wayne&wax

linkthink re: hip-hop, reggae, the US, jamaica, and anything else wayne wants to wax on

1.21.2005

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.

12 Comments:

Blogger ripley said...

Big ups!

one of the things that's interesting, is the way you become a "them" because you're teaching a class. Let alone the Harvard name involved (and the unclearness for many folks about what the Harvard Extension school is).

For a lot of the styles of music involved, folks in academia have been involved on the production side for a while.. any sense to the contrary, I think, is part of the myths a genre or scene creates around itself. Something about "authenticity" in there. And a supposed divide (funny, really) between doing and critiqueing. And also, and perhaps most convincingly to me, an awareness academia's relation to power and privilege. Although that is also over-stated, since it depends a lot where the class is taught and who is taking it.

hmmm. a post in there I think.. before I go much further.

3:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wayne,

Very exciting! Don't sweat the message board critics looks like you have the bases pretty well covered. Course I am sure you will keep your ears open and evolve the class. I particularly like how it is both appreciation and composition. I have noticed a synergistic effect between the two in my academic (161) course with the young-uns.

I wish you luck and many magic teacher moments!

10:52 PM  
Blogger evergreen said...

just wanted to add my enthusiasm for the course ... i'm really glad you're doing this. only wish i were still in Cambridge (we met at Adams House a few years ago when Matmos were visiting). the syllabus looks fantastic.

i dig your Mashit 12" btw ^_^

2:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

yo who was it that said soca is the carribean's happy hardcore...probly the don himself

PM

2:51 PM  
Anonymous Chemical Cutthroat said...

As much as I prefer to try my best to cram the underground back to whence it came and where it is best suited... underground-- away from all those who would taint it (and yes I am fully aware to the extent electronic music has both feed and been feed by the mainstream over time and yes I famialiar that being too YAY for the underground is pretentious and snotty-- simply disguising one type of geek, no matter how drug addicted, as "cool" is a waste of time, and YES I am aware that the scene is dead or so they tell me)
my point is that I already know what all the morons on both sides of the argument are goonna say or have said... yay! for the dream that was plur but fuck a candy necklace and I cant shake the feeling that 90 percent of people just straight out suck regardless how free the unity and respect is... so thats where I say if you are pissing people off by disrupting their rules on what is proper underground dance music etiquette then good they deserve to be pissed, if you are pissing off music snobs in whatever context they arrive well (what's Bach got to do with this anyway?) but hey even better... so to sum up-- good work on pissing off those who think they have locked down what is right and proper, what is cool and lame, underground and sellout, let them save it for their personal "merchant of cool manifesto" and let them get their own class... but please for the love of what YOU personally love about the music, please teach the kids correctly. Pull no punches but at least do your part to serve the source of music's soul... that place where the people aren't normal and money hasn't made it worthwhile to suck intetionally not in any particularly encompassing moneymaking way yet (yes there were once places like this for all types of music and yes there will be more of those places for musics future).... if you're gonna teach them anything teach them what is and was 'cool' in your eyes about things and what happened to change that.

Good lookin out on the whole site though, man (i must admit I havent read your syllabus yet but i definetly will be,I'm curious as hell) but I like what I've read so far, just been skimming but it seems to be presented with a fair amount of genuine unpompous intelligence and a degree of humble-pie. I dig. I'll be linking to you once I'm done posting here. Thanks for reading.

9:37 PM  
Blogger wayne&wax said...

thanks for the good words, chemist. i appreciate the affirmation, and i know where you're coming from. doing my best to represent, knamean.

6:48 AM  
Blogger Chemical Cutthroat said...

Don't try too hard. "Thou protesteth too much" would be a line from ehhhh MacBeth? I dunno, regardless it brings to mind that Aesop Rock song... Bad Samaritan I think it is... "what are you saving honestly, honestly honest honestly?".
By the way I'm intrigued by the thought of going to Harvard to learn me some underground beat making street cred vie a regular good old american edumaction... so I'm seeing what I can do as we speak to squeeze in on that class of yours.

By the wya of course you become one of THEM once you join the education establishment (I'm coming from the field of education in my own way as well) I mean shit, its one of the original establishments we learn to despise! The teacher is the original "man" don't ya know? Try convincing a class of 30 freshman that you aren't the man and THEN after pulling your hair silently all morning you finally realize you can school them on hiphop and turn the tables.... ahhh i'm never gonna stop wearing my shelltoes to work.

10:10 AM  
Blogger wayne&wax said...

i hear you, man. there i go, already eating my humble-pie and finding a foot in my mouth.

[nice aesop quote, btw. always liked that one. and i believe the shakespeare quotation you allude to comes from _hamlet_ in the (in)famous "mouse trap" scene - "the play is the thing..."]

seriously, though, i think we've just got to be vigilant about what we represent and how we represent, regardless of where we find ourselves doing what we're doing. growing up in working/middle-class cambridge and then going to harvard as an undergrad forced me to grapple with all sorts of stuff about who i am and how i relate to different folks in society. when it comes down to it, though, i'm all about blurring the lines between us and them, as they're largely imaginary.

check this meditation:
http://wayneandwax.blogspot.com/2005/08/re-orientalizing-garbage-man.html

10:22 AM  
Blogger Chemical Cutthroat said...

That was a good read thanks for sharing that. I Without going into my own presentation on all the points which rung true with me let's just suffice it to say that we come from different places but well-- because of the way my life has unfolded since childhood up through today, there were well-- like I said many points that rung true with me for direct and not so direct reasons. Besides having experienced several different sides of Boston myself I can say that many of situations you described seemed to come directly from recent experience (not to say there is isn't just as much ignorance on different levels in New Hampshire-- it's just a little different in general here because well, let's just quote scary movie and simplify it as "I see white people"... hard to maintain a belligerently vigilant state of bigotry in everyday life when your swimming in sea teaming with lack of color and culture. People generally just focus their racism and whatnot at the news and various pop culture since their local economic lines don't coincide with the contemporary ethnic and racial divides. Although the Lebanese and the Greeks in this particular town still shudder if you dare refer to one Meditteranean people by the name of another close lying one. My brother's grandparents are fanatics. Ahhh old people, they kill me.
Thern there's the durty souf.... oooh fuckin' boy. The racism down there puts the racism up here to shame. I don't know how much first hand experience you've had with it but I'm goin to go out on a limb here and make a cultural blanket statement as a way of just drawing attention to myself and basicly reinforce that people should do as I say and not as I do.... but I dare anyone to put up a very strong argument disproving my moment of ignorance here... let's put it this way... what are the words...... let's say this.... "Southerners put out a shitload of horribly ass backward people. They don't deal in the generic racism we get up here-- they only go for the raw-dog gourmet real deal deep bred ignorant racism. The goooood stuff. Oh man, the stories I got from so many angles.... the whites still stuck on the differences brought about by certain people crossing the mason-dixon line, the blacks opting for a huge amount of continued segregation by choice, the gays taking over entire regional branches of major international corporations in order to secure themselves a safe haven from the good old boys then hiring on token striahgts (yeah i got play the role of that straight guy for an interesting portion of time down there. I never thought I'd experience sexual harassment in a pure form targetted at me but as do all thinga I'd never expect, it happened. Then there were the asians and their super asian contact support network that provided them with a safe haven on all age groups and across many nationalities/economic barriers. The super underground asian team is one of Atlanta's best kept secrets. I think it's supposed to be generally used so that Asians can lend any sort of helping hand out to other Asians because they know for damn sure that the whites without a doubt have not recovered from Nam. Or maybe its Pearl Harbor they resent? Anyhow, I somehow found myself as the only white guy spinning an entire all Asian rave. yeah me and 2500 hundred specifcally Asian, specifically of the subculture/clique/clothing style of "raver". Hotlanta was a fcking blast, so ignant and so much fun.
*******************
Okay I seem to have gone way off on a tangent inspired by that posting you drew to my attention. But I honestly did have a point before all this...

My point was about "us" and them". Whereas I agree with you in terms of wiping away the various illusions of sepperation between all people (I'm going as far as to put a Buddhist spin on it and point out that we really are one and the same whether we like it or not and until we come to terms with that the problems will just repeat themselves)
But putting that aside. Lets say barring the ever lingering possibility of some sort of spontaneous mass moment of enlightenment across the globe, and accepting the fact that there are certain aspects of the "us" and "them" scenario that possibly aren't illusions in the context of the music industry.
I mean I haven't read enough of your other work to know many details on your buriness politics in this regard so I'll just come out and ask and you can point me in the right direction.
Basicly what I'm getting at is who wants to part of THEM when THEM is down to what four media distributors now? I mean can you honestly say that THEM is an illusion? Following this up I was wondering if you've scene the special from PBS i believe (might have been Frontline I'm not sure) but it was called "Merchants of Cool"... speaks volumes I think. Creepy volumes.

Oh and lastly, how much of a handicapp would one face if they were to enter your class having missed the first session (assuming they were currently going through the materials whioch you provided in your latest blog entry to catch up already?

12:06 PM  
Blogger wayne&wax said...

yo chemist,

getting deep on me here. i appreciate the candor. i'd love to see you bring some of these thoughts to our engagement with the history of electronic music. i think too that there are a number of readings on the syllabus you'll find compelling, or at least provocative. i'll point you to one right away, as it's a recent piece and therefore in the front of my mind as i read your comment above: anthony appiah's "the case for contamination."

if you watch the video for the first week and sign up ASAP, i don't think you should have any trouble catching up. we're just turning our attention to week 2 now.

hope you can join us.

peace //

2:45 PM  
Anonymous scrupeda said...

I'm currently trying to untingle the way technological and cultural change & development have influenced each other in the last 150 years in the field of music; mostly, how on one side the possibility to record music and distribute recorded sound, and the ways in which these technologies and techniques evolved, have changed the way music is perceived, and what influence musical needs had on the use and development of the technology on the other. Maybe you want to have a look:

Music, Technology and Copyright #1

4:21 AM  
Blogger wayne&wax said...

thanks for pointing me to this. i'll have to check it out when i get a minute. sounds very germane to my own interests, though. indeed, the course looks rather closely at the degree to which technological change informs musical change (in performance as well as perception).

the other question--how music has affected technology--is fascinating too, though perhaps harder to get at. it seems to me that so many of the most popular music technologies in the last 20 years have been creative "misuses" of tools intended to do something else (e.g., the 303).

6:42 AM  

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