Electronica and classical music

Written: August 22, 2003

I think that electronica and modern music have a lot in common. That is to say, I think that the kind of listeners who enjoy one would enjoy the other.

Maybe this relates to the fact that electronic music originally began, I think, as an outgrowth of modernist music, in the early 20th century. Classical composers got the first real crack at experimenting with making or altering sounds electronically, and maybe that influences current work in the field from composers who are less directly connected with the classical tradition, but who are nevertheless concerned with making new things from new materials.

At least some of the electronic artists I dig like sampling from a fair range of modern composers. Murcof’s album Martes is built on top of samples from Arvo Part and Morton Feldman; Susumu Yokota has taken from Scriabin, Ravel, and Steve Reich for some of his tracks; even a group as well-known as Radiohead uses the ondes martenot on many of its songs as something of a tribute to Olivier Messiaen.

In fact, many musicians I went to school with were pretty heavily into electronica – some folks I knew mainly composed electronica, and a few even have albums out. This makes me wonder if a lot of electronic musicians don’t have at least a modicum of classical training. This, however, may just be arrogance on my part.

Some of the readily apparent comparisons between the two might be that both try to push the boundaries of what is considered acceptable music; both tend to be fairly abstract; and on a less concrete level, they have a similar ‘feel’. Ways of listening to one can be applied to the other.

(What does it mean to ‘develop material’?)

Obviously, these features are not necessarily all true of every instance of either genre, but there tends to be an intricacy and complexity – and a willingness to experiment – that can also be found in contemporary music; or, on the other hand, paring music down to its barest essentials.

Maybe it’s just that the things I like most in music are prevalent in both worlds.

Sometimes I wonder if (and am afraid that) the future of music (what does that mean?) is in electronica, and we classical composers are really just wanking off.