Why Techno?

I find that I often have to defend techno as a genre. And I don\’t mean dance music in general, but the specific, largely percussive, genre that started in Detroit in the early 80s.

Even with my classical background, people are more likely to think that I\’ve abandoned worthwhile music rather than imagine there might be some redeeming quality in techno.

John Cage did me a great favor by penning this in 1939 — yes, that\’s 39:

Percussion music is revolution. Sound and rhythm have too long been submissive to the restrictions of nineteenth-century music. Today we are fighting for their emancipation. Tomorrow, with electronic music in our ears, we will hear freedom.

Nineteenth-century music is largely concerned with melody and harmony. These are the two parts of music that have been focused on for centuries. Techno in particular (and electronic music in general, to a lesser extent) moves the focus away from those aspects, and toward rhythm and timbre. Timbre is the \”quality\” of sound … a trumpet sounds different from a violin, that difference is a difference in timbre.

When I first heard techno, I was interested, but I wasn\’t compelled to participate in it. Not until I moved to Van, and I saw people making techno, did I realize that this was a qualitatively different type of music. The time spent designing a sound, hours or even days getting a synth to generate the timbre you are looking for — at first you stumble around and occasionally find something interesting, eventually you come to understand different types of synthesis and how to vary different parameters, allowing you to think of some sound and then create it. The closest thing in more traditional music is the effects connected to an electric guitar. The guitar comes as sort of a half-way point between a fixed set of timbres (violin, trumpet, tuba, clarinet, piano, etc.) and the complete freedom of timbre as realized with electronic music.

Rhythm is also neglected in earlier western music. Think of the un-pitched percussion in an orchestra … there\’s not much there. Percussion is marimba, tympani … devices meant to double or enhance the melodic movement. In techno, the reverse is usually the case. Even non-percussive sounds are used at single pitches, and while there is usually a kick drum keeping the beat for dancing, the rhythms that layer on top of it can be rather complex.

I find that my training was pretty weak when it came to rhythm, and non-existent when it came to timbre. Techno is a way for me to learn the other half of the art. And I also find the techno crowd to be a bit less pretentious and a bit more open than the classical crowd. After all, they\’ll readily admit, we just want the people to dance.

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