Tuesday, October 9, 2007


I haven't done much electronic music, and what I have done is not anything I could say I am known for, if I am known for anything at all.

My introduction to electronic music was during my freshman year in college. I took a class that included the Moog modular synthesizer – the kind used by Wendy Carlos, when she was still Walter, on the album Switched On Bach - with a very nice gentleman by the name of Leslie Kleen.

One day I got very excited when I accidentally stumbled onto the fact that you could pretty much haphazardly connect a bunch of patch cords into the various voltage controlled modules, and the Moog would take over and do these long, crazy loops. I had a real nice one going, very hypnotic and seductive – and something I could not have foreseen or deliberately come up with on my own – so I immediately started the Revox and got a full reel of it on tape.

Not long after that Dr. Kleen gave us an assignment for our final exam. I don't recall all the parameters or requirements, but we had to produce some kind of studio piece using things we had learned and worked with in class.

I thought "Hah, I've already got my piece finished. No sweat". Then Kleen went on to say "But you can't just plug a bunch of patch cords into the Moog and let it loop. Everyone stumbles onto that right away".


So I had to come up with something from scratch. I think mine was a musique concrete tape piece, with reverb used to the extreme, almost as an instrument in itself, not an enhancement. I recall getting a good grade, with Dr. Kleen remarking on the effective use of reverb.

That was my last foray into the realm of electronic music for probably the next twenty years or so, other than building a few ring modulators and other effects to use with instruments in performance. I didn't do studio pieces – and still don't. But I digress…

Anyway, I heard a lot of electronic music when I was in grad school, most of it done live on Serge modular synths. The thing about the Serges was that everyones' was different. Some guys were way into pulse generators, whereas someone else might need a larger filter bank. In effect, everybody using a Serge built their own instrument. But to be hip, to be in the club and have any respect, you couldn't label anything. You were supposed to know what everything was, and if you had to label any module you were a total loser. But my real point is, the music was loud.

Okay, not Butthole Surfers loud. I heard the Buttholes twice, and standing in the back of the hall with ear plugs it still felt like getting punched in the chest every time the drummer played the kick. It was LOUD. I also heard Cage's Lecture On the Weather, accompanied by Marianne Amache's recording of a thunder storm. Just setting up and sound checking she blew out two or three sets of JBLs. She wanted it REAL LOUD, and it was hard to find gear that would stand up to her demands. But once they worked it out, it was like being in the middle of that storm, awesome. Then there was the time I heard Zorn at Harvard, with Bill Frisell and some other guitarist. They were all playing through Twins, turned up to 11. That's the loudest thing I ever heard, so loud there was no music discernable to my ear. I haven't heard anything by Zorn that I much care for, but I couldn't say for sure whether I might have liked that set or not. It was so loud I couldn't hear it. It was, in my assessment, deliberately confrontationally loud, a way to see how quickly he could clear the room. People were leaving in droves, if only to save their hearing (some of us would like to be able to listen to music for the rest of our natural lives). I'd say that was too loud, beyond what any music requires. My point is I've heard some real loud music. But I digress…

What I'm getting at is that a lot of the electronic music I heard in grad school I quite liked, and most of it was pretty damn loud. It sounded good loud, and I liked it that way. It was like, hey, the stuff is amplified and coming out of loudspeakers, maybe it's meant to be a bit louder than what you can do with only instruments, even a whole orchestra.

So anyway, several years ago I was performing on a concert of (mostly) live electronic music. And it was all so polite. So gentle, so peaceful. And so quiet. And so not interesting. Not only was it not loud, it wasn't noisy either. Electronic music is mostly done with computers now, and it seems to me that the Holy Grail of these laptop composers is to create the cleanest noise possible. Sorry guys, I like REAL noise. Give me a Big Muff anytime. Hell, just plug it in and you've got some real noise without even putting a signal in it. Now THAT'S noise. What's this obsession with clean noise anyway? And quiet besides.

So, a while later I happened to cross paths with Barry Schrader, composer of electronic and electro-acoustic music. I said "Barry, didn't electronic music used to be loud? It's all so quiet now."

Barry said "We got smarter".

Sorry, Barry. I liked electronic music better when it was loud. If you want quiet, write for recorder.
And you can keep your clean noise, too. I like mine dirty.

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