps you do that? I can imagine an overall track in myhead, but Im not competent to actually go in there and do it, like, oh, Ive dreamt about this tract, and I can play all the notes I need toplay. I cant really do that. I suppose some people can, like Mozart...
Andy responds: 'I bet he got a lot of his ideas messing around on thekeyboard as well'.
S hk : Electricity generators
You find yourself located in what has come to be known, geographicallyand culturally, as a remote corner of the world. Nevertheless you haveaccess to recordings of music that inspires you, and the equipment thatcreated that music is not so hard to find either. No one in your ownsurrounding seems to hear or understand, but you realise that crossinglocal borders is the least of your tasks...
That's the background to the formation, in early 1993, of S hk Recordings and its various satellite projects, in Helsinki, Finland, byTommi Gronlund. S hk (meaning 'electricity') is a broad plateau for therelease of impeccably turned-out electronic musics that polarise intothe ultra-minimal brain machinery of O and Panasonic, and (at anotherextreme) the analogue cocktail-lounge Sun Ra mannerisms of the eccentricFinnish ex-pat Jimi Tenor, whose day-job is photographing tourists atthe Empire State Building in New York ("There's a King Kong background; I take nearly 100 a day," he says.)
Low budgets mean tight quality control. The label has put out ninereleases to date with four more imminent, all distinguished by anextraordinary singularity of purpose and sparse, idiosyncraticpackaging. The backbone of S hk 's output is the work of Mika Vainiounder the pseudonym O; this years Metri CD came close to perfection. Where most repetitive-beat Techno assigns to the listener a fishlikefive-second memory, O employs various tactics to elongate the attentionspan: frequencies magnified to intense, uncomfortable levels, tessellated pulses compacting and expanding further with eachrepetition, aural by-products given off that replicate themselves in andout of phase. The S hk crew are constantly searching for new, extremetonalities. Customised gadgets are constructed for individualperformances and recordings, such as the Complex Sound Generator (Itused to be a typewriter Originally it was made for a movie camera, butthen we started using it to make music, because it has very puresounds), an oscilloscope that converts impulses from TV, video orbackground noise into sound, and a six-metre tube called Holmes John, not Sherlock to create infrasounds. (It makes your intestines wanderaround your body, and you shit in your pants). A recent live set atLondons Quirky club blew the rooms fusebox, plunging the venue intodarkness and confusion, although they deny that deliberately causingmayhem is part of the plan.
The desire to find new ways for audiences to experience the music alsounderpinned their Ambient City project earlier this year: a24-hour-a-day, three-week radio broadcast on a Helsinki radio frequency, with hour-long slots contributed by artists from across Europe includingMouse On Mars, The Hafler Trio, Mixmaster Morris, :zoviet*france, andMuslimgauze. Are they setting out their stall as purveyors of in thewords of co-conspirator Kimo (aka Mono Junk) Lift music of thefuture? We dont have any ideology, says Gr nlunds. It can beanything. But I think our records feel a bit different than English. It can be up to very small things. Somehow they cant make them loud.
S hk Recordings, Peramiehenkatu 11, 00150 Helsinki, Finland. Fax: 010 358 0 628870.
Bedouin Ascent: Digital connections
Spiralling inwards from the debate surrounding the place of the organismin this age of vapour, one possible future direction for electronicmusic involves a rapprochement between the linear motion of digitalprocessing and the out-of-control rhythms of biology. On one level, this involves the development of a new electoacoustic biomusic, onewhich utilises the technologies of sampling and computer-generated noisein parallel with organic sound sources, rather than to excavate aliensound worlds of pure electricity from the guts of an Apple work station.
The music recorded by Kingsuk Biswas, a 26 year old Londoner of Bengaliparentage better known as Bedouin Ascent, offers one example of how thisapproach might develop. The records he released in 1994 on the RisingHigh label The Pavilion Of The New Spirit EP and the recent Science, Art And Ritual album were dominated by dense layers of complexrhythmic patterns which integrated drum machines with live tablaplaying, fusion piano reveries, and sounds suggestive of primitive reedand pipe instruments on the one hand, the howl of overloading circuitryon the other. However...
"For me, those kinds of distinctions have no meaning: male/female, natural/supernatural, organic/digital - these are completely arbitrarycategories. All things are as they are, regardless of how you perceivethem. The Western mind has a way of cutting up the world into whatevercompartments it deems necessary in order to control it - and in theprocess it takes male away from female, the natural from thesupernatural, draining the life energy out of our existence. So I don'tsubscribe to this idea of roots music being more organic, more natural, than electronic music, and that nature is the province of rural areas. Most people experience the world by looking through glass, walking onpavements, stepping onto trains. I grew up in suburban London - I'vealways seen the beauty of urban environments.
Even so, the most compelling aspects of Biswas's music seem to grow outof the tensions that result from layering samples of ululating Easternflutes over warping drum machines that sound as if they are overloadingin their attempts to reproduce the data he has programmed into them. How does he approach the creative process?
"Without wanting to get too esoteric, it takes off from Jung's idea ofplay being an end in itself. To play is to build an area in which topass your time pleasantly. I've been making music for ten years butit's only in the last two years that I've thought of releasing it forother people to consume. Before that making music was just another partof my day-to-day procedure. I try to keep it as intuitive as possible, creating an atmosphere and environment where I can be creative ratherthan theoretical."
This leads to the problem of attempting to produce music true to theflashfire moment of creation on equipment that requires systematic andlaborious programming. "I use an Apple Mac, so the only real instrumentI've got is a mouse. It's not particularly sexy or musical. Oneproblem is that working with complex circuitry involves the consciousside of the brain - the other side, the creative side, is in a differentpart and its supposedly impossible to occupy the two simultaneously. There are two possible solutions: manufacturers might start producingequipment that is more intuitive, or, more excitingly, the mind itselfmight bridge the gap. We may evolve to a state where neurons form newnetworks and the right and left sides of the brain will fuse. Why not? As cultures, societies and environments become more technological, wevestopped evolving physically this could be the new frontline ofevolution."
The music you can hear on a Bedouin Ascent record arrives as aconsequence of years of listening without prejudice on Biswass part and the subsequent connections he made between the various musics hecame into contact with. From an early age he was exposed to Indianclassical music from where he would later move in the direction of otherindigenous folk forms such as West African kora and percussionensembles. In the late 70s he listened to David Rodigans weekly reggaeshow on Londons Capitol Radio. "He was in the studio, on the mix, dubbing it up wild style. This seemed very freaky and abstract at thetime but it kind of formatted my mind as to how music should sound: minimalist, drums and bass, reverbs, freeform structures." From here heextrapolated outwards, uncovering connections between dub and the waythe music of a group such as Joy Division foregrounded the drums andbass. He also heard Joy Division as a kind of Industrial bepop whichtook him to Miles Davis > Ornette Coleman > Pinski Zoo > the electronictreatments and industrial debris that littered records by EinsturzendeNeubauten, Throbbing Gristle and 23 Skidoo. In the 1980s, even for anopen-minded listener, these were connections already obscured by theintransigent barriers of social and cultural imperatives. How were theytransgressed?
"It has a lot to do with the fact that despite being Asian I've nevermoved in any one racial group. I developed in isolation. At school noone had even heard of the kind of music I was listening to. The racialthing was put on the back burner. It was more important to me todiscover the roots of the music I was listening to than to evaluate myracial background. But being Asian means that I never subscribed to thewhite middle class values which define this culture. They were nevermade available to me; there was always an undercurrent of not beingwelcome. As a consequence my music has always had an element ofsubversion. The desire to disrupt is very strong."
Autechre - Amber (Warp)
Autocreation - Mettle (Inter-Modo)
Bedouin Ascent - Pavillion Of The New Spirit EP; Science, Art And Ritual(Rising High)
Black Dog - Spanners (Warp)
Jon Dalby - Skil N Frank EP (GPR)
Ecstasy Of Saint Theresa - AstralaVista EP (Free)
Global Communication - 76:14; Maiden Voyage EP (Dedicated)
Anthony Manning - Islets In Pink Polypropylene (Irdial)
Mouse On Mars - Frosch EP; Vulvaland (Too Pure)
μ-ziq - Tango NVectif; Bluff Limbo (Rephlex)
O - Metri (S hk )
Oval - Systemisch (Mille Plateaux)
Various Artists - Distant Music (Unitunes)
Various Artists - Experimenta (A13)