Modulations, Cinema for the Ear: boring and direction-less survey of electronic dance music genres from 1970s to 1990s

Iara Lee, “Modulations, Cinema for the Ear” (1998)

Billed as a history of electronic music and music technology in the 20th century. “Modulations …” turns out to be a survey of various electronically-based dance music genres from the 1970s to late 1990s as they developed in the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe. Some of the music might be nice and I did recognise some musicians and music journalists who were interviewed (Genesis P-orridge, Kodwo Eshun who used to write for The Wire music magazine, David Toop, illbient pioneer DJ Spooky, members of the 1970s German psychedelic experimental group Can) but I felt let down and cheated by the documentary’s emphasis on dance and rave music to the exclusion of everything else that happened in popular music and its associated subcultures since the late 1970s. Reliance on interviews with musicians, DJs, fans and journalists and their subjective views on dance music genres such as Detroit techno, house, jungle and their various spin-offs with no over-arching voice-over narration to tie all the different points of view together makes for a fragmented assemblage from which viewers have to piece together the competing genres into a time-line in which the genres exist in parallel on both sides of the North Atlantic pond. There’s no attempt on the film-makers’ part to make sense of the dance music phenomenon and what it says about youth culture and why it arose and became popular when it did. As the film progresses, the lack of an over-arching structure and direction means the documentary risks being boring with the constant parade of talking heads spliced with snippets of live and studio performances, some animation and general film footage.

The documentary begins with Genesis P-orridge talking about how early forms of experimental music were inspired by the cut-up techniques of William S Burroughs (in which bits and pieces of prose are cut out of their original paragraphs or story and spliced together to suggest something new or different). There is a progression from musique concrete, a genre of experimental music developed in France which uses found sound and field recordings as material for creating original music, to Detroit techno (a form of house music that arose in Detroit in the late 1980s) to jungle, a UK genre combining hiphop and elements of techno. The scene then shifts to the US to investigate disco and the rise of house in Chicago in the 1980s, combining disco with electronic influences from the German band Kraftwerk. This calls for another leap back to Europe to investigate genres like gabba (a Dutch form of techno using hyper-fast beats and an aggressive approach) and ambient versions of house.

The film’s attempt to emulate the energy and pace of the genres it covers is understandable but without an unseen narrator to tie the quick edited shots and the interviews together, “Modulations …” will lose viewers quickly. Showing snapshots of interviews rather than large passages from them loses the context necessary to understand statements made by interviewees and some of what they say could be misinterpreted by viewers. Interviewees and the people and scenes they talk about end up coming across as self-centred, hedonistic and uncaring when such may not be the case. If the purpose of much dance electronica is to induce a trance-like state through repetition, speed and over-stimulation / over-saturation of the senses with colour, sound, smell and image, that isn’t to be derided as self-indulgent: people may find their own freedom, liberation or a sense of community and oneness with others that way. The use of drugs like ecstasy is a means to an end, not a self-indulgent activity in itself, though it must be said that precautions such as drinking lots of water while dancing and ingesting ecstasy are necessary and that it’s the illegal status of ecstasy, not the actual drug itself, that could be encouraging organised crime to control its distribution networks and to tamper with its purity.

The really interesting moment comes about the 47th minute when some American house fans and DJ Spooky talk about anomie and passivity in modern Western society, and how many people feel alienated, bored and unengaged with their cultural surroundings. This is an interesting point that the documentary could have taken up to show how modern dance electronica culture can alleviate such feelings and encourage people to feel connected to others. Another interesting moment is a camera shot of Asian women workers, some looking middle-aged, in a factory inspecting synthesisiers and samplers: what do these women think of these instruments, do they know who uses them and how they are used, do they know what music is made with them? What are these women paid for making and inspecting these instruments, and do they feel proud of their work?

Though the film does mention experimental music pioneers like John Cage and Pierre Schaeffer, Genesis P-orridge and Pierre Henry are interviewed and there’s even a very brief shot of Japanese noisician Masami Akita of Merzbow fame playing live, there’s no coverage of any other form of electronic-based music that isn’t dance or rhythm-based: there’s no mention of isolationist music, formal composition or improvised music that uses electronics, industrial, power electronics or noise music. If the film had been packaged and presented as a documentary on the history of dance music and that only, then it has historical value but as it is, it’s a jumbled collection of talking heads and music clips that fails to do much justice to a set of music genres that in their own way try to celebrate individuality, freedom, diversity and tolerance.