As elec­tron­ica booms, DJs seek voice be­yond ma­chines


Elec­tronic mu­sic has en­joyed soar­ing growth in re­cent years, but to de­trac­tors the genre con­sists of lit­tle be­yond crowd-pleas­ing DJs click­ing play on their com­put­ers.

But sev­eral lead­ing artists are seek­ing to com­bat per­cep­tions with a re­newed ef­fort to em­pha­size the hu­man el­e­ment be­hind the mu­sic.

Richie Hawtin, a lead­ing force in techno mu­sic, on his lat­est tour has gone not only to clubs but to col­lege cam­puses where he brought fel­low DJs to lec­ture.

Hawtin, a UK-born Canadian who has per­formed as Plastik­man, is known for his min­i­mal­ist techno but said that hon­ing his style took time.

“As big as the scene has be­come and as easy as it is to get in­volved ... to go be­yond that and to find your own unique voice or sound is quite dif­fi­cult,” he told a hall full of as­pir­ing elec­tronic artists at New York’s New School.

“Some­times peo­ple crit­i­cize elec­tronic mu­sic for be­ing com­puter mu­sic — ‘it’s not made by peo­ple, it’s all about the ma­chine.’

“Well, it can be, but it shouldn’t be,” said Hawtin, who spear­heads sum­mer techno bashes on the no­to­ri­ous Span­ish party is­land of Ibiza.

The lec­ture tour fea­tured work­shops for stu­dents and was sup­ported by man­u­fac­tur­ers of equip­ment. But Hawtin’s mes­sage was dif­fer­ent — it is most crit­i­cal to dis­cover a voice in the stu­dio.

“Our in­stru­ment keeps chang­ing and evolv­ing and there al­ways seems to be some­one — a friend or a man­u­fac­turer — try­ing to en­tice you that there is some­thing new that you have to get to sound great,” he said.

“But you can spend all the time chas­ing that and never hav­ing enough to find your­self.”

Big Growth, Low Over­head

A rapidly grow­ing num­ber of mil­len­ni­als in West­ern na­tions have em­braced elec­tronic dance mu­sic as their gen­er­a­tion’s defin­ing sound.

A study pre­sented last year at the In­ter­na­tional Mu­sic Sum­mit in Ibiza found that the in­dus­try was worth US$6.2 bil­lion, soar­ing from US$4.5 bil­lion a year ear­lier.

Around two-thirds of the rev­enue from the elec­tronic mu­sic in­dus­try came through fes­ti­vals and clubs, with growth es­pe­cially strong in In­dia, the study found.

Among rea­sons for the high profit mar­gin is the rel­a­tively low over­head for many DJs, who can fly to in­ter­na­tional events eas­ily with their equip­ment.

But Fran­cois Kevorkian, a pi­o­neer of house mu­sic, told the stu­dents it was a mis­take to think that ex­pen­sive equip­ment was key to suc­cess.

The French-born DJ, a long­time sta­ple of the New York club scene un­der the stage name Fran­cois K, saw the need for the hu­man el­e­ment first-hand when he mixed Depeche Mode’s block­buster 1990 al­bum “Vi­o­la­tor.”

He said that he bought a US$3 gad­get from elec­tron­ics chain Ra­dio Shack that gave a war­bly touch to singer Dave Ga­han.

Mu­sic ex­ec­u­tives were ec­static, think­ing he had in­vested thou­sands of U.S. dol­lars in high-tech equip­ment, he re­called.

“It’s not that at all — it’s more the idea that you want to ex­per­i­ment,” Kevorkian said.

Push­ing the Lim­its

While catchy dance mu­sic has fu­eled the boom in fes­ti­vals, the Bri­tish artist Square­pusher has tested the lim­its in a dif­fer­ent elec­tronic di­rec­tion with a com­pli­cated web of some­times jar­ring blips and beeps set to fre­netic drum loops.

Square­pusher, who used his back­ground in jazz to bring a rad­i­cal take to drum-and-bass start­ing in the 1990s, went a step fur­ther on his new al­bum, “Damo­gen Fu­ries,” by designing his own soft­ware sys­tem.

Square­pusher, whose given name is Tom Jenk­in­son, had been work­ing for years to cre­ate the sys­tem and also per­forms a cus­tom­ized six-string elec­tric bass.

Re­flect­ing on his mu­sic’s sonic jun­gle, Square­pusher de­signed a vis­ual live show in which he wears a mask with flash­ing LED, although more re­cently he has per­formed in what re­sem­bles fenc­ing at­tire.

Square­pusher re­leased his al­bum Tues­day at a small gallery on New York’s Lower East Side, where he per­formed be­hind a screen of pro­jected images and pinned up a man­i­festo on the out­side wall.

Square­pusher’s man­i­festo said that he recorded “Damo­gen Fu­ries” in a sin­gle take, seek­ing a live feel through his new sys­tem.

“The ini­tial im­pe­tus to de­velop it came from a need to free my­self from the con­straints of us­ing offthe-shelf gear and the cul­ture of con­sumerism that en­gulfs elec­tronic mu­sic mak­ing in par­tic­u­lar,” he wrote.

In­stead the mu­sic “is pre­sented in de­fi­ance of the path of least re­sis­tance.”

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