In celebration of the tenth anniversary of rave culture, British journalist Simon Reynolds–who likes to make up names for nascent electronic-music subgenres, like hardstep and neurofunk, that most people haven’t even heard yet–has written Generation Ecstasy (Little, Brown), a recap so packed with minutiae that every time you lift your eyes from the page you risk the reading equivalent of the bends. One way to avoid the experience but still get the gist is to see Modulations, Iara Lee’s lively documentary on the history of electronic music, which premiered in Chicago this summer at the Chicago Underground Film Festival and opens Friday at Facets for a weeklong engagement.
The Brazilian-born, New York-based Lee, who used sample-based music to score her 1995 exploration of the allure of technology, Synthetic Pleasures, set herself an almost impossible task: trying to encapsulate not just rave culture in its prime but also its historical precedents–including futurist Luigi Russolo’s 1913 manifesto “The Art of Noise”–and the current wildly diverse landscape of electronica in a mere 75 minutes. Wisely she doesn’t try to impose a tidy, artificial linear order on a phenomenon whose development looks a lot like the Blob’s. Instead she shifts the focus from one evolutionary leap to another much as a DJ segues between records, picking up on and following thematic threads. For example, Lee answers the euphoric positivity of German techno producer Westbam, cofounder of the Berlin techno happening the Love Parade, with the skeptical anger of German digital-hardcore celeb Alec Empire (of Atari Teenage Riot), who says, “At the end of the day, it’s just a stupid party.”
Modulations never quite pulls back to present a big-picture view of the music, but the point may just be that there is no big picture. As Lee moves from the postmodern theories of John Cage to the academic experimentalism of Karlheinz Stockhausen to the musique concrete of Pierre Henry to the inventions of synth pioneer Robert Moog to the tape manipulations of Miles Davis’s producer Teo Macero to the archetypal electro-pop of Kraftwerk to the influential electro-hip-hop of Afrika Bambaataa to Detroit techno and Chicago house to the British rave scene to drum ‘n’ bass, ambient, and gabba techno, what we mostly see is how incredibly different all these permutations are. One moment you hear a member of the British duo Autechre explaining the music’s basic appeal (“Oh, wicked–music made on electronic gear. I could do that”) and the next you’re enduring music journalist Kodwo Eshun’s pseudosociological claptrap about the “terrordome” of gabba.
One thing that’s clear by the film’s end is that electronic music, more than even punk rock, has become the great democratic art form. In the mid-80s Chicagoans like Marshall Jefferson and Jesse Saunders picked up the outmoded Roland TB-303 bass-line machine for chump change at area pawn shops; in their efforts to imitate 70s disco records they unwittingly created house music. For some artists, like Detroit techno progenitor Juan Atkins, the music was an escape: “Detroit is such a desolate-type city that you almost have to dream of the future to escape your surroundings,” he tells Lee. For yet others, like world-famous dilettante Bill Laswell, it’s about maintaining relevance: “The only way to arrive at something different is by combining things now.” In other words, electronic music is all things to all people–or at least all people that don’t hate it on some kind of misguided principle–and Modulations is more about its seeds blowing in the wind than a single scene blossoming in any one time or place.
Modulations (which also features interviews with Chicagoans Derrick Carter and Bundy Brown) screens Friday at 7 and 8:45 PM, Saturday and Sunday at 3:30, 5:15, 7, and 8:45 PM, and Monday through Thursday at 7 and 8:45 PM at Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton. Call 773-281-4114 for more info.
Making a Scene
For a strictly aural chronicle of how the sounds of one particular electronic-music scene were disseminated, imitated, and transformed, check out Tommy Boy’s recent series The Perfect Beats: New York Electro Hip-Hop + Underground Dance Classics 1980-1985. The four-volume set takes Afrika Bambaataa’s 1982 classic “Planet Rock” (which actually stole its melody from Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express” and its beats from the same group’s “Numbers”) as ground zero for an explosion whose aftershocks include hip-hop, slow jams, Latin freestyle, Miami bass, and current experimentalists like Autechre and Speedy J. More directly, the tune’s futuristic mix of rhythmic bleeps, squelchy synth melodies, and spare, tribal rapping became a numbingly familiar framework for countless hit records in the 80s, from new wave (New Order’s “Confusion”) to instrumental pretechno jams (Juan Atkins’s early effort as Cybotron, “Clear”), to woozy R & B (Seidah Garrett’s “Do You Want It Right Now”), all of which are included here.
There’s plenty of swill spread over the four CDs–I could have lived a full life without ever hearing Heaven 17 again–but the set is meant to capture an era, not to revise history. But we also get some killer 70s records that were elemental to the New York club scene and early hip-hop–including “It’s Just Begun,” by the Jimmy Castor Bunch, and “Rock Creek Park,” by the Blackbyrds–as well as essential nonelectronic 80s gems like ESG’s “Moody” and Liquid Liquid’s “Cavern,” the latter of which very heavily inspired Grandmaster Flash’s “White Lines.” Overall, Perfect Beats is a pretty instructive look at how the sounds of DŸsseldorf spread to the Bronx and beyond.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Berlin’s Love Parade; Robert Moog uncredited photos.