The Oscillations of Originality
Originality in dance music – discuss. No pressure then. Or paradox. This article was first published HERE
“All recorded music has run its course. It has been consumed, traded, downloaded, understood, heard before, sampled, learned, revived, judged and found wanting. Dispense with all previous forms of music and music making and start again.”
When Bill Drummond announced the launch of his choir, The 17, this was the searing statement that he made. He went on to note that The 17’s music would have ‘no history, follow no traditions, recognize no contemporaries.’ It would ‘use no libretto, lyrics or words; no time signatures, rhythm or beats; and have no knowledge of melody, counterpoint or harmony.’
This may seem like an extreme statement and indeed we’d expect nothing less from the man who ceremonially burned a million pounds and the KLF’s lucrative back catalogue. But from extreme cultural positions come glimpses of profound truth. Until very recently, music was rooted purely in live experience. Its dissemination was limited by the physics of space, distance and time, and by definition, it was a transient, ephemeral moment shared by the musicians and the audience. The gramophone changed all that. Suddenly, music burst out of the cage of physical context and evolved into a new sphere of mass production, mass access and a permanence that seemed almost to defy its very spirit.
Today we look at recorded music and through our own particular prism, at dance music. Just how cyclical is music, and what is the role of originality in modern music?
Shortly after the ‘big tent’ era of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s when nascent strains of dance music were largely played to the same dancefloor, electronic music became curiously tribal. That period of astonishing fusions and innovations saw hip-hop, house, electro, breakbeats, reggae, industrial grit and funk driven soul all ring out the shifting sound of a generation. It was an extraordinary melting pot of influences and ideas balanced on the fulcrum of technological progress and social fluctuations.
Perhaps inevitably as more and more music was made and producers probed deeper and deeper into developing sounds, stand alone scenes began to form. If you were into your sun kissed Balearic house, you didn’t really do raggamuffin jungle for example. If you span the web of coruscating techno frequencies, you weren’t really that up for uplifting vocals and feel-good piano lines. And how many times have you heard someone from one scene dismiss another genre of dance music as ‘all sounding the same?’
Many of us are guilty of this to some degree. ‘Dubstep – all the same innit? All that new wave techno, s’all the same boring washing machine 4/4 sound, yeah?’
But to people thoroughly immersed in any of these styles, it really doesn’t sound the same. Their receptors are tuned to the nuances, to the subtle shifts and the delicate plays on references. One man’s cliché is another man’s penetrating interpretation. But in so many cases it is almost the same; the ingredients are the same, the templates are the same, the desired effect is the same but the track, the set, and the experience they evoke somehow aren’t.
There are many different considerations here, perhaps the foremost of which is that dance music isn’t necessarily supposed to be a series of tracks or songs, but a thread of conscious and subconscious experience.
The way dance culture has always worked has been set on two distinct pillars; the producer and the DJ. The producer may have many different motivations when he sits down in the studio. He may want to create a real anthem; a piece of music whose individual refrain etches itself on the synapses, or he may want to create a texture, a mood, that will give a DJ set an almost imperceptible nudge onto a subliminally different plane.
Likewise the DJ, when he or she is putting together their set, may be looking for ‘the big set defining track’ or for a series of elements that they can shape into a fluid flow. Different DJs look for different things and that may change depending on where they’re playing, but very often they are looking for ingredients to work with and not epic individuality.
Before we get too carried away on the perspectives of DJs and producers, the key is of course is to remember the dancefloor. What is the crowd looking for in their experience; a staccato symphony of recognizable anthems, an intoxicating slide into hypnosis or a blind ride into the unknown?
Originality and by extension, radical individuality have then become slippery factors in dance music. The bid for the ‘new sound’ tends to spawn ever more subgenres, from glitch-hop to ‘future jungle,’ from moombahton to psy-breaks and so on. The search needs other producers to make similar music in order for any of it to get played. The first test for a new subgenre that differs radically in sound, style or tempo, is for there to be enough other similar sounding music like it being made to get a few DJ sets out of it.
Before everyone leaps onto that statement to protest that there are plenty of brilliant DJs out there mixing up styles and tempos, which is of course a profoundly positive thing, let us remember that many people do like to lose themselves in a groove that stays broadly similar. Dance music is repetitive after all; its trancelike hold owes much to the primal power of repetition.
Many of these new styles, these constantly evolving, dynamic subgenres are basically fusions of pre-existing ingredients, or are just plays on existing styles. Moombahton was once described as electro house, slowed down, until it started to delve deep into its own subtleties. Psy-breaks is trance with a more menace and an added brokenbeat. ‘Future jungle’ is arguably far from ‘future,’ taking its cues from the 1993 drum & bass scene. Glitch-hop is a fusion of funk, instrumental hip-hop and dubstep.
This isn’t limited to dance music either, how many times has bluesy rock been re-invented? How many times has folk music infused the zeitgeist? How different can one person with an acoustic guitar actually sound from another? The qualities that set good music apart from the mediocre and the ploddingly derivative distill down to its intangibles; to its vibe. Music that touches the heart is always greater than the sum of its parts. It arrests the attention and liberates the spirit through the indefinable, elusive, mystery of soul. Soul is neither original nor unoriginal, neither fresh nor classic, it just is.
The restless mutation of existing forms into new life is what art and indeed life is all about. If we have a finite group of basic elements, like the periodic table in chemistry, is it not the reactions and interactions of those stand alone ‘original’ foundations stones that create the panoply of diverse life we all thrive on. If nature can manage to work from the same finite number of primal elements, surely we can only expect art and music to reflect that.
Let’s not forget one of the biggest players in all this, technology. Technology is a multi faceted force that has shaped dance music in different ways. From the otherworldly impact of the TB 303 to NI’s Massive through to the advances in synthesizer science, all have led to new ingredients being worked into musical currents. The gleaming dubstep wobbles, the angle grind of electro house basses and the piercing lead lines have all seen musical progress led by the technology coming on stream. They are of course then opened up to the alchemy of turning science into art by producers and because time has accelerated so much in the globalised world of online interconnection, the journey from original to ‘not again’ has narrowed into astonishingly small windows.
Technology and production techniques have brought something else to the table that the tiniest, most intricate tweak to the frequency and compression of a kick drum can completely alter the texture of a track. You might not notice on headphones or on basic speakers, but on a top quality sound system the difference is amplified into something dramatic and dance music is designed for sound systems, for those rarefied headspaces where you feel the bass, and don’t just listen to it.
What about this idea of recycling the past? Let’s take a blindingly obvious example; electro swing. Essentially all one needs to do, is crate-dig in the roaring twenties track section and slap a swing sample, redolent of speakeasies and faded glamour over a heaving 4/4 beat. Suddenly you have a new style that is simultaneously fresh and completely backward looking. Disco, one of house music’s evolutionary ancestors keeps finding its way back into house and beyond. Garage is riding a fresh crest of creativity and interest as we speak. Anything that harks back in feel to the 1987-1992 era is always doing the rounds in the UK and more often than not is a sure fire winner.
We’re not talking about the lazy production that we see so much of in the Beatport charts, where the relentless remixing of well known songs smack of the same creative ghetto Hollywood lives in, with its endless comic book films and movie rehashes. We all recognize those cheap crowd pleasers for what they really are, but there is no doubt that funk, disco, old school, Latin grooves and many other instantly recognizable styles are being constantly deconstructed and reconstructed to make some seriously good music.
Every now and again the goalposts shift. Dubstep for example was a game changer and whether you liked it or not, the space that frequencies were given to breathe and resonate in, the resurrection of the half speed-double speed matrix and the sounds and structure themselves sent a shockwave of innovation through pretty much every single genre of dance music and helped accelerate the creation of a few more. Dubstep eventually grew out of its own predecessors and its own influences, and the use of such references today has a distinctly clichéd feel, leaving the styles that took that baton and ran to batter bass bins across the world. And then you have the truly seminal moments, look at the TR 808 and 909 which both revolutionized our concept of abstract yet utterly physical sound. Look at what advanced sequencers did for complex production. Look at the influence of funk or reggae on the subtext of so many styles. And then, of course, you have the sampler.
The advent of the sampler defined dance music and in many ways defines this discussion. While the 303 and the 808 brought radically new sounds to the table, the sampler paved the way for the perpetual hybrid. Dance music is by its very nature is a mash-up of what has gone before, the sampler allowed for the wholesale lifting of musical parts, morphing them into something unlike anything heard before.
Vocal parts could be looped, timed and filtered into ghostly techno undertones. James Brown could turn into old school hardcore. The Winstons’ Amen Brother became junglism. Echo chambers of the mind could be built out of slinky saxophone parts. Accapellas could be juggled, 1-bar repetitions could tip you into another dimension and all the fragments of musical history could be fed in one end and come out with an extreme makeover at the other.
Sometimes leaving enough of the original sample to be recognized was the key to its twist; in other instances, the metamorphosis of that original sample into something completely unrecognizable was the real sorcery, but if there is one symbol for dance music itself, it would have to be the sampler. Cycles feeding back into ever multiplying spirals.
If you look at the musical landscape as a sonic representation of chaos theory, there will always be ‘strange attractors’ or fractal cores that somehow keep attracting patterns back to them. Offshoots will spin away and existing attractors will slowly melt into a new centres of energy, but despite the countless millions of iterations, interpretations, and inspirations, that periodic table, those monumental attractors seem eternal and unchanging.
So what does that actually mean? Is there any such thing as originality? Are we consigned to keep reinterpreting ourselves?
Well the simple answer is both and neither. The definition of originality depends entirely on perspective. There will always be someone who tells you an incredibly original sounding track isn’t really original because it draws on x,y and z. There will always be someone who says ’wow, I’ve never heard anything like it.’ Originality is not an absolute, it’s entirely relative and it happens by degrees. The cycles of musical style and character work in shades of grey, at worst they are a cynical play to the lowest common denominator, at best they are worked into a dazzling new chemical reaction whose synthesis is the real originality – not the thesis or antithesis.
And ultimately, for all the talk of chaos theory and finite underlying elements, let’s face it, we all love riding a musical reference. It’s taking that reference out of the realms of nostalgia or cliché and forging them into something at once old and new that is the real magic.
BOOMBOX IMAGE – DIBS MCCALUM