Things That Go Beep in The Night - Electronic Music and The Concept of Hi-Fi
Music from the empty quarter
Many years ago, while exhibiting at a Hi-Fi show in Europe, something interesting happened that has stuck with me for a very long time.
At the time, I was working for Cambridge Audio and I was helping the distributor launch a new range of product at their major Hi-Fi show. This largely consisted of feeding CDs (remember those?) into the demonstration system and answering various questions from visitors. As one of the distributor’s discs had ended, I took it upon myself to play one of mine - Speak for Yourself by Imogen Heap. As a fantastic singer/songwriter and a very well recorded album, I felt it was ideal.
The distributor did not agree. At all. Normally a man who moved with the speed and deliberation of mammalian evolution, he was over in a flash to perform the ceremonial turning down of the volume control and a change to the music. As the room settled back into the gentle slumber of Stevie Ray Vaughn, I was told firmly “We don’t do demos with ‘dance’ (not electronic, ‘dance’) music.”
“Why not?” I replied
“It isn’t real music” came the reply. “It isn’t real and there’s no points of reference.” And that, was that.
This was an extreme response but it is one that I have seen echoed at many times while I have been active in the audio industry. The message is that audiophiles listen to real instruments and while these instruments may (with some reluctance from a few ultras) be powered by electricity, they have to have some form of physical presence to qualify. Electronic music is by these boundaries, something intangible, made by people with no discernible skill of their own. In terms of its use for critical and test purposes, the sounds it is made from are often something created for that specific song, the argument goes that you can’t convincingly cite them as a point of reference.
Eighty years the bridesmaid
As you might surmise from me writing this piece, this is not a view I have ever subscribed to and it is something I find infuriating and at times, almost wilfully incomprehensible. Almost every argument levelled against the genre doesn’t stand up to any meaningful scrutiny. Most pernicious is that there is no skill to its creation - as if parking someone off the street in front of the best hardware on offer will automatically turn them into Aphex Twin. Great composers and songwriters have the ability to deliver hooks that draw us into what they’re doing and to somehow believe that an entire category of music is exempt from this is somewhat bizarre.
No less peculiar is the idea that electronic music is a category that is still somehow too new to be worthy of serious consideration. If we ignore the very early developments as being a little too far on the side of experimental to be truly considered music (everything has to start somewhere), by the 1930s, work was being created that is recognisably both electronic and music.
If the starting point for electronic 'music' rather than experimental soundscapes can be said to have occurred over eighty years ago, that gives electronic music a nigh on thirty year seniority advantage over rock and its derivatives - most of which have achieved a degree of audiophile acceptance that at the very least allows them to be played at a Hi-Fi show. Of course, I am not going to pretend that some of the older electronic material has the finesse that rock achieved fairly quickly. Limited by the equipment available to its early proponents (apocryphally, the main ‘instruments’ of Delia Derbyshire’s legendary Dr Who theme were tape and scissors), the scope of what electronic music could achieve was relatively limited (although, some of it can seem startlingly timeless). Nonetheless, from the 1970s onwards, as the equipment has developed in capability, mirrored by the increasing confidence of the people that used them, electronic music has spread into an ever greater number of categories and genres.
If the starting point for electronic 'music' rather than experimental soundscapes can be said to have occurred over eighty years ago, that gives electronic music a nigh on thirty year seniority advantage over rock and its derivativesBut is it Hi-Fi?
The short answer to this is, of course it is. The longer answer is that like any category of music, not everything that falls under the umbrella of electronic music is something I’d want to actively seek out and listen to but this applies to every genre of music I can think of. The argument over its ‘reality’ is one that seems to have some decidedly elastic terms and conditions applied to it. Without wanting to sound like a Poundland Morpheus, how do we define ‘real?’ Like a few other criticisms levelled at electronic music, the terms of this seem to vary enormously.
I frequently use and make reference to Nick Drake’s Pink Moon in my reviews. I love it and regard it as one of my all-time favourite albums. It is an exclusively analogue recording made with the human voice and ‘real’ instruments. In theory, it should be no trouble to benchmark it against a real performance to attest to its realism. In reality, that’s extraordinarily hard. Drake has been dead for 45 years and even during his all too brief life, he was not a prolific live performer, so no live recording of him exists. There isn’t even a completely definitive take on how his guitar was tuned for the recording process. Repeating Pink Moon for real in 2018 would be an unpleasant (if intriguing) combination of necromancy and guesswork.
By contrast, if we take the output of Kraftwerk - who are virtually contemporaries of Drake - despite the absence of real instrumentation in their output, I have seen them live twice and while the lineup of the band changes on a fairly regular basis, you have a better chance of getting a handle on what the artist intended - and, by extraction, how close a piece of Hi-Fi equipment is at realising this. Consider that this is the case with Kraftwerk who only tour fairly infrequently. With more active (and it has to be said, youthful) artists, this is even more applicable.
And if we accept that reality is an elastic concept and allow the genre as a whole a place at the table, the benefit is that we gain access to some truly stellar pieces of mastering and recording. There is a reason that I have used Telephasic Workshop by Boards of Canada as a means of testing the bass response and transient speed of loudspeakers for years, and that is that it is a truly outstanding example of unclipped and uncompressed low end from the last thirty years which is then delivered with dazzling speed. I know of very little from the analogue and acoustic world that can come close to it.
Nor is this some freak occurrence in a world of mediocrity. In fact, the reverse is true. As an entire genre, there seems to be far more care lavished on a ‘typical’ electronic album than rock equivalents. During the worst excesses of the loudness war, electronic artists seemed more resistant to the pressures of record labels, compressed music stores and commercial radio and the number of albums that are genuinely poor is far outnumbered by material that is possessed of astonishing dynamic range and virtually nothing in the way of unwanted noise, let alone distortion. A final interesting (or ironic, you choose) wrinkle to this is that some of the vinyl releases put out by electronic labels are genuine works of reference. The reason I would do unspeakable things to get my hands on a vinyl pressing of the eponymously titled debut from Peace Orchestra is because it is at the boundaries of what analogue mastering can achieve.
As an entire genre, there seems to be far more care lavished on a ‘typical’ electronic album than rock equivalentsOde to Joy
Finally, to dismiss electronic music is to dismiss what is now probably the widest genre of music there is. If you believe that ‘electronic’ and ‘dance’ are interchangeable and that as a genre it begins and ends with the sort of thing that accompanies people trying to chew their faces off on a Saturday night, you do both the genre and your potential musical enjoyment a huge disservice. Extending all the way from the boundary of classical music to categories that hover on the boundary of not, strictly speaking, being music at all, the space in between is vast and impossibly varied. There will presently be a list of albums that attempt to cover this vast chronological and stylistic space to accompany this piece and at the moment I’ve reached the point where my path to a final ten has gone from a sheet of A1 to A2.
Even if you feel that this enormous creative space isn’t for you, that’s fine. We are of course entitled to our own opinions. You can still do your bit though. If you find yourself at a show or demonstration and the test material on offer includes electronic music, don’t kick up a fuss about it. As sure as night follows day, one of the more traditional staples of audiophile demos will be along soon enough and it is time to give electronic music its seat at the table of ‘serious’ music. It has more than earned it.
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