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We enter an old office building in the heart of Dresden where some of the Uncanny Valley-artists have their studios. Luckily, the dull architecture apparently doesn’t influence the musical outcome. Sneaker, who’ve just released his Java/Sumatra EP, is working here right next to Jacob Korn and Break SL and they meet up from time to time to help each other with their music or just hang out and chat. One day, Philipp visited Sneaker in his studio and when Sneaker started to reflect about the history of electronic music, the making of and the philosophy behind it, they just recorded the conversation. Here are some parts of the transcription.

Philipp:

You said that you learned a lot about music lately. What did you learn especially?

Sneaker:

I dived deeply into the history of electronic music. How the electronic sound synthesis changed music. I noticed that everything started in an academic environment and was evolving there for 40 years or so. And then in the seventies electronic music found its market which was then exploding in a way. And that commercialization pushed things forward. Synthesizers and drum machines were developed upon request of the music industry. That was a true progress. Especially, if you look on production environments at the time of Stockhausen and the Musique Concrète. It took those guys years to build up their instruments and their techniques to produce sounds electronically and make music out of it. By learning all these things it was easier for me to put my own work in a context.

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Karlheinz Stockhausen

Philipp:

This was pioneering spirit indeed. Nowadays, there are so many tools that allow young producers to make electronic music without understanding what they are doing on a technical level. It’s almost decadent. Always wonder whether this is a disadvantage or whether you’ll rather find different, fresh ways to use technology. Maybe it’s not crucial to understand every little detail.

Sneaker:

Lately, I read a discussion in an online forum where someone asked how distortion effects work. At first, there were a lot of the usual nerdy, rather insulting comments and then somebody wrote that it’s not so important to know the technical details but to know what happens when you are turning that knob.

Philipp:

My impression is that many young producers are doing a lot of things by trial and error. They do crazy things and are progressive in a way. Many things happen by accident. I recently did an interview with Paul Kalkbrenner who has been producing for a very long time. He said that when he was working on his latest album it was the first time that he really knew exactly what he had to do to implement his musical ideas.

Sneaker:

It’s the same with me concerning the conscious choice of sound and effects.
As a musician who is ‘only’ playing scores you don’t need to know technical details. But if you are looking on the production side of things and especially sound design you are not looking for any delay, you are looking for a certain sound of a certain delay unit.
But of course the history of electronic music is full of examples of ‘misguided’ usage and experimentation. The most famous example is the 303.
We might wonder what comes up when kids start to utilize Ableton’s artifacts to the utmost to create a new sound. They don’t know the algorithms programmed in C++.
At this point the user gets cut off from the synthesis. So Ableton’s port for developers Max For Live is just a little light in the dark.
For myself, I’m fine if I understand the aims of the engineers when they tried to emulate a physical process in a plug-in.

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Roland TB-303

However, the great subversive comeback in electronic music is that acid or sound-shaping electronic music in general is focusing on the timbre and modulation of sounds as the amateur home musician doesn’t have theoretical background ‘how to write music’. So you aren’t focused on progression in melodies and harmonies.
What a today’s home studio can do (and usually does) is modulation of sound the pioneers dreamed of. They needed months and years for such things with modular systems or tape editing.
For an example, we can probably relate the 1990s Cologne sound with the pioneering electronic music from the 1950s. The minimal arrangement and subtle transformation of sounds in Cologne-techno is emerging from observing and modulating the autonomous sound just like Stockhausen did. I see a local tradition.

Philipp:

As a relation of man and machine I think we are more and more tending to be comfortable with the dictates of the machine nowadays.

Sneaker:

On the other hand the early electro-acoustic musicians created a kind of new myth of the ‘deus ex machina’ – a divinity you have to worship to get in contact.
In contrast, today’s musicians don’t need a particular interest in electronics to record their pop music with the computer. I’m having fun doing Italo-Disco and it’s not that I am obeying the machines.
By the user-friendliness, the machine serves us rather than it’s dictating us. Moreover, I would agree that we trust them with a kind of naive dependency.

Philipp:

From our perspective, the focus was shifting from pure experiments to dance floor entertainment in the 1970s when commercial synthesizers and drum machines came up; along with a social culture and scenes around.

Sneaker:

By that time, electronic music and its creation became literally popular and accessible to anybody. In the past there were only a few people working on electronic music on an intellectual, academic level. But we don’t listen to avant-garde sound research when we switch on the radio, but there are still traces of electronic sound shaping remaining.

Philipp:

Should every electronic musician deal with the historical background?

Sneaker:

I’m far from agitating, but yes – to me these things are like an epiphany.

Since I’m inspired by Stockhausen, I would like to cite his 4 criteria of electronic music here:

I – time structuring

II – decomposition/splitting of sound (additive or subtractive synthesis)

III – multi-layered spatial composition (imitation and augmentation of a natural stereo experience)

IV – equality (so a certain relation) of tone and noise

That’s still the essence of electronic music today to me, especially that’s how techno works. Producers are building sounds. Even beyond real-world experiences.

The Musique Concrète and Stockhausen’s Cologne school based at the WDR studio were in philosophical contradiction. But from today’s point of view, the differences became less relevant and they seemed to have the same vision of controlling with ease and freedom of the creation of artificial sound.
We are born into that culture full of popular electronic music, but at its time it was a sensual revolution we can’t really imagine anymore.

[For a more detailed explanation we suggest Ruschkowski’s Elektronische Klänge und musikalische Entdeckungen! (German only)]

Stockhausen at the studio

Stockhausen at the studio

Philipp:

Why do we stick to certain sweet sounds?

Sneaker:

Well, that’s not particular an electronic issue. We are conditioned by our personal biography, childhood memories, the first incidental record, radio play, what we are used to – in short our status quo as a culture. And on a biological and physical level there is even an appeal to cosmic given timbres like the human voice or the resonance of common objects.

Philipp:

On the one hand the preferences for certain sounds are emotional and irrational and on the other hand we might even notice a sound’s immanent quality.

Sneaker:

With other words: we’ve got our taste and there is an analytic approach where I can explore the inherent qualities of sound.
Also my very own interest for music history is independent from my taste. It’s pure curiosity, even for the ‘uncool’ sound. I come across music that isn’t functional and not contemporary. It’s the pure joy of the experiment.

I recently layered a dirty drum loop with a composition I got intrigued with. It is by Olivier Messiaen from 1937 and was played on one of the first electronic instruments – the Ondes Martenot (similar to a Theremin Vox).

Unfortunately, these interests can hardly meet people’s need on the dance floor. Exhausting, serious and especially so-called melancholic, depressive music – which is just written in another scale – is usually denied on the dance floor and at club nights. I’m pretty sad about that. To me those vibrations are parts of the wonderful spectrum of being.

Philipp:

So we suffer the dictatorship of fun!?

Sneaker:

Yes, but it’s not on the level of an awareness of our cheerfulness. Moreover, we are blasting our souls by music and drugs and this blast should be pleasant, please.
So we block our senses by the loudness and the volume and when the music is an affective trip and not a dialogue we won’t accept any bad moods.
It is understandable from the consumer’s perspective but from the view of the serious musician it’s a tough task to handle the balance between that nothingness and the refusal of the audience.

(Listening to Sneaker’s rework of ‘Oraison’)

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Ondes Martenot

Philipp: It works together somehow, doesn’t it?

Sneaker: For sure it does. But the quirky and odd atmosphere of the Ondes Martinot makes it unplayable for a DJ, even if you COULD dance. It’s too far from contemporary popular music.

Philipp: I think that’s what brings the music forward – clashing the contradictions. Just look at the Witch House-genre in recent years for example.

Sneaker: While doing such hardly accepted things I’m thinking of it as my very own progressive approach, but the real world progression is happening by bringing on such ideas to a mainstream market. Like we’ve mentioned before – the quantum leap of electronic music. It became popular in dance music, radio and the vinyl market when the developers found their financing source in the sales of synthesizers with consumer-oriented front-ends like a keyboard tuned to common scales [thinking of Moog].

Philipp: Even though there were possibilities to distribute electro-acoustic music before?

Sneaker: There have been recordings of electro-acoustic music on vinyl …

Philipp: … but it had no social relevance – it simply wasn’t danceable.

Sneaker: I think the electro-acoustic approach could be more promising today than ever before. Nowadays, everybody can access all the necessary information on the internet to invent their own circuits. More people than ever can afford a modular system. Or you could emulate it digitally on any laptop. Just like in Reason, where you can draw cables from the LFO to the VCA. Mike Huckaby lately recommended Reason for self-teaching the physical theory behind the synthesis of sounds in electronic circuits.
But finally, even if Mike told us about the essential aspect of the modular theory behind his soulful music, in my humble opinion it’s more important to rely on one’s authentic ideas.
There can be genius accidents without craftsmanship, but there certainly won’t be any moving piece of art without willpower and emotions. I’m not looking for a clean production or analytical consequence to break down my sound to the sinus wave. Rather, I let the meaningful chaos rule – raw, distorted, spastic and passionate.
Being too conceptual wouldn’t result in such an energetic tune such as ‘You think, You think’.

With ‘Oraison’, there are two metronomes running without relation and I’m surprised and curious about the impact they make together. It’s deliberately arranged like this but still it’s not predictable – possibly as a result of dealing with John Cage and his I-Ching random operations.

John Cage

John Cage

Philipp: I was always driven by that punk rock approach: to gain for a high energy level with little effort. There are a lot of collaborations and crossover approaches melting anything with everything. E-Musik with U-Musik (the German separation of serious and entertaining music). Classic or Jazz with Dance Music. But at the end of the day Dance Music should basically entertain the people for the very moment even if they hated each other in the ‘outside’ world. That’s what unifies punk and disco music.

Sneaker: But Disco is more than simple music to party to. It’s highly elaborated music featuring professionals on their instruments and soulful singers.

Philipp: But on the other hand the DJ is simply making use of the record as a tool to make the crowd party. Or producers exploit that rich genre by sampling.

Sneaker: That’s the DJ-culture and the next revolution – the simplicity of recordings – once they are fixed and duplicated on a media. What brings me to another topic: the discussion about vinyl and digital DJing. I’m doing it mostly digitally, but certainly I started buying vinyl and I still do for the right records. But please don’t be ridiculous to bemoan the fall of the Occident with something that has been subversive high-tech itself 100 years ago. To save on live musicians by manufacturing and distributing recordings of their work on a large scale might have been taken as an insult by those people back then. But changing the medium is just natural and not the denial of eternal values. You must be pretty trapped in your own preference, habits, taste, time and life to judge the issue without putting it in a bigger historical context.

Philipp: But certainly you should aim for high quality formats when playing digital.

Sneaker: I agree. Referring to the analogue vs. digital-discussion Stefan Betke (Pole) stated in an interview that things can easily co-exist and that’s what they actually do in practice. It extends the spectrum. We don’t need to fear or front the change. Parents don’t die with the birth of their child. We – who witnessed the mainstream era of a medium – will use it until our death, but kids who never lived with it won’t; as we don’t try to keep shellac alive. We should face it.