Sounds of the past’s future

File under musical comedy.

It is time to stop calling sequenced, sampled and programmed electronic music “futuristic” or even “forward-looking.” You can take off your visor helmet now. Electronic and digital production have been status quo for over 25 years, which is about 25 lifetimes in digital chronology.

I once dropped in on a topic at a musician’s forum in which a kid was complaining that he couldn’t get the gooseneck microphone vocoder on his Micro Korg XL. One helpful responder asked, “Have you tried saying things about ‘the future’ into it?”

Electronic music has replicated its silicon tendrils through everything that we once considered inviolably organic: laptop folk, worldtronica, Switched-on Bach. It’s not transgressive or radical any more, except in its rhetoric. It can be good and it can be bad, revelatory or utterly half-assed (“Hey everybody, watch me press Play on loops I bought at the loop store!”). But it is no longer “forward-looking,” agreed? It’s just music now, fending for itself in a crowded market.


Still, a futuristic mythology seems to be inscribed in the “digital DNA” of almost all music that uses tempo-synched delay and grid-based quantization, pitch and time correction, and auto-harmonization.

Long ago, I stopped keeping track of the proliferative categories and subcategories of electronic music — Downstep Miami Dry Chill, or Intelligent Jungle Hard Trip, whatever — and trying to understand or even believe in the difference. Curmudgenhood has its liberations. It all sounds like the past’s future to me.

I stand in awe of the sound design, the technology, the deep skill of the programmers. Live performance is always a big question mark with electronic music.

The question that attends: Why bother? How much of it, if any, is performed off the grid and with an actual risk of failure? How much is just the glorified pressing of Play, with some provision for mixing spontaneity? And how much is that soulful fusion of man and machine that the Korg and Ableton product brochures have promised for so, so many years now?

Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.