Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Intelligent Dork Music

Why am I suddenly into weird electronic music?

Back in high school, I had a friend who was a serious electronic music snob. Besides being a bit of a jerk sometimes (he once told me, out of nowhere, "I think you're a cool guy, just don't murder anybody because then I'll have to testify against you"), he worshiped avant-garde electronic artists like Autechre and Oval like a religious devotee. He introduced me to the term "IDM," which used to mean "Intelligent Dance Music" but now it just means the speaker is stuck in the nineties.

How IDM differs from other dance music is that you can't dance to it (except when you can). IDM can encompass such mini-genres as glitch, dub ambient, folktronica, and microhouse, depending on who you ask. It's a highly contentious genre, even to this day, and the moment you mention a few artists (the video game sounds of Plaid, the blippy low end of Black Dog, the Wyndham Hill-meets-Kraftwerk sound of The Future Sound of London, the "This sounds like a modem starting up" weirdness of Autechre), you get a bunch of "fans" jumping down your throat about what you don't know and where you can stick said ignorance. This was a daily trial on the IDM message board my high school friend introduced me to and the board eventually sucked itself into its own black hole of elitism.

Partly out of enthusiasm for my friend's enthusiasm and partly out of curiosity, I tried listening to some "IDM" and I was bored to tears when I didn't drift off into unintended sleep. Even Plaid's Bubble Bobble symphonies were only good for playing for friends and laughing at how much it reminded us of slumber parties spent playing NES. The problem I had with the music at the time was that it had no discernible structure: no hooks, no choruses, no melody you could follow through the entire song. It didn't help that my friend's favorite artists were the most experimental; he was seriously giddy when he heard that Autechre's new album at the time was made with a software in which the computer completely randomized the group's compositions. The idea of music made almost entirely by computers delighted him to no small degree.

Frankly, my vanity kept me listening, even after I had napped through nearly CD my friend let me borrow. I desperately wanted to like the music--it was so weird, so chilly, so cool. Ever since I worshiped the kids smoking cigarettes and rocking Pink Floyd shirts outside the gym in middle school, I've always wanted to be capital C cool. The kind of cool that is less about being emotionally distant and laid back and more about knowing about all the bands, the movies, the books, and the art that no one else does. Listening to weird music that sounded like machines talking to each other seemed to me the ultimate in cool, the kind of personal trait so strange and unique it couldn't help but define me for others. "Dude listens to that weird electronic music from Europe..."

I somehow thought listening to IDM would change my lifestyle. When you like music that obscure and inaccessible, I thought, you need new friends, new, cooler, more sophisticated friends with ergonomically short hair and black glasses. You need a new wardrobe, preferably from Europe. You need to buy subscriptions to glossy magazines that review Japanese free jazz and cost $11 dollars an issue on the newsstand. You need to purge your living space of useless junk and buy cold, black metal furniture.

Alas, I could not get into IDM. When I moved off to college in Olympia, I sold all my IDM cds at Rainy Day Records so I could buy all the new indie rock and pop I was getting into. When I started listening to Belle and Sebastian, my high school friend called it "pity party music for people who love to dwell in their own sadness." At the time, that was exactly what I wanted. I wanted bookish, sensitive sounding music about people too smart or too weird for everyone around them (which wasn't too far from what I wanted from IDM--a feeling of shared uniqueness and coolness with other unique and cool people).

Flash forward almost eight years. I hear Four Tet's "Rounds," an album made up of tons of tiny, sometimes noisy samples of everything from Kevin Ayers records to Bali finger percussion, for the second time. The first time I heard it, I had, predictably, fallen asleep. But this second time I heard new things, melodies and themes and patterns I hadn't heard before. Whether this had to do a liberal consumption of a certain drug in the period between my first and second listen (I'm referring, of course, to St. John's Wort) I can't be sure, but I heard it all with new ears. Suddenly discovering the music's structure allowed me to appreciate the unique mood it created. As opposed to the endless singer-songwriters and indie bands I'd been listening to, Four Tet's music didn't explain itself--his songs weren't sad or happy or bittersweet or clever; they were sad like the way the smell of leaves in the fall reminds you of loss, or happy like the odor of a roommate's cooking lifts your spirits moments before you fully smell it.

Hearing "Rounds" like that was the beginning of my ongoing appreciation of all forms of electronic music. I've come to love the way the music doesn't force an interpretation on you, or the way little changes in the music can feel like big ones if you listen close enough.

Which brings me back to my friend from high school and the Vladislav Delay album at the top of this post. My friend once brought over a VD record to play on my dad's record player. The record was full of abrupt cuts and weird percussive noises, layered over with big, sweeping chords of melodious drones. I remember my dad remarking "This makes it sound like my player is broken." I laughed, but pretended that the joke was on my dad, not my friend's poor taste in music. Two days ago, I purchased a copy of Amina, VD's 2001 album and marveled at how time had changed me enough to enjoy the sound of a broken record player.