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The Evolution of Electronic Dance Music
When I mention electronic dance music, the first thing that comes to many people’s mouths is that’s it nothing more than constant “boom boom booms” of your average house track, or maybe the “bleeps and bloops” of a techno track. What they don’t realize is that electronic music has been a rather vital part of musical history. From Disco, to 80’s pop rock, to modern rock, and even classical…sort of, electronic music has had a large influence on modern music culture. It may be creeping into the limelight due to the recent popularity of trance in clubs and dance hits, but few people actually know electronic music’s true history.
Electronic music first appeared just a few years after Edison and Bell discovered the many uses of electronic current. In 1874, Elisha Gray, a friend of Graham Bell, discovered that his nephew had found a way of using electromagnetic fields to make a switch vibrate. This opinion Gray turned into a musical instrument, the harmonic telegraph. Although Gray’s invention was a novelty, the true electronic instruments weren’t built until after the turn of the century. The two most important, Thaddeus Cahill’s huge Tellharmonium, and Leo Theremin’s Theremin. The Theremin is best described as a small box with two antennas sticking out, controlled by waving the hands near the antennas. This resulted in an eerie violin sound that is so distinctive; movie producers began used the Theremin as a sound effect in many Horror movies.
There is the possibility Robert Moog, another important instrument maker, created the Theremin used in Good Vibrations by The Beach Boys. He first started producing Theremin kits
as a means to pay for his education; however, after encountering musician Herbert Deutsch, he seriously thought about making a career out of it. In 1964, they began creating a modular synthesizer, built using many basic elements such as oscillators, filters, and amplifiers. At the time, they were the only ones doing this in the world, but it didn’t take much time for many universities and experimental musicians to become interested, one of these musicians being Wendy Carlos. Together with Robert, she designed a synthesizer that enabled her to recreate the works of Bach using analogue electronic sounds. She entitled her work “Switched on Bach.” In 1968 this record made a large impact on the music world, as for most people, this was the first time they heard anything that unique.
In San Francisco, a composer named Terry Riley experimented with delays, and his self built, Time Lag Accumulator. Using them in conjunction with conventional instruments, Terry created strange sounding compositions. His most famous work was, A Rainbow in Curved Air, a piece many consider the blueprint of ambient music, a musical genre which became popular in the early 90s. On the other side of the United States, in New York, composer Steve Reich also experimented with delays and repetitive structures in works like, Violin Phase and Drumming. He also incorporated a lot of Indian and African influences into his music.
Composers in the United States weren’t the only ones experimenting however. Since the early fifties, Paris had been a focal point of a musical trend called, Musique Concrète, driven by people such as Pierre Henry, Pierre Shaeffer, and Luc Ferrari, who all created music with just
everyday noises. Across Europe Karlheinz Stockhausen made his music by using the studio to its fullest, mixing every sort of sound into a musical collage. Stockhausen was also a teacher at the Düsseldorf Conservatory, where he taught composition. Among his students were two people, whom when they met in 1968, didn't realize their eventual collaboration was to have an enormous impact on popular music. They were impressed by the possibilities of electronic instruments, and especially, the recording studio. After two years the duo formed a band named Kraftwerk.
It only took Kraftwerk two live performances to be broadcasted on German television. During that time, they also consisted of Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother who, right after the show, split and started their own band. Kraftwerk created their own studio and experimented with sounds and simple melodies. On their first three records, they still used what were considered normal instruments, such as the flute, guitar and organ. In 1974 they changed all that and began using all electronic instruments. They eventually released ‘Autobahn,’ an almost half-hour track about one of Germany's prides, the Hitler built highways that ran throughout the country, now of essential use to the economic rebuilding of Germany and the rest of Europe. Although the complete version was at least thirty minutes long, it was to become a big hit throughout the world. The sounds, songs, themes and whole concept of Kraftwerk turned out to be of big influence to electronic music, and popular music in general.
In the West Indies and Jamaica, music has always played an integral role in the community. At the end of the sixties, while everyone in the world was listening to psychedelic rock music, the people of Jamaica were dancing to rocksteady, ska and a slow variant called reggae. The music-culture that was spawned in Jamaica was of great importance, and you still see and hear its influences in dance music today.
Jamaicans were the first to take the concept of the remix to extremes. To keep people dancing in the dancehalls, producers made special 'versions' of popular songs by fading in and out instruments, they also made multi-track copies of certain tracks called 'dubs'. People who became masters in this process are still seen as Gods in the studio, people like King Tubby, Lee Perry and Augustus Pablo. Jamaicans were also the first to start a 'rave', and then called the sound system. Parties were organized illegally at certain sites, or inside unused buildings by setting up big rigs of speakers and amplifiers. The DJ also began to play an important role in this culture. They were the first to 'rap,' or 'toast' as they call it in Jamaica. To excite the crowd, the DJ would toast about the track playing, or even nothing of importance. Producers and studios helped DJs to become more popular by releasing very limited copies of remixes called 'dub plates'.
In the seventies, as electronic instruments became cheaper and more commonplace, they began to show up in many studios around the world. Under the influence of Kraftwerk, Funk and R'n'B, a form of dance music, began appearing. A fast paced four to the floor beat made for partying and partying only, it eventually became commonly known as Disco, and traveled around the globe, becoming most popular in America and Italy.
After Disco, electronic dance music flourished. It became commonplace to hear songs produced with synthesizers during the 80s and early 90s. Over the years Disco became replaced by another form of electronic dance music, House. House was also characterized by a pounding four to the floor beat, and quickly swept the world as the popular dance music of choice. Other forms of electronic music quickly surfaced, from Trance and Techno, to Breakbeats and Drum and Bass. Today, electronic music has found its way into many aspects of our life, from common Pop, Hip-Hop, and Rock music, to radio and TV ads, movie scores, and television soundtracks, to classical scores reproduced using electronic instruments.
In conclusion electronic music is NOT nothing more than bleeps and bloops, it is a very integral part in not only western civilization but in all civilization because almost all music is electronic music from rap and hip-hop to house and trance and with more trance and dance dj’s coming out of the underground such as DJ Tiesto and Paul Van Dyk, they are the top two dj’s in the world right now, electronic music will always be around.
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Wright, Lesley. “Dance Music: A Retrospective”. DJ Magazine. November 2004: 99-102.