Wednesday, July 16, 2008

This Month In Techno

I haven't written a counterpoint to one of Philip Sherburne's This Month In Techno columns for Pitchfork in a long, long time for a couple of reasons: 1) we come from different philosophical perspectives on electronic music and it's as pointless to argue as politics is, and 2) I realized I was sounding like an asshole and you were all probably getting really tired of it.

I've never even met the guy and would probably like him a lot as a person, but I give his columns a hard time for one reason: he is the singular voice of electronic dance music for the most read indie music site on the internets. With that comes a lot of responsibility. [I certainly don't write so frankly and opinionated for Core77, Archinect and ComputerLuv as I do here. That's what blogs are for.] I think it's actually Pitchfork's fault for only having one electronic music columnist, but as it is, I think his perspective is narrow to the point of misrepresenting the genre. I know people are smarter than this, but if the broader Pitchfork readership thinks the state of techno is as described in his column, no wonder most people react to techno the way they do.

Today's This Month In Techno column hit some pretty interesting points. I disagreed with most of the first part, but was very intrigued and inspired by the second part.

The column starts with an ongoing theme of what a slump the scene and industry is in, which I have to take great exception to. I say this every year, but wow, what an amazing year this has been so far for electronic music! Granted not "techno", acts like Perspects, M83, Telefon Tel Aviv, Knifehandchop and The Reflecting Skin have put out some absolute dancefloor killers this year. Even within the constraints of "proper techno", Terence Fixmer's Avalanche and Kiko's Slave Of My Mind are monstrously strong tracks that bust all preconceptions about the artists and pave two very different and innovative paths for the genre.

The column talks a lot about cynicism and complacency and how minimal has become a lightning rod for criticism. My take is that complacent music gets back exactly what it puts out, and left unchallenged, it only gets more complacent. Blaming critics is lame. Minimal deserves everything it gets for being myopic and complacent. As Sherburne points out, the endless party has to end eventually, and you have to be accountable for making something of value when the drugs finally wear off.

The second part of the article really intrigued me. Philip asked 100 artists to write a personal manifesto. A couple dozen got back and some of them were whiney, but most were rather thoughtful. Maybe we're not so different after all: Sherburne said, "What I appreciate most is the way that all their answers underscore the ethical dimension of aesthetics."


Anonymous said...

What has Telefon Tel Aviv put out this year? I remember hearing a track that was supposed to be a part of a full-length, but that was awhile ago.

philip sherburne said...

Hi Michael,
Just wanted to say thanks for the response, and I'm glad that you found the column interesting. I'd be curious to know what, specifically, you disagreed with in the first part, if only because from my (admittedly limited) perspective, this sense of crisis, of ennui, seems to be everywhere, even while there's plenty of fantastic music being made (including, yes, some tracks that will be recognized as "minimal"). My point wasn't so much that the genre of electronic dance music is suffering -- quite the opposite, in many ways -- but that so many of its participants seem bizarrely neurotic about it. In some ways, I remain optimistic that this could be a good thing -- it means that people are thinking about the music and its consequences, or as one might put it another way (and as you highlighted), about the ethical dimension of aesthetics.

But more than that I'm glad that the second part was interesting. I wish only that there had been more respondents with a greater diversity of opinion, but at least it's a start.

Finally, thanks for the critique about the column. I haven't read your other counterpoints, so far as I can recall, and perhaps I'll leave off for now, as I'm not sure my ego is really up for a savaging. :) But I'd love to hear more about why you think my Pitchfork column misrepresents the genre. I say that sincerely with open ears. My perspective in the column is certainly guided by my own tastes, by my definition of "techno," and ultimately by the music I come in contact with. I'm also inspired and motivated by a lot of music that doesn't always make it into the column, but that's not necessarily a defense. In any case if you have the time and inclination I'd love for you to expand on the ideas in your second paragraph, either on your blog, in this comments section or by private email (psherburne [at] gmail).

All the best,

PS Thanks for the measured tone of your post, by the way. Like I said, I haven't read any earlier posts where you may have been more combative (by your own description in graf 1) and that's ok. I'm getting so tired of internet beefs and knee-jerk reactions, so I'm thrilled when people can start laying down swords and actually talk civilly about things where we probably share more common ground than otherwise, key differences notwithstanding. Much respect.

Michael Doyle said...

Philip -

Thanks for reading and giving such thoughtful feedback! Perhaps I misread the first part of the article - I took it that techno is in a funk due to the messed up state of the world and that all the criticsm being hurled has perpetuated said funk. That was the double notion I disagreed with.

I think criticsm is healthy as a weapon against complaceny. I also feel strongly that desperate times breed great art. [There would probably be no such thing as techno if Detroit and Berlin were nice places in the 1980s. How many innovative scenes have been born out of, say, Malibu?] I'm perplexed how long it took, but am glad to finally see some smart and impassioned music that reflects these dystopian times. I frequently cite Adult.'s Uneasy Listening Music manifesto when talking about this, and one of my own projects is based specifically on creating an aesthetic that best represents the mood of this tragic and desperate era. I think if music is art, it is obligated to be reflective rather than merely an escape. We can't hide in the clubs unitl this all blows over, because it's not going to. I like the idea of music agitating people in their comfort zones, forcing them to react. I think clubs are comfort zones that need to be rattled.

The thing about the second part of your column I found so great is that it is actively constructive, and it was cleverly played against the discussion of endemic griping in the first part. I also liked that it made some producers think about why they do what they do. I think there's a lot of doing and not enough thinking in dance music, and yes, quite unfortunate and telling that more didn't bother to respond.

As far as the column critique, like I said, it's probably more Pitchfork's fault. I think that by having only one person with a fairly specific perspective writing about all of techno for such an influential site, enitre aspects of the genre don't get mentioned at all, and I think that's unfair and misrepresentative. I personally couldn't possibly care less about what Villalobos is up to, but would love to read about, for example, the Hamburg scene. Obviously it's unreasonable and impossible for you to cover everything. But that said, "This Month In Techno" implies a broad scope view of a richly diverse genre.

The posts I was thinking of specifically are here and here. Re-reading them, they weren't so much counterpoints, but used two of your columns as launch pads. [They're ranty, but not nearly as much as I remember them being.]

Thanks again for the thoughtful response. I'm pretty opinionated on here, but am mostly trying to encourage dialouge like this. My ears perk up any time I read "aesthetics" and "ethics" in the same sentence.

best regards,

Michael Doyle said...

Anon -
You Are The Worst Thing In The World hasn't been released yet, but it's floating around. The last I heard, the Telefon boys were still figuring out how to self-release the new material.

Anonymous said...

The new Telefon rec is coming out on Bpitch Control. Just a heads up.