A Consideration of Electronic Composition

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Blips and bleeps and dubstep drops that sound like robot dinosaurs having sex!
Blips and bleeps and dubstep drops that sound like robot dinosaurs having sex! // Creative Commons

Musicians in a conventional band constantly run into the issue that most guitar riffs and chord changes and keyboard figures have already been worn down to cliché by their predecessors. Likewise, there are only so many sounds an instrument can make. You can run your guitar through an infinite series of pedals and stomp boxes, but the spectrum of possible sounds a guitar amp can produce is limited. So the tools you have to work with — the sounds you can make and the patterns in which you can arrange them — introduce some intrinsic constraint. The result is that bands are forced to think outside the box, putting things together in new ways and toying with all the possible textures they can produce. For decades, that’s all pop composition was: coming up with new ways to use old tools.

But today, that’s not always the case. The infinite variety of electronic “instruments,” blips and bleeps and dubstep drops that sound like robot dinosaurs having sex, has obliterated the limitations that necessitated compositional and instrumental innovation, innovation that caused music to evolve as it has. Instead, modern electronic music has moved towards multilayered, linear forms that distinguish themselves through the addition and subtraction of electronic components.

The line between instrument and computer continues to get blurrier. A week ago, I went to a show by Emancipator, an artist billed as instrumental electronica. Yet there was a grand total of one instrument onstage, a violin that I could barely hear over the wall of sound Emancipator was producing on his control panel.

With such infinite possibilities afforded by contraptions like this, generating workable but still fresh components for a song is incredibly easy. A few keystrokes create a new bass line, and a click pairs it with a synthesizer. In any context, one can choose from a limitless selection of sounds that, made to meet certain parameters, will fit together beautifully. The sounds themselves are often less nuanced than the elements in a traditional song — loops can be as simple as a few repeated words or a rhythmic pattern of noise. It’s less vital that components be complementary or inventive; they just need to be compatible and numerous.

It’s not surprising, then, that songcraft in electronic music abandons some tenets of traditional songwriting. Working within the constraints of a traditional band, the whole of a song needs to exceed the sum of its parts — a subtle guitar harmony, or interplay between a bassist and a drummer, can be the difference between achievement and redundancy. The Strokes are masters of this. Listen to “Is This It?” and you’ll hear what I mean: each instrument, simple on its own, is part of a larger, exquisite puzzle. An artist like Flying Lotus can just add new layers of sound in trying to make a song fresh. A melody that might have been stale on guitar comes back to life on a tripped-out synthesizer; an uninspired loop can be hidden under cascades of sound.

Layering similarly redefines the shape of a song. Again, The Strokes are masters of form composition — the restrained, tense verse of “Under Cover of Darkness” lights the fuse into an explosive chorus, even though both sections use the exact same instrumentation. Each segment of a song has its own texture, the individual components shape that texture and each texture leads into the next.

In contrast, the structure of an electronic song is often defined by loops and layers. Songs like this proceed in a more linear fashion, swelling gradually and then returning, without the sharp delineations or tonal variation. The endless options available mean that a song can evolve slowly out of one texture, whether it’s a heavy hip-hop groove or airy trance, and rather than a soundscape shaped and changed by instruments, new layers are added that submit to the established tone. There aren’t sections so much as variations on a theme. With no need to keep a listener engaged through composition, electronic songs can wander around for a while without really going anywhere.

This isn’t to say that the layered construction of electronic music lacks intrigue, but it can become complacent and formulaic. When throwing together components can make music like building Legos, the need to adapt isn’t as pressing.

Some truly amazing results can come from the marriage of new sounds and old principles. I doubt I will surprise anyone by offering Radiohead’s “Kid A” as an example of this, but that’s because it’s just plain true. By exploring a new palette of sounds while retaining their respect for the dynamics of traditional songwriting, they made something stunning. That balance is what electronic music sometimes lacks when it skews towards ingredients over recipe — but there’s no reason that it can’t evolve as pop has. It just has to learn that more is not always better.

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