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.

What the Future Sounded Like: modest little documentary on a pioneering electronic music company in Britain

Matthew Bate, “What the Future Sounded Like” (2006)

Here be a good little documentary about the synthesiser company Electronic Music Studios (London) Ltd, formed by British composers Peter Zinovieff and Tristram Cary (died 2008) and engineer David Cockerell in 1969, to create, build and sell synthesisers that could produce a wide range of musical tones and sounds yet sell at prices affordable by the public or professional musicians at least anyway. The film uses a mix of interviews with all three founders of EMS and various others including Dave Brock the guitarist of the British space-rock institution Hawkwind, old archived film reels, photographs, newspaper cuttings and some animation to build up an affectionate tribute to three early pioneers of electronic music composition and instrument production.

The documentary begins with the backgrounds of Tristram Cary and Peter Zinovieff as composers and musicians working in electronic music in the 1950s; in those days, electronic music was regarded as very avant-garde and experimental in Britain and the genre in that country was hardly developed compared to its equivalent in France, Germany and the United States. Tristram Cary briefly refers to his career as a radar engineer during World War II as a launch-pad for developing his concepts of electronic music and talks about his early work in musique concrete (a French genre of music using field recordings and found sounds) and meeting like-minded composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen in his travels in Europe. Zinovieff, descended from Russian aristocrats who fled to London after the Russian Revolution in 1917, built his own home music studio with electronic music equipment and along the way met David Cockerell. Discovering Cary, the two then found EMS with Cary and started building their first commercial synthesiser, the EMS VCS3.

Due perhaps to its limited budget, the documentary only includes one famous musician as an interviewee and that’s Dave Brock; it is disappointing that other famous musicians who used the VCS3 don’t appear to give their opinions on the instrument. Video clips of Hawkwind and a very gaudy Roxy Music wih Brian Eno playing the VCS3 enliven the film. Other famous bands known to have bought and used the VCS3 include Pink Floyd, who used it on their album “Dark Side of the Moon”, and Kraftwerk.

Disappointingly the documentary doesn’t say why EMS failed to get much financial support from the British government – one suspects that Zinovieff, Cary and Cockerell should have got an accountant / office manager to look after the paperwork instead of trying to do everything themselves – and how the company became bankrupt even though its studios and equipment were much patronised by many famous rock and electronic music artists of the time. After EMS broke up, Cary returned to composing music and later emigrated to Australia where he worked at the University of Adelaide until 1986. The EMS equipment was sold or warehoused and much of it fell into ruin. Some equipment has now been restored.

The music featured in the documentary includes Cary and Zinovieff’s own compositions which are the best part of the entire film: Cary’s music doesn’t seem all that remarkable and Zinovieff’s pieces are distinguishable mainly as early digital-computer pointillist tone poems.

The film could have made a point about how isolated musicians dabbling in extreme experimental forms often can be, to the extent that each and every one has to reinvent the musical wheel for himself/herself as it were and only later discovers that other people were doing the same thing at the same time (and everybody wishing, If only I had known these people earlier!), and the level of public resistance and wariness towards a new art form in the 1950s and 60s. The film also could have stressed the difficulties EMS had in getting money, promoting and selling their product, and the reactions they might have encountered from UK government arts bodies in applying for grants. It’s possible that Cary, Zinovieff and Cockerell didn’t have much business acumen among themselves and needed help and direction in marketing and selling their product. There is nothing that might suggest the impact EMS had on experimental electronic music generally or on further technical developments in music production and recording and how the company might have affected the direction of pop and rock on one hand, and of experimental electronic music on the other.

Overall this is a good introduction to the history of electronic music and the way in which it infiltrated gradually into the public consciousness and mainstream music in the 1970s but not much more can be said about the film.

Pierre Henry, or the Art of Sounds: subjective documentary says nothing about pioneer’s place in experimental music

Eric Darmon, Franck Mallet, “Pierre Henry, or the Art of Sounds” (2006)

A so-so documentary about the French experimental music pioneer, Pierre Henry, who with his mentor and early collaborator Pierre Schaeffer, helped create musique concrete, a style of avant-garde / experimental music using recordings of everyday sound as material for constructing musical works. The film’s focus is to follow Henry closely as he bustles about his routine at home, records his music in the studio or perform before a live audience. Excerpts of Henry’s music, beginning with an early gig before a bemused audience of young and old in the 1950s, feature throughout the documentary in more or less chronological order; a mix of archival material and present-day film accompanies the music.

The musical soundtrack of snippets of Henry’s work is playful and quite spacious, often energetic and whimsical in nature. One work is titled “The Love Life of the Octopus” and it is indeed a curious and humorous aural survey of how a bunch of cephalopods flirt and court each other with plenty of, erm, tentacle sex (just not of the porn kind). The early music is fairly abstract and seems deliberately provocative; the later music, especially the music composed in the period after the year 2000, turns out to be disappointingly very conventional, even a bit lazy, with wholesale looping orchestral-music samples overlaid by clicks and bits of noise. There may be rhythm (achieved with sound loops) and the music can be strongly layered and dance-oriented; even so, the sound is always sharp and clear. In one work, “Berlin, Symphonie der Grosser Stadt”, Henry uses samples of an old Jimi Hendrix piece as a major part of the opus.

Following Henry closely and featuring just his voice, the documentary is strongly subjectve: viewers learn about his work methods, what he aims to do and what he strives for. He talks about the things that have influenced and which continue to influence him (for example, his library which seems heavily swayed towards art); the sounds he heard in his childhood; his audience; his experiences as a public musical performer; and the concert as a place of ritual. We do not learn about Henry’s setbacks and failures if there were any; according to the film, Henry seems to have had a steady if not hugely successful career as an experimental music composer/performer.

Viewers get no sense of how successful, popular or influential Henry has been in the course of his career: the film could be much, much better if it had examined Henry’s place in the music world. Interviews with French and other experimental music-makers, producers, concert organisers and roadies would have been enough to convey some of the magnitude of Henry’s renown without making him look like an ageing hippie rock star. Henry’s friend Bernadette and their lady-friend stay more or less in the background; how they met Henry and what they think of him as a musician and composer of obscure experimental music are never known. The ladies are very long-suffering especially when Henry holds regular and well-attended recitals of abstract electronic music in the narrow confines of his house where the walls are positively stuffed with shelves of obscure art books!

For viewers unfamiliar with Henry’s work, the time-line of significant pieces which include ballet and music scored for operas can be confusing: overally, it is chronological with maybe jumps going back a few years before the forward pace takes over again. Curiously, Henry’s childhood experiences with sound come very near the end of the film when one would expect such influences on his music to come close to the beginning.

The music is much more melodic than might be expected from an abstract genre and is perhaps the best part of the film. Henry and only Henry talking about himself and his music can be boring – the fellow makes no concessions to viewers by trying to be entertaining and can come across as a slightly grumpy old git – and maybe something from Bernadette or the other lady-friend would have given us a different angle on Henry himself or his music. While we are fortunate to have any documentaries at all on early pioneers of experimental music who are happy to share with others their methods of working, how they approach creating a new work and how they feel about performing in public, at the end of the day I think a better and more objective documentary on Henry could have made and viewers would have a sense of his importance in the history and advancement of experimental music.