Below is a definition of electronica’s basic character and philosophical features. Newcomers and fans alike will also soon find a glossary of words and genres that are part of the instrumental lingo…

What is Electronica exactly?

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The liberation of form – Electronic instruments and digital production tools have allowed humans to create sounds and musical features that can do things previously impossible from just the pluck of a finger or the blowing of a trumpet. This has lead to sounds never before imagined as well as sounds hovering just below the unconscious. Electronica has expanded the musical universe, allowing ideas to exist in wider and finer spans of time, while also allowing composers to create art within new space-time paradigms, from polyrhythmic breakbeats to glitchy minimalism to echoic harmony. Synthesizers, samplers, drum machines, and software are the tools that allow musicians to liberate these forms. But once they are liberated, how they are liberated, becomes less and less important. A listener might ask in gleeful disbelief, “What IS that? How did they CREATE that sound?” That’s where it all begins.

Cutting the edges of 3D sounds – Because electronic instruments can create or manipulate sounds from the most mathematically precise sine-waves to timbres adapted from non-instrumental sources — car engines rumbling, the wind in a forest, the lapping of waves, the whoops of birds — as well as a profound silence not found in nature, electronic musical shapes and lines exist in a deeper aural space. This means electronic music often takes on a starker and sharper three-dimensional profile.

From etched to sketched – This does not mean electronic music is all angular or geometric. In fact, it just as easily creates soft, fuzzy, hazy and warm sounds.  This is a key aspect to the foreground and background of electronica. A held chord can give a composition a sonic wall or surface, on which more discrete sounds, such as percussion, develop a sense of cohesion or contrast. Diffused sounds in electronica often fill and color space versus occupy and objectify. Ambient music is a prime example of electronica’s sonic diffusions. In terms of macro-dynamics, as a “genre” it is also diffuse and osmotic. Electronica has its roots in classical music, blues, disco, hip hop and so on. In the ’80s it made the leap from disco clubs and Detroit bedrooms, mostly at the hands of black artists, to Europe and back again, giving us acid house, German trance, drum ‘n’ bass, ambient dub, dance rock and on and on.

Electronica studio with vintage gear

Space is the place - Space is wider and deeper in electronic music. Indeed, it can feel infinite. This is why so much electronica flirts with the idea of outer space, using both its etched and diffused sounds to recreate a physical tableau of interacting bodies. This can take the form of anything from a smoky cafe to the ocean floor to the mingling of atoms. As the avant garde jazz great Sun Ra made the case, “Space is the place.” And electronica has explored it more than any other music in recent history.

The elasticity of time – Just as important as the space-ism of electronica is its ability to open up the landscape of time to new insights. This is mostly achieved through its heavy use of rhythmic meter, often in the form of a 4/4 time signature. This is essentially the familiar repetitive beat in most house and techno music. Most popular music is in a 4/4 structure, but electronica brings that pulse to the fore. This repetitive beat conveys a sense of time as a linear experience, a train of dots extending through time, from the past into the future. But there is a paradox. That pulse also expresses time standing still, a tapping on the same note over time, which is where the idea of space (of a note as an object with a beginning and end) starts to morph into the idea of time.

But that is only the beginning. Electronica takes that baseline and that starting point, and explodes it in several directions. The use of a bass line, or low frequency melody, which is a train of rhythmic notes over varying harmonic scales, begins a differentiation in time over time, laying out the hills, valleys, cliffs, speed bumps, drops, summits, and general surface of time.

But as time surfaces in the mind as an infinite landscape, electronica just as easily puts us inside of time. This is mostly achieved through polyrhythm. Taking a big page from the use of breakbeats and syncopation in African and Afro-Western music, such as hip hop or jazz, electronica uses beats as diverse as notes and chords. Multiple lines of beats can play in counterpoint like Bach’s melodies. Even melodies with a percussive feel (piano, which uses hammers on strings, is the most obvious pre-electronica example) are used to give time contour, and help erase the barrier between space and time.

This elasticity of percussion and drums and beats, which are sometimes arranged in a way not previously possible by human hands (drum ‘n’ bass for example, or the echoic depths of a deep techno track), makes electronica the first space-time music. On the continuum of Afro-Western music, electronica is perhaps its most sublimated form, restoring the balance between space and time, harmony and rhythm, through the circuit board dreams of today’s forward-thinking musicians.

Inside holographic masonry – All of this space-time dynamism and imaginative shape-shifting also works on a more symbolic level. In addition to sublime landscapes or expanses of outer space, electronica equally invokes the city and technology. Through a use of mechanical sounds, soft graphic shapes, and endless hybrids of natural and unnatural sound waves, it can build the most romantic and queasy visions of civilization, from the bombed out metropolis to a virtual reality nirvana. This is a key intellectual feature of electronica, its ability to invite us into and ask us provocative questions about humanity’s place in nature and the universe.

Sounds without instruments – It is obvious but rarely remarked upon. The fact that many electronica sounds do not call up an easy reference to an instrument like a guitar or a trombone, gives them a freedom of association that is incredibly powerful. When someone hears a wild electronic melody, he or she must not only interpret it in terms of its tonal attributes and path across time. The easy reference to a guitar player or a keyboard is often not available. Instead the listener is forced to imagine something that in many ways does not exist except inside the abstract ones and zeroes and transistors of an electronic device. So we imagine what we want. We imagine new things, wild things, beautiful things. In essence, electronica asks us to imagine.

Anticipating patterned movements – While much of electronica is casual music or fit for a symphonic hall, it is predominately dance music. It serves the function of getting us to move. Even those who do not like to dance, will have their ideas moved, will move their thoughts to its dynamic interplays. It helps that the listener have some familiarity with this kineticism, because it opens new neural pathways to the space-time genius that powers electronica’s heart. (If you’re self-conscious about dancing, practice moving to it alone in private.) But even without this learning or lifting a toe, every listener is invited to follow its signals. Like most music, much of the joy behind electronica is the anticipation of its next move, its next note, its next drum breakdown. That joy is heightened when that anticipation is rewarded with a surprise, with a melodic insight or parallel bass pattern that feels natural and yet unlooked for.

The interplay of beats and notes - What’s a beat? What’s a note? Well, it turns out the answer isn’t so simple. And electronica undermines our assumptions more so than any other previous music movement. A beat can generally be thought of as a punchy, short hit on a percussive instrument, or an electronic simulation of a drum sound. A note is the pluck, hit or breath of a harmonic instrument somewhere on a scale of “intervals.” In other words, a note is a step or rung in a ladder of frequencies, from low to high, and repeating a familiar character in the human ear from octave to octave. And yet beats can have a tone or a tonal approximation. And notes can be played with a sharp attack or percussive flair. As if by osmosis, they can adopt the others’ properties. Electronica takes all of these messy borders and walks all over them.

But that’s not the answer of our beat-note conundrum. The real magic takes place in how they relate to one another. A complex arrangement of beats, perhaps a cluster of kick drums and high hats and cymbals, along with a more electronic pulse underneath, or the repeating zap of a synthesizer, can give a sweet melodic line a sweeter individuality. Or maybe the melody is in a call-and-response with bass notes which are floating up and under the main rhythm. The best electronica gives us beats and notes that move from one to the other, or “speak” to one another, pushing us to the brink of a space-time revelation. The end result, is something that transcends beats and notes, and all the traditional notions of what music is or should be.

Time spines and X-Ray music – Two metaphors help isolate electronica’s unique powers. Electronica gives us the ability to perceive spatial and temporal relationships that other music cannot penetrate. Like an X-Ray, it reduces our mundane notions of the body and reality to its more Platonic forms, forms that don’t just live in our minds, but are in fact now being created by electronic instruments and computers. Like words or numbers, electronic sounds are distillations and accidental discoveries of the deeper order of the universe, at once extending our perceptions and allowing us to communicate our internal worlds to one another. Electronica also re-instates rhythm, sounded rhythm, as a fundamental component of that dynamic. It gives it a skeleton, a “time spine,” and transfers its sensations to the mind’s constructive ability to imagine, to picture, to think, to feel alive.

Ancient and future mysteries - The mystery of technology and humanity’s place in nature are two of the great lessons electronica has to teach us. In this sense, electronica is aspirational. It can tap into both pagan urges for mystical connection and cooler postures of scientific curiosity. Its reliance on new technology drives this feedback loop. And yet there is some truth to the suspicion that electronica is somehow hollow, that it is more preoccupied with the future than the present and the past. The reason for this perception is not that it is inhuman or cold, or escapist, as go the stereotypes. The answer physically lies outside prevailing social prejudices and historical blind-spots.

Electronica has traditionally been the music of the oppressed and the lonely, from gay dance clubs and nerdy minorities to disaffected youth. Even so, indeed because of this, electronica is predominately optimistic music. It is obsessed with wonder. And dancing, moving the body in the present with one foot in the past and one in the future, has always rooted electronica to its noblest social mission: bringing people and ideas together and moving them forward. Understanding that space-time paradigm is to feel its groove. At its most natural, electronica is a search. It looks to the stars. It looks to the beyond.  It even looks to the heart. Its greatest moments of terror and beauty, of heartache and triumph, exist on the edge of the unknown. Imagining the future is the first step to freedom.

GLOSSARY:

acid

acid house

acid jazz

ambient

ambient house

ambient techno

amen break

arpeggio

bass drop

big beat

breakbeat

breakbeat techno

Chicago house

chill

dance rock

delay

Detroit techno

downtempo

drum machine

drum ‘n’ bass

dub

dubstep

dub techno

echo

electro

flange

garage house

glitch

house

IDM (Intelligent Dance Music)

illbient

jungle

merimba

minimalism

ornamentalism

oscillations

pads

polyrhythm

progressive house

ragga

sampler

serialism

synthesizer

synth line

techno

TB-303

TR-808

TR-909

trance

trip hop