Written in 2016, here I take a look at the historical efforts to produce “futuristic” music…
Unearthing and understanding futuristic ideas in any art form is often a daunting prospect. For many the term invokes loaded qualities – tendencies which have become stereotypically associated with technologies and the supposed advancements and innovations they breed. Nevertheless, the perpetual pursuit of the future has enthralled countless musicians throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, becoming one of the key factors in the development of popular genres – their importance often amplified in retrospect. In this analysis I’ll aim to distinguish these artists from their contemporaries by exploring the ways in which the future is utilised across the musical and social spectrum, whilst questioning the degree to which these musicians have truly split with the past by touching on the complicated relationship between nostalgic impulses and the future.
The inception of futuristic idealism in western culture is often credited to the birth of Italian Futurism in 1909 – the release of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s first futurist manifesto. Obsessed with notions of youth, mechanical innovation, and patriotism, the futurists’ primary desire was to break free from the constraints of Italy’s decadent, museum-based past, which they believed was stifling the development of a new and exciting national cultural identity. As Roberta Smith writes, “The Futurists embraced the advent of World War I in hopes that it would rid Italian society of its decadence and catapult it, purified, into the fast-changing present.”(Smith, 2014)
Whilst the manifesto’s darker obsessions with violence eventually aligned it with the Fascist dictatorship of Benito Mussolini, many of the movements’ artists denounced this damaging association, and Futurism became a pervasive aspect of western contemporary culture; Smith continues, “ It had a liberating effect on many mediums, laying the groundwork for much of what we view as advanced poetry, music, performance art and graphic design, while also spreading into popular culture.”(Smith, 2014)
One of the many composers inspired by this pursuit was American born, Paris based composer George Antheil. Linked with the dadaist, modernist, and early futurist movements, Antheil’s work was intent on exploring the mechanisation of western society through avant-garde composition. The first draft of his most infamous work, Ballet Mecanique, was developed in 1923 and called for the on-stage use of unconventional objects such as aeroplane propellers and sirens in conjunction with the technological innovation of the day – the automated piano (or Pianola). However, what made Mecanique truly ahead of its time was the demand for technology so advanced that it was unable to be performed accurately or as intended at the time.
As Paul D. Lehrman writes, “The symphony is highly, often brutally, rhythmic, and calls for dozens of notes to be played simultaneously. The 16 pianolas must be tightly synchronized. But that was the problem: Synchronized pianolas existed only in theory.”(Lehrman, 1999)
The unworkable requirements of Antheil’s score unconsciously foreshadowed one of the most practical developments of modern electronic composition, which wouldn’t emerge publicly for another six decades: MIDI (an innovation I will return to later).
While Antheil would eventually submit to compromises and workarounds in his two subsequent drafts, the stirring divisiveness of Ballet Mecanique reflected the eruption and collision of various forward thinking artistic movements coalescing in the western avant-garde. As Lehrman continues, “Enamoured with the industrial age, and with the anarchic, Dadaist, and anti-Romantic sentiments that fed his social circle, Antheil conceived of his elaborate creations as celebrations of machines as music makers.”(Lehrman, 1999)
An interest in the application of rapidly evolving technologies continued to grow in european circles, and as interest in the Pianola faded throughout the 30’s and 40’s the rising influence of phonographic and radio based equipment became a popular area of experimentation. For Pierre Schaeffer this interest evolved out of an enthusiasm for the work of futurist noise artist Luigi Russollo, and from his experience working as a sound engineer for French broadcaster Radiodiffusion Francaise in the late thirties. Establishing his first paris based studio, Club D’Essai, in 1942, over the course of several decades Schaeffer would pioneer a new form of sound composition known as Musique Concrete.
Sourcing audio from an expansive array of natural objects, the composer, along with his professional partner Pierre Henry, devised methods of looping, tape splicing and spatialisation, with the aim of divorcing the sound-wave from any sort of historical context or consideration of it’s physical source. As Joanna Demers writes, “Inherent in theses struggles has been the urge to transcend music’s grounding in the here and now of live performance and the exigencies of vocal and instrumental timbre, which make music always sound like music.”(Demers, 2010, 23)
Moreover, these feats of engineering (including inventions such as the morphophone – an analogue predecessor to the digital sampler) not only laid the foundations for the digital age of hip-hop and electronic dance music, they also challenged the insular rules of traditional musical tonality and form; they found abstract musicality in familiar but overlooked places. These nightmarish arrangements of disparate tones and estranged textures portray a rapidly mechanising world, in which conventional artistic culture is engulfed in the cacophonous noise of modern life.
As Demers writes, “Collages of industrial noise, synthesised drones, and sounds played in reverse seemed utterly foreign to musical language as it was then conceived.”(Demers, 21)
Similarly, Jonathan Patrick writes, “By rethinking the foundations of music-making, he produced an art form that was anything but normal — a music that aimed to merge art with science, composition with engineering. His ideas turned conventional music theory on its head.”(Patrick, 2016)
He continues, “Because any sound could now be repurposed for the sake of music-making, the possible combinations of timbres, rhythms, instruments, voices and harmonies became virtually infinite.”(Patrick, 2016)
As technology’s presence grew ever larger in the European avant-garde, some composers sought to find a deeper, spiritual meaning on the hi-tech horizon. One of these horizons was space, an area of increasingly heightened symbolism and international competitiveness, manifested in the
“space race” between soviet and western societies. For Karlheinz Stockhausen however, space was a futuristic destination ripe for exploration through musical form (or the re-evaluation of it). After spending time at Schaeffer’s Club D’Essai in the early fifties, Stockhausen moved to Cologne in 1953, joining the NWDR studio to pursue his own studies, primarily focused on electronic and synthesised sound. Utilising many of the spatialisation techniques he learnt in Paris, Stockhausen saw transcendental potential in the simple sine waves produced by early synthesiser modules – beyond that of the relatively narrow spectrum of Schaeffer’s acousmatic material. As Stockhausen considers, “… I became aware that sound is more than just an experience. I became very interested in the differences between sounds: what is the difference between a piano sound and a vowel aaah and the sound of the wind – shhh or whsss. It was after analysing a lot of sounds that this second thought came up (it was always implied): if I can analyse sounds which exist already and I have recorded, why can I not try to synthesise sound in order to find new sounds, if possible.”(Stockhausen, 1989, 89)
Stockhausen surrounded his music with eccentric cosmic affinities – including the claim that he was from a distant star called Sirius – and via the vast number of lectures and critical writings he produced during his decade-spanning career. Gesang der Junglinge, released in 1956 and widely considered his most accomplished piece of work, marries human voices with an array of electronic pulses and tones, creating a sonic blend of man and machine like none before. As Demers writes, “The critical success of Gesang der Junglinge provided compelling evidence for subsequent composers that synthesis and sampling were not mutually exclusive but could together be harnessed to generate meaningful sound worlds.”(Demers, 46)
More than just an innovative combination of these technologies in a musical context, Stockhausen’s work was a backlash against what he felt were the social, historical and contextual constraints of western music, believing there was an inherent subversiveness in electronic composition which would challenge the traditional way we perceive music; symbols of space and spirituality portraying this elevated state of listening. He explains by writing, “Our conception of truth of perception is entirely built on the visual. It has led to the incredible situation where nobody believes somebody else if he can’t see what it is. In every field of social life you find this need to establish everything in visual terms, because what you cannot see people do not believe. And this leads to the very strange response of most people listening to this music, that when they hear the sounds in a given hall are moving very far away, and coming very close, they say well, that’s an illusion.”(Stockhausen, 107)
Over in America, alternative strands of Futurism were emerging within music scenes dominated by black artists – the most prominent of which was Jazz. Emerging from a formulaic period of Swing in the thirties, the forties and fifties saw the rise of Be Bop, which pulled the genre in directions challenging both the comfort of its listeners and the virtuosity of its players. As John Fordham writes, “It represented an escape for the more imaginative, open-minded young musicians playing in commercially popular swing bands.”(Fordham, 2009)
The result was a playground of experimentation un-fazed by its popular form, which saw the increased representation of african aesthetics, history, and cultural identity. This was preceded by the rise of the Jazz orchestra, which saw bands swell in size dramatically, emphasising a collective approach to big-band composition.
It was out of this situation that Sun Ra emerged. Born 1914 into the harshly segregated city of Birmingham, Alabama, Ra became engrossed in literature and piano – playing from an early age as consolation for a childhood constricted by ill health. A conscientious objector to the Second World War, after spending time incarcerated Ra moved to Chicago, first joining bands of personal heroes such as Fletcher Henderson, but eventually forming his own continually expansive collective: The Arkestra.
Similar to Stockhausen, what set Sun Ra apart from his contemporaries was a devout exploration of the cosmic and futuristic implications of music. In turn he introduced a concept to black music, named decades later as “Afro-futurism”, which manifested itself in all aspects of his artistry from his image and mythology through to his boundary pushing use of synthesisers in Jazz.
Eccentricities started to emerge as he dropped his birth name to become known as Le Sony’r Ra, in turn claiming he was in fact not human but an angel from Saturn – adorning himself with garments evoking ancient Egyptology updated for the modern age. Song titles such as ‘Saturn’ and ‘Star Time’ from the mid fifties, through to the classic 1973 album Space is the Place, prove that this was not just an image but an over-arching statement of belief in a cosmic future.
These quirks were not just attention grabbing novelties however, but signifiers of a deeper political statement; as John F. Szwed writes, “Here, as elsewhere with Sonny, space was both a metaphor of exclusion and of reterritorialisation, of claiming the ‘outside’ as one’s own, of tying a revised and corrected past to a claimed future. Space was also a metaphor which transvalues the dominant terms so that they become aberrant, a minority position, while the terms of the outside, the beyond, the margins, become the standard.”(Szwed, 1997, 140)
The reverence of black history – ancient Egypt – in his utopian imagining of the space-age future may seem contradictory at first, but makes perfect sense when the technological innovations of the Egyptian empire are considered; particularly the way in which these technologies were used in the construction of spiritual monuments like the Pyramids. As Graham Lock writes, “… ancient Egypt and outer space were significant, perhaps core, factors in Sun Ra’s mythology, and the fact that he linked them provides us with a key to better understanding what that mythology was about.”(Lock, 1999, 14-15)
Amid the calls for integration and equality spearheaded by the Civil Rights movement throughout the fifties and early sixties, Ra’s declaration of otherworldliness strayed from the dominant narrative of collective activism. Jez Nelson writes, “His self-declaration as an angel was profound. He didn’t want to be associated with what he saw as a failed species. He was a conscientious objector to the end; he wanted no part in ‘being human’.”(Nelson, 2014)
This was not a politically passive prophecy of the future, however. For Sun Ra, space seems to become a method of subversion against the political and economic dominance of the white authority, a blank canvas where new rules and ideologies can thrive; where earth’s historically biased power structures are rendered completely meaningless.
This narrative continued in the post-civil rights era, in which the promises and utopias strived for seemed like bitter faded memories for many, and America plunged into an economic instability which fractured dreams of social mobility. With Funk becoming the commercially dominant black art form, Afro-futurism seeped into the output of groups like George Clinton’s Parliament- Funkadelic.
Surfacing in the early seventies as a counter-cultural fusion of funk and rock, the group adopted a flamboyant aesthetic reminiscent of Sun Ra. Praised for their particularly expansive and energetic acid-fuelled live shows, Clinton’s group updated Afro-Futurism’s message. As Anne Danielsen writes, “These shows, together with the whole philosophy of funk developed by George Clinton at the time, were in fact highly political, or perhaps spiritual projects. They constituted a response to setbacks within the African American community, which found itself at the time in a rather precarious situation. The vital civil rights movement had faded, conditions in the black ghettos were getting even worse, and its leading star, the symbol of hope, freedom, and a different, better future, was gone.”(Danielsen, 2006, 8)
Within the psychedelic blurring of genre boundaries also lied deeper social connotations; Nate Patrin writes, “By the time Clinton had begun to internalize the impact of rock’s new counterculture — his time in the late ’60s was just as often spent in thrall to Cream and Jethro Tull as it was to Smokey and Diana — he was more upfront than anybody about his desires to shake down the “black group = soul/white group = rock” dichotomy.”(Patrin, 2015)
While this disregard of race and place was most famously personified by the acid rock of Jimi Hendrix, Parliament-Funkadelic’s theatric approach to cosmic futurism – with their elaborate costumes and album titles such as 1975’s The Mothership Connection – was an adventurous departure from the rigid, sexual strut of James Brown; an approach that would immeasurably influence musicians such as Prince, for whom boundaries of race, sexuality, and gender were fluid.
As a young, displaced black teenager in the Detroit suburbs, Juan Atkins – an amateur musician with a keen interest in futurology – drew inspiration from the futurist groove of P-Funk’s synth operator Bernie Worrell, channelling this enthusiasm into his Cybotron project. Atkins was assembling the early sounds of electro, with tracks such as 1983’s ‘Alleys of Your Mind’ predating more commercially successful examples from Afrika Bambaata. However, It was as the four-to-the- floor sounds of Chicago’s House scene began to disperse across the Mid-West that Atkins and his friends began to form a genre profound in both it’s futuristic paranoia and inherent danceability.
Techno emerged in an increasingly bleak period for Detroit’s urban minorities, a slowly unfurling dystopia in which decreased demand and robotic automation were resulting in mass unemployment – the human involvement in automobile production lines becoming increasingly redundant. As a result techno developed as a reactionary genre – artists such as Derrick May’s utilisation of synthesisers and drum machines as tools of artistic liberation from a hopeless present (in tracks such as 1987’s ‘Strings of Life’) creates a strong impression of the strive for a future in which man wrestles back it’s power from industrialisation and the boundaries of life as a minority. As Dan Sicko writes, “Indeed, techno’s underlying philosophy has less to do with futurism, as is commonly believed, than with the power of the individual and personal visions of Utopia. Even the most “hard core” and militant sounding techno groups, like Detroit’s Underground Resistance, have lofty, Roddenberry-like ideals at heart – scenarios where race is no longer an issue.”(Sicko, 2010, 12)
Following the public release of MIDI in 1983 – a universal language which allowed machines to talk to one another in rhythmic synchronicity – techno championed a mathematically precise entanglement of synthesis and rhythm, shunning the libidinal swing of funk for the relentless stomp of the production line. Considering this, it’s important to emphasise that these ideas didn’t just
emerge out of a vacuum. Besides the influence of Clinton and Ra, Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer’s 1977 futuristic disco hit, ‘I Feel Love’, is a clear forefather; one of the first tracks made (almost) completely out of electronic instruments, which left an indelible mark on dance culture. As Tim Lawrence writes, quoting Moroder, “ ‘I wanted to conclude with a futuristic song,’ he says, ‘and I decided that it had to be done with a synthesizer.’”(Lawrence, 2003, 254)
Lawrence concludes, “Gloria Gaynor might have been the first queen of disco, but Summer, blending with Moroder’s technology, had become its first cyborg princess.”(Lawrence, 254)
In this sense, Techno was a transmutation of the Sc-Fi fantasies conjured up by futurist authors like Alvin Toffler, into the relentlessly hedonistic experience of dance and DJ culture established by the ecstatic aspiration of disco, and it’s flourishing offspring.
While this inherent association with cutting edge technology has seen Techno experience huge surges of popularity alongside revolutionary moments – such as the new found freedom experienced by young Germans after the fall of the Berlin wall – Techno has often been at risk of regressing to antiquated ideas of the future. The current underground’s fascination with the past’s electronic hardware risks sidelining the new sonic possibilities of 21st century digital software. As Sicko writes, “The real danger seems to lie with fetishism – when techno’s nostalgia and romanticism cross the line and inhibit its growth. Finding equilibrium may sound like a boring pursuit, but for techno it means existing at the centre of a number of worlds, extremes, and paradoxes.”(Sicko, 143)
This is evident with american Techno labels such as L.I.E.S and LA Club Resource, who champion a Lo-Fi musical and visual aesthetic symptomatic of the current lack of popular urgency for new futuristic ideas. The paradox of technological advancements such as YouTube have resulted in an increased impulse to document and revisit the old in such a way that rejects the once fixed states of the past, present, and future. As Simon Reynolds writes, “What this means is that the presence of the past in our lives has increased immeasurably and insidiously. Old stuff either directly permeates the present, or lurks just beneath the surface of the current, in the form of on-screen windows to other times.”(Reynolds, 2012, 57)
The thin line between euphoria and dystopia Techno treads is perhaps emblematic of our nostalgia for past ideals of the future. There is a marked shift from the positive forecasts found in the modernist fifties and sixties, into the nostalgia, and creeping disillusionment of the digital age – in which ideas of the future are often presented with a sense of betrayal, mourning the social progress once promised.
In this sense, regression to the past is a clearer method of utopianism – a pre-established set of characteristics which are warmly familiar with hindsight. Reynolds writes, “…there’s a longing to escape to an absolute elsewhere, the non-place, or utopia, of a desire that can’t be defined, because any realisation would always fall short of the ideal. Nostalgia can project the absent ideal into the past or into the future, but mainly it’s about not feeling at home in the here-and-now, a sensation of alienation.”(Reynolds, 370)
Perhaps then, nostalgia is a romantic pursuit not so dissimilar to futurism – it’s endless search simply aimed in the opposite historical direction.
While it’s easy to descend deeper into this sense of loss ( with artist’s such as Burial mourning the faded delirium of Rave), evolving technologies and their social impacts do continue to evoke some forward-thinking concepts in electronic music. The work of experimental composers like Rabit and Holly Herndon engage with ideas surrounding personal privacy in the digital age of unlimited access. The latter establishes her musical ideas in cohesion with this concept, using data collected from her browsing habits and daily digital routines to form algorithmically influenced arrangements. However, while this method of composition is perhaps futuristic, there is often a sense of fragmented familiarity in the end result; disparate pieces of the past forming one chaotic whole; drowning in a vast database of digital detritus.
As Herndon considers in an interview with Bradley Stroot, “New discussions call for new techniques, and the hope is that the intimate collection of material translates into a kind of intimacy for the listener. That being said, this is obviously not all that new as I think Mann started playing with this stuff in the 80s. It’s just something that perhaps hasn’t been so integrated into music- making practices.”(Stroot/Herndon, 2015)
As the future becomes an increasingly vague concept in post-modern society, it’s perhaps more important than ever to re-evaluate the mis-leadings of the past. While an institutional permeation of nostalgia could be harming our collective artistic progression, it’s important to remember the social and artistic role futurism has played, establishing progressive ideas surrounding race, technology, and society which are often taken for granted in contemporary culture.
The future is a necessary coping mechanism: a way of projecting one’s desires and faiths into alternate reality; a reality which may never arrive, but one nevertheless free from the social, economic, and emotional difficulties of the “Now”. The sense of abandonment experienced when these dreams dissolve is perhaps an equally essential aspect of artistic expression, influencing the way we relay personal experiences through music and other forms. As incremental advances in technology continue to heighten and complicate every aspect of existence, perhaps we have, in fact, arrived at the technological horizon once dreamed of by George Antheil and his futurist cohorts.