electronic music and its discontents
(i don't care what y'all say: the collage does what it's supposed to.)
i know that i was asking for it when i decided to make the syllabus for my course on electronic music public by creating a semi-slick webpage for it and putting it out there. there are dozens of message boards devoted to discussing the subject, often quite contentiously. thus, it's not surprising that my syllabus has touched off a fair amount of debate here and there (and even here). and simon's decision to link to it has ensured that hundreds of people will take a look.
aside from the slightly queasy feeling that such intense and large-scale scrutiny provokes in my gut, though, the feedback has generally been rather positive, sometimes helpful, and rarely shocking. i'm glad that most people see the value of such a course and understand the inherent limitations of such an undertaking.
with regards to the value: 1) electronic music, as many have pointed out, is a terribly under-represented subject in the academy, and when it is taught, such courses frequently focus on avant-garde composers rather than, say, DJs; 2) teaching such a course at harvard, even if at harvard's extension school (which is a division for the "continuing education" of the greater boston community), bestows a certain kind of cultural capital on electronic music, which, whether or not "it" needs it, does help to change assumptions in certain social strata vis-a-vis the inherent value of such music (which most aficionados take for granted); 3) exposing more people to the broad range of styles and practices associated with electronic music, not to mention the contemporary ubiquity of its technologies and techniques, is likely to foster greater support for the electronic/digital arts, a goal that most of the people reading this likely hold; finally, 4) although not as many people have mentioned this, my course seeks to foreground the relationship between various musical styles (and more styles, i might add, than are typically brought under the header of "electronic music") and the production/maintenance/subversion of such socio-cultural categories as race, class, sexuality, gender, nation, and so on, and though this is not anything new, the mainstream perceptions of electronic music continue to revolve around skinny white kids in fat pants dancing with glow sticks or stodgy academics sitting around impressive-looking consoles clapping for themselves--neither of which tells the whole story or does justice to the complex (and revealing) social and discursive patterns that "produce" electronic music and its various "subjects" (by which i mean "subjectivities" as well as "areas of study").
in terms of limitations, there are a few things that critics should recognize: 1) this is already an extremely ambitious course in terms of both overall scope and relative depth, and it would not only be quite a challenge to fit in additional readings, listening selections, etc., it would be expecting a bit much of the students who are taking this course as a once-a-week elective; 2) as some have pointed out, there is a relative dearth of good writing about the subject, and i have done my best to cull some of the best examples that i know as well as to select other sites--the ever controversial, ishkur, for example--precisely because of their provocative nature and their window into represention (i.e., the way that people talk about this stuff and produce knowledge about it); 3) no matter how much one tries, one will never please everyone out there, especially with an undertaking such as this, and there will always be "seminal" artists or recordings or even styles or genres that are, unfortunately, left out (what do you know? the folks in the cocteau twins forum think i should have included the cocteau twins, as well as more "pre-post-rock," which, for those not in-the-know, doesn't translate to "rock"); 4) the enrollment for this class, like the enrollment for most extension school classes, will comprise a wide variety of backgrounds, and i am teaching with the baseline assumption that there may be a majority of complete neophytes in the class. that said, i am also teaching with the hope that even those with some or a good deal of background in the subject will discover new music and new perspectives on familiar music. this is not a class where i expect that professional critics, electronic musicians, and various types of aficionados will necessarily learn all that much that they didn't know. even so, i do think that, as with anyone else who has done their homework, has engaged seriously with the music, and has come to it and through it in an idiosyncratic manner, i bring a special perspective to the subject (as a producer and performer of hip-hop, reggae, and other electronic styles) and special training (as an ethnomusicologist and a teacher), and i would hope that my perspective and the particular connections i make could offer something to even the most ardent and veteran consumer of electronic music, criticism, technology, etc.
i think one of the biggest potential problems here is for people to confuse inclusion/exclusion on this syllabus with canon-creation. i am not interested in creating or affirming a canon of any sort. if anything, i am interested in challenging people's assumptions about what is and is not electronic music--take, for example, the attempted coverage of merengue and soca, which rarely enter into the conversation about electronic music. (such omissions, of course, say a lot about the unexamined prejudices floating around out there.)
one more thing: this syllabus is a work in progress. i put it up so that prospective students could get a sense of whether the class is something they want to spend their time on. as i continue to teach this class in future years, and even over the course of this semester, i expect that i will find additional and better resources and that i will refine the collection of genres, artists, and recordings represented. overall, i am excited about the immense amount of feedback i am receiving, and i expect that over time i will be able to incorporate a great deal of it. (feel free to leave a comment below.)
at any rate, lest i come across as too defensive, let me just say that i am flattered to have stoked the fires of discussion, and that i am thankful for all the people who think the course looks "cool" as well as all the people who think it's criminal that switched on bach didn't make the listening list (yet).
here's to a good semester. i'm looking forward to it. and if you think that my electronic course is bullshit, wait until you see the one i'm teaching on hip-hop and reggae. 6 million ways to piss people off, choose one.
as they say down in jamaica, on RETV: don't watch me, watch yourself.