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In Defense of Contemporary
Electronic Music

By Steve Wilson

Wichita State University
December 2006

1.0 Introduction
Today, composers of electronic music have two options: they can choose academia,
which will relegate them to the laboratory to create esoteric music that is as much about
scientific research as it is about art, or they can choose the popular route finding a much wider
audience, but alienating themselves from critics and the theories of judgment they employ. The
strong technical components and experimental nature of academic electronic music are its main
features of legitimization, but the necessity to maintain this complexity renders much of the
music impenetrable to the common, unsophisticated listener. This is the state of electronic music
determined to be quality by the traditional structure of artistic value. Meanwhile, there is a
thriving movement of electronic composers creating a new style of electronic music typically
referred to as intelligent dance music, or IDM for short. Although this music has roots in the
techno tradition, it is conceptually far removed from the familiar dance music heard in clubs
and discos. Unfortunately, critics and academics virtually ignore this music simply because of its
heritage. One of the most problematic aspects of this style of music is the presence of a groove.
This fact, perhaps more than any other, causes critics to associate it with techno music without
actually bothering to examine the differences between the two.
This new style of electronic music can be, and frequently is, as artistically legitimate as
anything preceding it and it is deserving of critical acceptance and closer academic study. A
philosophical examination into the nature of this music using a synthesis of precedented models
from many important figures from Kant and Hegel to Barthes and Deleuze, will show that the
composers of this style of electronic music are admissible to the canon of Western art music and
can compare favorably with a great deal of more traditional music already accepted as art.
I will begin by conducting a survey of pertinent philosophers and their aesthetic theories
to evaluate their efficacy to the problem at hand. I will then synthesize their views into a new
aesthetic theory to show that contemporary electronic composers meet the standards of artistic
excellence. From there, I will apply my aesthetic theory to a selection of important electronic
works to show that the music does in fact constitute high art.

Background on Aesthetic Theory
2.0 Introduction to general aesthetics
Many philosophers, over the course of time, have endeavored to provide a definition of
art. Plato claimed that art was imitation or representation; Kant attempted to separate artistic
quality from a necessary connection to beauty; Hegel spoke of art as cognition, but claimed it
had lost the ability to fulfill that function in the middle ages; Goodman describes aesthetic
experience as cognitive experience distinguished by the dominance of certain symbolic
; finally in 1996 Jean Baudrillard proclaimed art null.
From here, it would appear that some sort of concrete definition, a definition acceptable
to any and everyone, is impossible. More importantly, a single definitive statement of the
characteristics of art is not even desirable as one of the beauties of art is that it can mean many
different things to many different people regardless of race, background, or education. Why force
one of the truly mutable things in the world into a box? As much as the market-driven culture
industry that Adorno fought against would love to find a hard and fast rule to define art so that
they can figure out how to mass-produce and commodify it, artists and aestheticians will
continue to resist, to elevate art beyond what can be easily understood and easily consumed.

Nelson Goodman, Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols (New York: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1968),
p. 262.
An effort to define accurately and succinctly the characteristics of music, as with all the
fine arts, is equally futile. Music presents something of a conundrum for aesthetics because it has
many inherent traits that pose special problems when compared with works of art that exist in
what is easily defined as physical space (although, as we will see, some music theorists challenge
this notion). Where it is possible to critique a painting or a piece of sculpture through prolonged
static observation, music is transitory by nature. As Dahlhaus puts it, [music] goes by, instead
of holding still for inspection
. Besides the transitory nature of music, there is the issue of
representation. Philosophers and music theorists have long debated whether music has the ability
to symbolize, and if so, to what extent is it useful for this purpose? Certainly, a painting or
photograph has the ability to be representational (whether it chooses to be is another matter
entirely). Finally, there is the question of the necessity of the aural experience of music. Does the
music exist primarily in the notated score, does it exist primarily (or only) during performance,
or is it some mixture of each? Certainly, once created, a photograph exists in a steady physical
state regardless of whether or not one views it at any given point in time. The recent arrival of
recordable media further complicates the issue. Once one records a work, does it contain the
totality of the works essence, and if so, does this render subsequent live realizations
superfluous? And what of the electronic music that has only ever existed as a recording?
This background will provide a conspectus of the work done on aesthetics, musical and
otherwise, and will then follow with a synthesis to provide a cogent aesthetic model with which
to fully appreciate contemporary electronic music. Although I may not choose to use all of the
elements of each theory examined, it is important to present a comprehensive overview so that
we can see the relationship between the respective theories and so that we can understand which
elements are left out of the hybrid theory and why. I beg the readers indulgence in a few key

Carl Dahlhaus, Esthetics of Music (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967), p. 11.
places, such as the rather strong philosophical aspect of the postmodernism section. Some of
these concepts are difficult, but they are also extremely useful if understood correctly.
2.1.1 Plato
One of the earliest accounts of aesthetics comes from Plato in the Republic
. His view
represents the time when art still had a function outside of itself, that is, before the autonomy of
art. For Plato, anything that did nothing to rationally explain the ethical and metaphysical world
was inherently worthless. His central criticism of the arts dealt with the issue of mimesis,
claiming not only that pretending to be someone that one is not is deceitful, but that the very
process of attempting to resemble someone causes the person to become that person in real life, a
criticism akin to the popular debate concerning whether or not violence in the media leads to
violence in real life. Christopher Janaway summarizes Platos criticism of art as the promise of
cognitive gain, but the delivery of psychological and ethical damage to individual and
Plato felt that the arts appealed to an inferior part of the soul and thereby helped to
subvert the rule of intellect and reason.
Thus, he banished all forms of mimetic art from his
2.1.2 Kant
Following Plato, Kant was the next major philosopher to write on aesthetics. His Critique
of Judgment
seeks to differentiate between the notion of art, which he defines as concerned
primarily with formal and technical qualities in a work (i.e. its craftsmanship), and beauty,
which is a judgment of taste (i.e. an aesthetic judgment). Where one can judge art only by the
degree of perfection in its form (i.e. how well it serves to explicate its object), one can judge

Plato, Republic, 2
ed., trans G.M.A. Grube (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1992).
Christopher Janaway, Plato, in The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, ed. Berys Gaut and Dominic McIver
Lopes (New York: Routledge, 2005), 3-14; see p. 5.
Ibid, 3-14; see p. 5.
Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. J. H. Bernard (New York: Hafner Publishing Co., 1951).
beauty only by its perception. Aristotles notion of art as production informs Kants view that
Art is distinguished from nature as doing (facere), is distinguished from acting or working
generally (agere), and as the product of result of the former is distinguished as work (opus) from
the working (effectus) of the latter.
While Kant only allows objective judgments on the
technical craftsmanship of a work, he also requires the elements of technique and construction to
be hidden from view, as if they evolved from nature. Kant believes that if a work of art is organic
in appearance, the work will be necessarily beautiful because the beauty of nature (Kants artistic
ideal) will be inherent in the subject. It can only be that in the subject which is nature and
cannot be brought under rules of concepts, i.e. the super-sensible substrate of all his faculties (to
which no concept of the understanding extends).
However, Kant specifies, if we call anything
absolutely a work of art, in order to distinguish it from a natural effect, we always understand by
that a work of man.

From Kants distinction between technical and aesthetic features, it is evident that beauty
is not a necessary condition for fine art and vice versa. This distinction allows Kant to make
objective judgments on the technical and formal aspects of a work of art while leaving aesthetic
judgments to necessarily subjective opinions as there can be no universal standard defining what
type of objects will be pleasing to any given perceiver. Though these judgments have a
universal validity, they still concern only feelings of pleasure that refer to no qualities in the
object itself.

Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. J. H. Bernard (New York: Hafner Publishing Co., 1951), p. 234.
Ibid, p. 189.
Ibid, p. 146.
Frederick Beiser, Hegel (New York: Routledge, 2005), p. 292.
2.1.3 Hegel
Aesthetics received its next major analysis from Hegel, whose multi-volume Aesthetics
spans more than 1200 pages, making it his largest work. In fact, Hegel touches on the arts in
many of his works, assigning them great importance. Hegel sees art as being one of the three
elements of absolute truth, three media by which spirit attains self-awareness.
The other two
elements are religion and philosophy, and though art is ranked the lowest of the three, it is
significant that it is at the foundation, supporting both religion and philosophy.
Hegels concept of art differs drastically from Kants concept. Hegel sees art and beauty
as necessarily linked, and because he sees art as cognitive, his definition of beauty logically
follows. The beautiful is characterized as the pure appearance of the Idea to sense.
It is
important to note that when Hegel speaks of art as cognitive, he is not referring to the limited
technical definition of the act of knowing, but to an enhanced cognitive power unique to art.
This enhanced definition of cognition is special because whereas the act of knowing is limited
to the mundane; the cognitive power of art can see the eternal and spiritual that escape from the
bounds of science and history. Because Hegel is the most prominent philosopher to describe
musical cognition, any reference to the term in the remainder of this paper will follow Hegels
definition. From here we see that one of the main differences between Hegel and Kant is that
where Kant sees the aesthetic experience in a realm beyond the reach of the terrestrial world,
Hegel sees it as a mode of intuitive communication, albeit not as clear and exact as philosophy.
Hegel also differs from Plato in that he does not share Platos distrust of arts supposed
devious predilection to the false and illusory, saying instead, art is significant, precisely because

Frederick Beiser, Hegel (New York: Routledge, 2005), p. 285.
G.W.F. Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art Vol. I, trans. T.M. Knox (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), 111.
its sensible forms indicate a more substantial reality lying behind them.
Though Hegel fights
against the romantic ideal that art is a superior mode of communication to philosophy, he still
maintains that where the finite world must confine science and history, art can find the infinite
within the passing events of the former. If anything, this shows that Hegel is not immune from
the paradox of the philosopher who values art, but seeks to make it subordinate as is seen in
Plato and Rousseau.
It is now apparent that Hegel views art as not only cognitive, but truthful. Hegel says that
art [can] grasp the concrete universal and reconcile understanding with sensibility.
the insights that art provides are irreducible to what we can know or explain discursively,
is in a unique position to, as Leonard Bernstein would say, communicate the unknowable.
Finally, Hegel views artists not as the producers of facsimiles as observed from some external
position, but as the manifestation or expression of these powers, their highest organization and

If Hegel gave such importance to the arts, he also did much to take it away. In his
Aesthetics, he proclaims the end of artnot the end of all artistic activity, but of art in the sense
that it had the ability to be a useful mode of communication for society. Hegel contends that art
achieved its height of perfection and beauty in ancient Greece because it was a perfect tool to
explain their anthropomorphic religion, whereas in the middle-ages with the growing popularity
of Christianity, art ceased to be able to explain the Christian God, a purely spiritual being, and
thus ceased to be useful for religion.

G.W.F. Hegel in Frederick Beiser, Hegel (New York: Routledge, 2005), p. 293.
Ibid, p. 291
Ibid, p. 292.
Ibid, p. 298.
Beyond the religious aspect, art was formerly a good medium for expressing ethics and
worldview. In Hegels time, he was convinced that society had become too rational for art to
maintain this function because while art can appeal to the senses and feelings, it cannot provide
disinterested critical rationality. He felt that society would benefit more from philosophical
answers than from another symphony. At the end of his lifetime, Hegel saw art becoming
increasingly inward as the artist became alienated from society. This began to lead art away from
its powers of cognition and towards simplistic, romantic, self-expressiona great tragedy in
Hegels eyes.
2.1.4 Transition to the autonomy of art
The ideas of autonomy and interiority in art led, in part, to the romantic era, and marked a
major shift from previous aesthetic views. This shift to romantic idealism is largely a reaction
against an increasingly rationalistic society that some saw as a threat to the ideas of emotion and
self-expression, ironically the very ideas that Hegel claims will kill art. Music did not achieve the
level of autonomy that some other artistic disciplines were able to because there was no radical
break from external influences. Rather, those external influences, whether generic or otherwise,
became interior to the works.
Although it was something of a return to Kants transcendental
aesthetics, art became self-sufficient. Therefore, we see that art did not end, but merely changed
direction. Few today would argue that art did in fact lose its ability to communicate with any
sizable portion of society. One needs only to look at Barbers Adagio to find a work that can
speak to the greater part of society. This break from art as necessarily cognitive effectively

Carl Dahlhaus, Esthetics of Music, trans. William Austin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967), pp. 14-
allowed art to broaden and paved the way for concepts such as absolute music, or as Dahlhaus
puts it, music without a concept, object, and purpose.

From here, we can narrow the focus to music and the various critical theories proposed
over the last 300 years. Much in the way that an ontological definition of art may be impossible,
music proves equally elusive to all that attempt a definition. Plato describes music, like art, as
mimesis; Kant sees music as merely agreeable, more about pleasure than high culture,
especially with instrumental music; Hegel places music among the lowest forms of art because
its inherently abstract nature makes it, in his view, rather limited in its ability to communicate
concepts; Hanslick and Dahlhaus both allow music to become autonomous with their proposition
of absolute music, thus escaping the conceptual bonds placed on it by Hegel; Langer and
Goodman each propose semiotic approaches to musical understanding; Hanslick, Dahlhaus,
Lerdahl, and Lackendoff all argue in favor of formalism; Adorno combines many of these
methodologies with sociology to offer his critiques of music and society; finally, the
postmodernists such as Deleuze, Derrida, and Barthes find many completely new ways of
describing music.
The debate as to the nature of music has never been more varied as in the twenty-first
century, and it is apparent that many of these views are incommensurable. Mark DeBellis points
out that the use of a hybrid approach borrowing from many different methods to find an inclusive
synthesis has been successful in recent years.
The idea of a hybrid aesthetic theory seems like
the most logical choice for an analysis of contemporary electronic music because, for one thing,
the medium of electronic music poses many problems not considered by the philosophers who

Carl Dahlhaus, The Idea of Absolute Music, trans. Roger Lustig (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978).
Mark DeBellis, Music, in The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, ed. Berys Gaut and Domini McIver Lopes
(New York: Routledge, 2005).
wrote before its advent. To find a hybrid aesthetic theory, an overview of previous aesthetic and
critical theories is necessary.
The following section will cover the topics of formalism, referentialism,
representationalism, and sociological perspectives of music. It includes a comprehensive review
of the virtues and faults of common musical critical theories for the purpose of deciding which
theories should be adapted into the final hybrid theory. If I take time to examine a certain theory
that ultimately doesnt make it into the final theory, it is to explain why there is little or nothing
to salvage rather so as not to risk appearing incomplete. Because postmodernism is such a large
topic in itself, I am devoting an entire section to exploring the various critical theories found in
postmodern aesthetics.

Critical Theories in Music
2.2.1 Formalism
Looking first to formalism, it is apparent that it isnt necessarily in conflict with a
cognitive view of music. We can safely assume that there is, at least sometimes, a cognitive
aspect to music. The question is rather what role the explicit awareness and description of
formal relationships has to play.
The question central to any formalism debate is that of the
difference in musical understanding between the average listener and the informed music
theorist. The average listener is typically at a disadvantage because certain advanced formal
concepts, such as serialism, are nearly impossible to perceive without extensive training, whereas
the theorist possesses the training necessary both to hear in a different manner and to analyze
musical scores. The average listener rarely gets the chance to examine a score, and when they do,

Mark DeBellis, Music, in The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, ed. Berys Gaut and Domini McIver Lopes
(New York: Routledge, 2005) p. 680.
the amount of information they can glean from it is modest at best. In fact, many music
performers do not train themselves to hear musical forms above a certain level of complexity.
While a musician can identify forms such as binary, rondo, and sonata aurally with relative ease,
they would typically have much more difficulty identifying the tone row and its subsequent
derivations in a work by Webern, if they could do it at all. It would appear that once a musical
form exceeds a certain thresholdlet us again think of serialismit ceases to communicate (the
form, not the music itself) to anyone, save for the theorists and the performers themselves, and
becomes perceptively equivalent to a random succession of pitches. Therefore, the question is
inevitable: does the form still hold intrinsic meaning if it is imperceptible to its recipient?
Many musicologists and philosophers have experimented with various qualified
interpretations of the idea of formalism. Levinson questions the assumption that knowledge of
large-scale form is absolutely necessary on the grounds that, though formal knowledge can add
to ones appreciation of a work, music works more frequently in smaller, moment-to-moment,
connections of real-time listening.
Scruton offers an interesting and advantageous view of
formalism in music by saying that music provides something of an intentional understanding
instead of a more scientific explanation. In Scrutons words, musical experience is not a
window but a picture.
Musical form cannot speak in the exact, precise words that one uses to
describe the material world, but rather it speaks in hazy, metaphorical terms that allow the
communication of ideas with an inherent meaning beyond the material world. From here it can
be seen that a flexible, rather than dogmatic, usage of formalism can yield useful results.
However, when carried to its logical conclusion, it must fail on the inability to reconcile the
variance in musical understanding between the educated and uneducated listener. Kuhns feels,

Jerrold Levinson, Music in the Moment (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997).
Roger Scruton, The Aesthetics of Music (New York: Clarendon Press, 1997), pp. 220-1.
music may be the art most immediately pleasurable and the most difficult to learn to respond to
adequately; while painting and poetry may require more exposure for pleasure and yet lie closer
to sensitivities cultivated in common education.
This supports my theory that formalism only
works to a point, after which it stops functioning as a useful approach to music.
2.2.2 Referentialism (Symbolic)
Philosophers and musicologists differ on the utility of semiotic explanations of music.
Philosophers, on the one hand, argue that reference without assertion has no purpose. In order
for aboutness to matter in music, the music must say something interesting or useful or in some
other way valuable about what it is about. Naked aboutness is nothing at all.
If music does not
assert anything, semantic notions are, for the most part, irrelevant. Musicologists, on the other
hand, find the various forms of signification to be extremely useful in describing music,
especially that of the 20
century, if for no other reason than the purely symbolic (graphic)
notation of certain avant-garde composers such as Feldman, Brown, and Stockhausen.
Goodman explores the usage of semiotics in Languages of Art
in opposition to others
such as Kivy who promote resemblance over reference. According to Goodman, works of art
perform one or more referential functions including representation, description, exemplification,
and expression. Furthermore, Goodman focuses on exemplification and the various types found
within: literal, metaphorical, and contrastive, showing that each are central to musical
signification and figure prominently in intramusical reference. If music does utilize symbols,
then one can judge it by how well the symbolism serves its cognitive purpose, or to borrow
Goodmans wording, the excellence with which it communicates. This excellence can be

Richard Kuhns, Music as a Representational Art, British Journal of Aesthetics 18 (1978): 120-125; see p. 121.
Peter Kivy, Philosophies of Arts: An Essay in Differences (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p.
Nelson Goodman, Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols (New York: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1968).
measured by the delicacy of its discriminations and the aptness of its allusions; by the way it
works in grasping, exploring, and informing the world; by how it analyzes, sorts, orders, and
organizes; by how it participates in the making, manipulation, retention, and transformation of
This semantic excellence, though not intrinsically aesthetic, becomes aesthetic
when exhibited by aesthetic objects.
Still, Goodmans semiotic system is unable to improve
on Kants distinction between technical features and taste. Goodman can judge whether a symbol
is effective or ineffective in symbolizing its object, but this has nothing to do with whether a
work of art is beautiful or ugly. Indeed, Goodman has little use for a definitive judgment of taste,
claiming, to say that a work of art is good or even to say how good it is does not after all
provide much information, does not tell us wither the work is evocative, robust, vibrant, or
exquisitely designed, and still less what are its salient specific qualities of color, shape, or
Rather, aesthetic value is more useful as a way to discover particular characteristics
found within the work.
Before moving on to the next section on representationalism, we must attempt to
differentiate between referentialism and representation, a distinction hazy at best. The largest
difference between the two is that referential art uses signs to point to ideas while representation
art seeks to mimic the ideas. At this level, the distinction seems clear enough, but if one looks
closer, isnt the act of a musical work attempting to mimic, say, a galloping horse the same as a
musical work pointing the listener to the idea of that galloping horse? For the purpose of this
paper, I will not pursue this issue further as it is beyond the scope of a general overview of

Nelson Goodman, Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols (New York: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1968),
p. 258.
Ibid, p. 259.
Ibid, p. 261.
2.2.3 Representationalism
Most of the fine arts have the possibility, realized or not, to be representational: poetry
and prose with words; painting, sculpture, and photography with images; and cinema with both
words and images. As Hanslick sees it, music cannot represent definite feelings because it is
incapable of conveying conceptual content that individuates a specific emotional state.
ties into the expressionism question of how music communicates emotional content. Kivy claims
that a listeners response to music is cognitive rather than affective. It is quite compatible, he
writes, with my perceiving the most intense and disquieting emotions in a work of art, that I not
myself be moved in the least.

Some argue that music does in fact have the ability to be representational, but that it is
more limited in its ability than the other arts. Scruton contends that music can be representational
in a limited manner if the listener can distinguish between the medium and the concept and have
an awareness of the subject, and if the works thoughts on the subject are presented in a way that
the listener can understand. This idea of representational music does not require apprehending
thoughts about the subject. Walton points out that each type of representation requires an amount
of imagination on the part of the consumer, and that this type of imagination is what differs
amongst the artistic disciplines. A painting requires a very explicit type of imagination where the
viewer must imagine that they see the object while music requires a much less explicit type of
imagination because the listener is not required to hear the subject of representation. One can
imagine that they are seeing a chair represented in a painting, but what sound does a chair make
and how can music represent this? So far, in this debate, no one has provided an answer for that

Eduard Hanslick, On the Musically Beautiful (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1989), p. 9.
Peter Kivy, Sound Sentiment: An Essay on the Musical Emotions (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989),
p. 23.
The debate of music as a representational art has further implications: Without conveying
meaning, music does not have the ability to be profound about something therefore making it
inferior, in some thinkers eyes, to other representational arts such as painting and literature. Kivy
makes an interesting case for musics inability to be profound by comparing it to literature,
which, he claims, must (1) have a profound subject matter and (2) treat this profound subject
matter in a way adequate to its profundity which is to say, (a) say profound things about this
subject matter and (b) do it at a very high level or artistic or aesthetic excellence.
He does
propose an alternate avenue for finding profundity in music by suggesting that while music
cannot be profound about extramusical matters, it can still be profound about itself. However,
Kivy rejects the Goodman-Beardsley theory of exemplification, which, in essence, claims that if
the work is a sonata, it exemplifies sonataness and is therefore about sonatas. This hollow
logical victory, as Kivy states, is not convincing because a musical work about a sonata is not in
itself interesting or something we should care about. Kuhns provides a similar, but more
sophisticated theory showing that because a musical work can refer to another musical work,
music can represent music. Kuhns has a valid argument because intramusical reference is used to
great effect by postmodern composers thus making Kivys flimsy proposition, compared to
Kuhns, seem a bit like a straw man.
Deleuze offers a rather novel idea concerning representation with his concept of
becoming, inextricably linked to his central philosophical concepts of difference and
repetition. Becoming (by which Deleuze means, becoming different), is the period between the
beginning and ending of a change during a re-presentation (i.e. a subsequent presentation). As a
simplified example, consider someone wishing to put together a cat costume for Halloween.

Peter Kivy, Philosophies of Arts: An Essay in Differences (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p.
Dressing in a large, fuzzy cat suit doesnt really resemble anything found in nature, thus
making it difficult for people to perceive the costume as something other than a human in a cat
suit. However, if the costume consists of a tail, some whiskers, and some pointy ears, the person
begins to exhibit cat-like features, what Deleuze would call a becoming-cat. The feline
elements blend more seamlessly with the human form suggesting that the human is becoming a
cat, creating a more effective costume in the process. This perspective on representation is quite
different from traditional thought and some background in postmodern philosophy (provided in
section 2.3) is necessary to adequately understand the context of Deleuzes work. If the musical
application of becoming seems unclear at this point, the analysis of Aphex Twins Ventolin, will
serve to further explicate the connection.
From Deleuze, Kivy, Kuhns, and Waltons views on representationalism in music, we
can create a hybrid theory that is useful for looking at music. The theory that Kuhns provides is
the most immediately useful and can provide the basis for examining representation in music.
Waltons differentiation between various methods of representation found in the different artistic
disciplines is also quite useful. Kivy succeeds in showing that an analogy between cognitive
profundity in literature and music is worthless, but does not really provide many answers beyond
his conclusion. Finally, Deleuze gives us a way to explain a certain type of highly effective
representation with his idea of becoming.
2.2.4 Sociological
The sociological aspect of music, which Adorno has written about at length, deals
directly with the reception, comprehension, and utility (or lack thereof) of music. As we have
seen with Plato, Kant, and Hegel, the supposed role of music, if indeed one can state such a
thing, has changed over time, not as an evolution, but rather as an oscillation between the poles
of autonomy, immanent in its alienation from the mass consciousness of society; and utility,
created to fulfill a purpose as determined by the market-driven culture industry. However, since
the music that we are concerned with is very current, appearing at the very end of the twentieth
century and continuing into the twenty-first century, it seems appropriate to restrict the
examination of sociological criticism to that of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Though Adorno did not live to see the advent of contemporary electronic music, his
views on the sociology of music are as applicable today as ever. In 1932 his essay, On the Social
Situation of Music,
he saw the majority of music being subordinated, commodified, and
produced for a specific use by the culture industry on the one hand; and the minority of music
retreating to a hermetic existence, losing any sense of cultural relevancy, by its refusal to submit
on the other. However, because music at the time of the essay was still somewhat ingenuous
where society was concerned, music erroneously placed the blame on itself and attempted to
reform itself leading not back to a situation where music and society co-existed in a meaningful
relationship, but to a new form of ridiculous music that attempted to both satisfy commercially
and artistically while doing neither.
Sociology is important in an examination of contemporary electronic music because it
deals with the recording industry in a much different way than what one typically considers art
music. Many critics dismiss the music out of hand simply because the composers are willing to
work within the culture industry machine, but this is unfair because it assumes that they are
actually caving to the demands of commerce. If Adorno provides cogent arguments against the
culture industry in 1932, it is time to re-examine his findings. In some ways, his predictions hold
true with the cultural inundation of glossy, throw-away pop music, but the situation is no longer

Theodor Adorno, On the Social Situation of Music, in Essays on Music: Theodor W. Adorno, ed. Richard
Leppert, trans. Susan H. Gillespie (Berkeley: University of California University Press, 2002), pp. 391-436.
as black-and-white as he saw it because there are now artists who, facilitated by their large
record-buying audience, can and do use the commercial system to their advantage. Adornos
thought is still relevant today, but we can no longer accept it unconditionally.

2.3.1 Introduction
Before discussing postmodernism, some substantial background is necessary to gain a
more comprehensive understanding of its features. Whereas the previous critical theories
operated on the positivistic notion that there are definitive answers that one can find, postmodern
critical theories are skeptical of any system claiming to provide such absolute answers. As we
have seen, each of the critical theories discussed above have been convincingly disputed when
they hold the indefensible position that not only are they correct, but the others are incorrect.
Inasmuch as postmodern critical theories are so radically different than the theories previously
described, it is my hope that the reader will indulge some background in postmodern philosophy,
as this foundation will surely benefit the readers understanding of ideas discussed below.
Postmodernism is a frequently misunderstood concept with many specious notions
masquerading under the guise of thoughtful scholarship, but with the glut of material published
on postmodernism, how is one to successfully evaluate its value as a theory and a philosophy
without a clear understanding? One must propose a definition before any meaningful discussion
of postmodern aesthetics can commence. Jean-Francois Lyotard supplied the most succinct
definition when he described it as, an incredulity toward meta-narratives.
Hes not talking
about a meta-narrative in the narratological sense of a reflexive story, but as a general hegemonic

Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian
Massumi (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1984).
forcesomething that rules basically unquestioned. While postmodern philosophy seems to
stand for many things for many people, there are a number of common traits present in most
definitions including the distrust of hegemonies (or meta-narratives); the deconstruction of the
text (including abjuration of logocentricity, the presence of writerly and readerly texts,
intertextuality, reflexivity and mise-en-abyme); reaching back in history both deferentially and
ironically; the mixture of high art and low art; quotation and borrowing; eclecticism and
pluralism; and an awareness of the Other.
Although it is a philosophy, it can be used with equal success as a meta-historical tool for
looking at the past as can been seen in the reflexive artistic movements of the late twentieth
century, starting in the seventies. Some will say that its a reaction against modernism (and
insofar as modernism is equated with structuralism, perhaps this is sometimes true), but its not
seeking to discard the past its simply questioning the past, the privileged binary oppositions,
and our intricate system of hegemonies, artistic, political, scientific, and social.
2.3.2 Incredulity toward meta-narratives
Many of postmodernisms critics interpret an incredulity toward meta-narratives as
anti-essentialism. Lyotard isnt saying that we should summarily destroy and discard the past
simply that we must question our intricate system of hegemonies, artistic, political, scientific,
and social, or as Derrida would say, the privileged binary oppositions. These hegemonies are
wide reaching not just in aesthetics, but also in philosophy in general. One of the largest meta-
narratives involved in artistic criticism is the unassailable signifier/signified relationship to
which post-structuralists such as Derrida, Barthes, and Deleuze do massive damagea point that
we will cover later on with a discussion of deconstructionism.
The distrust of hegemonies applies directly to art, our history of criticism, and our ancient
standard of quality that dates back to the dawn of humanism. Thus far, an elite group of highly
educated critics determines the standard of true excellence. If we can overthrow their dominance,
we will be free to experience a number of smaller narratives.
2.3.3 Post-structuralism/Deconstructionism
Deconstructionism, and area pioneered by Derrida, is central to the philosophy of
postmodernism giving us many new techniques both analytical and creative. In a sense, it is an
attempt to separate language from ideas. Derrida also attacks the notion of logocentricity that is
prevalent in Western discourse. The idea that the author can unproblematically transmit his
intended meaning to the reader is, to Derrida, a metaphysical conjecture that one cannot
reasonably assume. He sees no inextricable link between the signifier and signified because the
author has no guarantee that the full meaning of a word is present in the readers mind. A word
can carry a trace of another word or even suggest other similar sounding words. Derrida and
Barthes argue that words point only to other words, not ideas and that sentences are nothing
more than long chains of signifiers capable of generating endless meanings, or of negating
meaning altogether.
2.3.4 Intertextuality
With regard to music, deconstruction takes many forms. Among the most common is
intertextualitya reference to another work from within a work. This usually shows up in the
form of a quotation and though it is used in a much more provocative way in the postmodern era,
composers have been using parts of other works for centuries (the frequent appearances of the
Dies Irae is an excellent example). Beyond this, many late twentieth century works find the
composers exercising an acute knowledge of the past, some with serious art music, and some
with the so-called low arts of jazz and popular music.
In its simplest form, intertextuality is similar to the practice of double coding in which
generates a surplus of meaning by way of a witty allusion for the perceptive listener. It doesnt
much matter whether one understands the reference or not as the basic intent on the part of the
author does not hinge upon the listeners comprehension of the hidden meaning.
A more sophisticated use of intertextuality involves the de-contextualization of musical
material to impose new meaning through, for example, ironic juxtaposition. A few bars of
America the Beautiful has very different meaning if instead of being inserted into a patriotic
medley, its re-contextualized in an angry, confrontationally political work.
2.3.5 Historical versus A-historical postmodernism
When a postmodern work revisits the past, whether through intertextuality, double
coding, or de-contextualization, it can do so in two ways: Deferentially or ironically.
Additionally, deferentially and ironically historical postmodernism can be further divided into
historical postmodernism, which is has a knowledge and understanding of the history that it is
borrowing; and a-historical postmodernism, which borrows rather indiscriminately without
regard to cultural or historical meaning.
2.3.6 Reflexivity
Reflexivity is a technique familiar to the cinema, especially in the films of Jean-Luc
Godard, and can be found in many of the experimental works of the 1960s such as Cages 433
or the theatrical work of Mauricio Kagel. In cinema, reflexivity introduces elements that remind
the audience that they are watching a film, usually by directly addressing the camera or
providing a view of the mechanics of filmmaking. In music, this translates into works that draw
attention to their mechanics and construction. Cages 433 poses philosophical questions on the
nature of music to all who experience it: what is music? What is noise? Where is the line
between the two? Must music be intentional, or can it originate organically from the
environment? Other works such as Kagels Auftakte, Sechshndig (1996) expose certain
elements of the act of musical realization that typically remain hidden. One of the percussionists
spends the entire work playing with one black and one white mallet while searching for the
matching white mallet thereby allowing the audience to see behind the scenes of a musical
2.3.7 High art versus Low art
One of the most controversial aspects of artistic postmodernism is the erasure of dividing
lines between the so-called high art and low art. Critics such as Hal Foster claim this will
lead of a mess of mediocrity while others such as Alicia Craig Faxon contend that its high time
we dethroned the hegemony of traditional artistic criticism. Does the inclusion of popular styles
within a serious orchestral work actually devalue it, or could it possibly enhance it? Perhaps just
as much thought, care, and creativity goes into, say, a jazz composition as a piano sonata.
The debate of high art versus low art is particularly relevant to the discussion of
contemporary electronic music as it is frequently described in terms of popular music. Musician,
composer, and idealist, John Zorn rails on the prejudice and elitism often found in musicological
scholarship seeing the distinction between high art and low art as nonsense. He sees all
styles of music as ultimately being the same thing because, in the end, theres good music and
great music and phony music in every genre.
Just because one composer chooses to study
classically at a university; to study Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven; and, perhaps most importantly,

Cole Gagne, Soundpieces 2: Interviews with American Composers (Metuchen: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1993), 128-
to pay a vast sum for his education, it doesnt make the music inherently better than the self-
taught composer who learns everything he or she knows from listening to recordings and reading
books, or who decides to go as far as to invent an original compositional methodology. Although
this sparks cries of relativism (i.e. how can we express value judgments if anyones opinion is as
good as the next?), Zorn chooses to endorse music that moves him spirituallyhe excludes
nothing as long as its sincere and has decent craftsmanship. In Zorns music, each style and
genre is treated with equal respect whether its art music, jazz, a film score, grindcore, or even
one of his major orchestra commissionsevery style gets the same care and attention.
2.3.8 Eclecticism
The one can attribute the growth of eclecticism in music in part to the availability of
recordable media. Before the twentieth century, it was not possible to hear the same variety of
music. A composer would either have to travel to a different country, as Mozart did, or try to
hear a touring ensemble and even then, they would most likely hear only the current repertoire.
Around the sixties and seventies, when postmodernism was starting to become influential, the
presence of recordings was beginning to grow rapidly. Postmodern composers, for the first time,
were able to listen to music both current from around the world and from history. One could
easily listen to a Mozart symphony, a Bach fugue, a Duke Ellington tune, a Bartok string quartet,
and a Beatles song all in the same sitting. Since aural experiences frequently influence
composers, it is only natural that they would begin to incorporate elements from all of their
Although critics of eclecticism in music cite many issues, the issue of purity of form and
stylistic consistency is among the most frequently heard debates with the critics claiming that
postmodern composers are compensating for not having a unique voice. Eclectic composer are
not merely mashing disparate musical styles together, but are in fact using these juxtapositions to
exploit the slippage of signification, to change and rearrange music signifiers, to form new
connections and to take on new meaning.
Perhaps the most interesting issue to arise from the postmodern eclecticism debate is that
of the critical methodology. Previously, it was possible to compare a standard genre, such as a
symphony, to other similar works. Critics often used comparative evaluation as well as the
presence, absence, or manipulation of expectations. With eclectic works, the critic cannot fall
back on his bag-of-tricks and is required to actually listen to a work; simply hearing is not
sufficient any more. Far too often, critics dont evaluate a work thoroughly because there is
already an easy critical methodology in place. If the work in question is, say, minimalist, critics
are temped to bring their preexisting judgments on minimalism into play. They can apply a
prefabricated criticism to the work without trying to understand the artists complex personal
vision. However, with such stylistically unique works as eclecticism creates, each work must be
met on its own terms. This is one of the greatest results of eclecticism in music. On can hardly
consider anything that forces the critic and listener alike to become more open and thoughtful to
be a negative result.
2.3.9 The Other
As postmodernism seeks to dethrone hegemonies, it brings with it an increased interest in
the Other, or as Lyotard would say, little narratives. In postmodern discourse, the Other often
carries a racial connotation due mainly to Edward Saids works such as Orientalism, but the idea
of the Other can also be applied to, say, the high art/low art debate where low art is the
Other whos voice has been suppressed by the hegemony of the ancient standard of artistic
excellence. The idea of the Other is very useful for many aspects of music and criticism as there
are many applications: tonality and atonality, high art and low art, academic electronic music and
electronic music with beats, and many more.
2.4.1 Towards a Hybrid Aesthetic Theory
At this point, the idea of a single correct aesthetic theory is clearly unattainable
because, as we have seen, no single theory is perfect or useful all of the timeeach theory can
only describe a portion of music, not all music. We cannot use them unequivocallycertain
limitations are necessary to allow them to complement and not compete with one another.
Furthermore, the music itself must dictate when and to what extent these theories are used. They
may be good for certain types of music, as formalism is an excellent way to critique romantic
and twelve-tone music; or they may be good for certain historical periods, as is the case with
postmodernism, which, if applied to pre-twentieth century music would work in some cases (e.g.
the abjuration of logocentricity, questioning the supremacy of the author), but not in others (e.g.
the rise of eclecticism in the twentieth century, the mixture of high and low art); or they may
be useful for describing certain features of music such as the way referentialism and
representationalism can show how music is able to convey emotional content; but they dont
work in every case. Therefore, in place of outlining exactly how I plan to implement each critical
theory, I will leave it to the critic to apply them on a case-by-case basis, as it will most definitely
change with each new work under consideration.
This leaves me the option of creating an entirely new critical theory or mixing parts of
existing ideas. Inventing an entirely new critical theory would be to deny the utility of existing
theories and creating a massive amount of work for myself in the process. Since I can see no
reason to reinvent the wheel, my approach will be to combine elements of existing theories
because I believe them to be complementary, not exclusive. These theories complement each
other in various combinations and configurations, so I will leave it to the music itself to
determine the ideal mixture. Some works already have a viable aesthetic theory in place
formalism works well with serial music. Some will require a different approacha formalist
reading of a Baroque dance suite wont yield much useful information beyond that fact that the
generic form remains largely the same throughout most of the works thus making it appear
unoriginal and artistically trivial, but a sociological approach will bring up issues of artistic
intent as well as its relationship to other forms of purposive music.
As far as each of the existing critical theories are concerned, I will use them in the limited
form described above, again, allowing the music to dictate which theory or theories are applied,
where they are used, and to what extend they are used. For the reason that no existing critical
theory is perfect
I am adopting Kants distinction between judgment of technical features and judgment of
beauty, but I am also adding a third category concerning the effectiveness of a work. Kants
distinction is wise, but it also limits what aesthetic inquiries can accomplish. Much is lost if
aesthetics can only comment with any authority on matters of the technical, while judgments of
taste are left to unbounded relativism. From a purely technical stand-point, Weberns most
compact, formally perfect work should be counted amongst the greatest of all art and should be
treasured and enjoyed by everyone. However, its technique (serialism), while perfect in its
realization, is not necessarily an effective way to convey artistic intent inasmuch as the form is
complex to the point of impenetrability for the average uniformed listener. Because of this, I feel
it necessary to expand Kants two-fold view of aesthetics.
There is, of course, no objective method to determine the effectiveness of a work in
achieving its goal (whether cognitive in the Hegelian sense, absolute as Dahlhaus speaks of, or
otherwise), and so this third category will be historically informed, building on the tradition of
what is generally agreed to be artistic excellence. This runs the risk of maintaining the critical
prejudices already in place, but the only alternative is to avoid the question of artistic quality and
validity, which defeats the purpose of the paper. To ignore history is as foolish as to follow it
blindly, unquestioning and unchanging.
2.4.2 Hybrid Aesthetic Theory
For the purpose of critiquing a musical work, I propose a set of features that one can
attempt to find and judge based on their successful (or unsuccessful) implementation. Important
features include:
Form and scope (Formalism)
Originality (Kant and Hegel)
Novel use of generic conventions (Postmodernism)
Departure from generic conventions
Creative use of existing material (Postmodernism)
Complexity of conceptual development (Formalism, Hegel)
Use of symbols (Referentialism)
Complexity of signification (Post-structuralism)
Effective representation (Representationalism)
Satisfying synthesis of autonomy and utility (Sociologic)
Natural, organic beauty (Kant)
Transparency of technical features (Kant)
Eclecticism and intertextuality (Postmodernism)
Successful implementation of the artists intent
Not all of these features need to be present in a work and there will often be certain features that
are either necessary to add, or not applicable. In the case of electronic music, some additional
features include:
Inventive combinations of electronic and acoustic instruments
Imaginative application of conventions from tradition acoustic music
Creative use of found material
Novel use of digital signal processing
New and interesting sounds
All of these features carry a degree of subjectivity with them. Who is to say that a
departure from a certain generic convention is interesting? Similarly, who can say that the
artists intent is realized effectively? This is, as it has always been, up to the critic and the
listener as criticism was always already incapable of stating anything other than a personal
opinion. However, that is not to say that this opinion is not respected and useful to others.

Taxonomy of Electronic Music
3.1.1 Pioneers
Before we begin to test our hybrid aesthetic theory, some background on electronic music
is necessary because artists such as Aphex Twin and Squarepusher didnt just show up and start
making music. Their music, like most other music, was the product of hundreds of years of
musical development. While one could argue that the stochastic music of Xenakis or the chance
music of Cage managed to create something truly original, uninfluenced by history, the music of
Kraftwerk has definite connections to the past, even if the instruments themselves are new and
radically different from what came before. The roots of electronic music are easy to trace until
the advent of popular electronic music where the recording industry named a myriad of styles, all
with ambiguous boundaries. Since it is especially difficult for an electronic music neophyte to
sort out terms such as house, techno, and trance, this taxonomy will serve to acquaint the reader
with them as well as to show their history, development, and interrelationships.
3.1.2 The beginning of electronic music
One of the most important early contributors to the field of electronic music was Max
Mathews who, along with his group at Bell Telephone Laboratories, developed Music 1, the first
electronic music programming language, in the late 1950s and continued through Music V in the
late 1960s. Not only does this mark the first occurrence of digital sound synthesis, but it also
paved the way for musical programming languages such as Csound
and Max/MSP
, both
favored by many electronic artists. A musical programming language is significantly different
from playing a ready-made synthesizer: Although a synthesizer has many parameters to tweak, it
doesnt come anywhere close to the amount of freedom offered by these programming
environments mainly because the languages allow the user to build literally anything they can
conceive. Where a synthesizer might allow the user to select between, say, eight different
waveforms, a programming language such as Max can create any type of waveform. Electronic
artists favor these tools because they can design their own unique instruments and sculpt their
own personal sound worlds.
Edgar Varese, along with Pierre Schaeffer, developed a type of electronic music called
musique concrete where compositions are made of found sounds as opposed to synthesized
sounds. Significantly, this is the first instance of sampling, a technique that figures prominently
in contemporary electronic music. Vareses Poeme Electronique, composed for the 1958

Created by Barry Vercoe, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab.
Created by Miller Puckette, University of California, San Diego.
Brussels Worlds Fair, is one of the most important works of this style and made possible the
work of artists such as DJ Shadow whose CD Entroducing (1996) was the first CD to be
completely composed of pre-existing material. Musique concrete typically favored the sounds of
the bustling metropolis, the modern factory, and the machines within. In this way, it also
influenced industrial and experimental artists such as the group Throbbing Gristle who produced
many works based on tape loops of found sounds.
Karlheinz Stockhausen is a major innovator in many areas of electronic music including
tape manipulation, electronic sound synthesis, and the implementation of higher math in his
compositional methodology. He is a direct influence on Kraftwerk and many experimental
electronic composers such as Merzbow and Pan Sonic. Of course Stockhausen isnt the only
twentieth-century avant-garde composer to influence contemporary electronic composers,
certainly Xenakis, Cage, Earle Brown, Alvin Lucier, and others are worthy of mention, but
Stockhausen is definitely the most prominent influence on many electronic composers working
3.1.3 Kraftwerk
In 1970 Ralf Htter and Florian Schneider formed Kraftwerk. It was initially an
experimental project combining electronic music with acoustic performance, very similar to
areas that Stockhausen had pioneered in the early 60s. Following two albums in this style, the
released Ralf und Florian (1973), which is notable for the use of a homemade drum machine
(which they titled a rhythimusimachine). The synthetic sounds began to overwhelm the acoustic
sounds and by the time they released their first internationally recognized hit, Autobahn (1974),
the synthetic sounds accounted for one hundred percent of the music. Between 1975 and 1981
Kraftwerk released four inspired albums of electronic music that forever changed popular music
including Radio Activity (1975), Trans-Europe Express (1977), The Man Machine (1978), and
Computer World (1981). It is impossible to overstate their importance to not only electronic
music, but to all forms of popular music. The pop music of the late twentieth century is marked
by extensive production, synthesized sounds, copious amounts of digital signal processing, drum
machines, and many other studio techniques that, for better or worse, allow producers to create
albums that are literally flawless (musically worthy is another matter entirely, however). All of
these elements exist because of Kraftwerks wide-reaching influence.
However, Kraftwerk was not simply an influential pop group. Although they may favor
syncopated beats in 4/4 time with standard verse/chorus song structures, their music also
includes an important conceptual element: each album has a theme that comments on a certain
aspect of technology beginning with the freeways, radio-activity, mass transit, robotics and
mechanization, and finally computers. Kraftwerks minimal music is deceptive inasmuch as it
can speak volumes with only a few lyrics. Interestingly, many of their ideas and predictions
eventually came to be: Computer World, released in 1981 the same year that IBM introduced the
first PC, deals with the saturation of our society with computers and predicted the ubiquity of the
personal computer with the song Homecomputer. Kraftwerk was able to achieve a level of
musical and conceptual sophistication that is rarely equaled by a group that finds success with a
popular audience and is thusly included among nearly all contemporary electronic music
composers most important influences.
3.1.4 Experimental Electronic Artists
While Kraftwerk was experiencing world-wide almost mainstream appeal, electronic
music was also developing in a more underground setting with groups such as Throbbing Gristle
and Coil: two highly provocative and confrontational groups that have as much to do with
performance art as electronic music. Throbbing Gristle grew out of a performance art project
called Coum Transmissions, a controversial performance art group that combines intellectualism
with some extremely depraved acts. Coum Transmissions was the project of Genesis P-Orridge
and Cossi Fanni Tutti who went on to form Throbbing Gristle with Peter Sleazy
Christopherson and Chris Carter. Throbbing Gristle, like Coum Transmissions before it,
concerned itself with the breaking of boundariesboundaries of aesthetics and boundaries of
decency. However, that is not to say that it was tantamount to shock rockers such as Alice
Cooper or Marilyn Manson. These are intelligent, forward-thinking groups, drawing influence
from Dadaism and surrealism as well as the electro-acoustic music of Stockhausen. Their themes
deal with death, fascism, degradation, and anti-conformism in general. While these topics are
now exceedingly obvious performance art topics, Throbbing Gristle was amongst the first to
venture into this territory.
The strictly musical parts of their performance works owe a large debt to Varese,
Schaeffer, and their work with musique concrete, albeit in a much more abrasive manner. Very
Friendly (1979) combines tape loops of found industrial sounds with synthesizer outbursts that
serve to punctuate P-Orridges monologue describing in lurid detail the 1965 murder and
dismemberment of Edward Evans at the hands of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, the infamous
Moors Murderers of Manchester. It is precisely when Throbbing Gristle is its most provocative
that it is most powerful.
Coil is another group similar in theme, tone, and presentation, but one that focused more
on the music and less on the message. In 1983, John Balance and Peter Christopherson, formerly
of Throbbing Gristle, formed Coil and released the seminal electro-acoustic work, How to
Destroy Angels (1984) followed by the equally important, Scatology (1984). How to Destroy
Angels is an avant-garde electro acoustic work combining percussion with live synthesis to
create a disturbingly dark ambient soundscape. The obvious influence to works such as this is
Stockhausens Kontakte (1958-60), which combines piano, percussion, and pre-recorded tape.
However, Kraftwerks early albums were also very influential as both Coil and Throbbing
Gristle influenced not only the more experimental contemporary electronic composers, but also
more mainstream electronic groups.
3.2.1 Electronic music styles
A large number of styles grew out of the techno scene, each more specific than the last.
While most of the more serious artists never concerned themselves with a label to easily identify
their style, the recording industry, and more specifically, the marketing divisions did concern
themselves with this task. The differences between stylistic labels are sometimes very tenebrous
and one is sure to disagree at least some of the time. However, for the purpose of clarity, I am
providing working definitions so that it is clear how I am using words such as microhouse in
the paper.
Techno initially split into seven main styles: house, trance, drum and bass, down tempo,
turntablism, break beat, and experimental. From there, the labels get increasingly specific. House
music divides further into deep house, hard house, micro house, New York house, and others that
are probably invented everyday. Different features define each of the sub-styles: some simply
differentiate between musical styles (deep house for instance is a more mellow style than
regular house), some are related to technical aspects (gabba is defined by its use of a bass drum
sample with an amplitude overdriven to the point that it becomes a square wave), others are
defined by the drugs used during both the recording process and during the listening (trance
music is nearly synonymous with Ecstasy), some are named after the dances they accompany
(two-step is a groove named after a style of dancing). Additionally, there are some labels put in
place by the recording industry for the sole purpose of making electronic music easier to
classifywhat is one to do when the music ranges from simple 4/4 techno tunes, to ambient
soundscapes without any groove whatsoever, to enormous washes of pure white noise, to
incredibly fast, intricately rhythmical music? The electronica label is perhaps the most visible
and is the worst offender. Its about as useful in describing the varied styles of electronic music
as classical (also an industry term, in its present use) is in describing the whole of Western art
music from medieval to baroque to classical to romantic to modern to postmodern. Its history is
simple enough. When the Chemical Brothers had a series of hits in the late 90s with songs such
as Hey Boy, Hey Girl (1999) and Block Rockin Beats (1997), the industry realized that
electronic music might become very popular in the mainstream and therefore required a blanket
term so that consumers wouldnt become confused. Its the same logic that leads the music
industry to believe that consumers would have difficulty differentiating between a Bach fugue
and a Stockhausen work for three separate orchestras.
At first glance, these definitions seem to further the idea that these types of music have
no place in the world of serious artany style defined by illegal drug use or the dance its meant
to accompany must be dubious at best. However, these defining characteristics are not entirely
unprecedented in the world of serious art. Some define, at least in part, the French symbolists by
their drug useBaudelaire with opium, Verlane with absinthe, and many others. Similarly, the
dances define the movements of the baroque dance suites including the minuet, courante,
sarabande, and gigue.
It is also important to note that although each of these styles and sub-styles have different
intents and purposes, and although some of the styles command more respect from critics than
others, once the idea of intelligent dance music enters the picture, it crosses all the boundaries.
There can be drum and bass flavored IDM, house flavored IDM, even trance, adulterated to the
point of worthlessness, can still find redemption with a sufficiently competent composer working
from the IDM ideology.
3.2.2 House
House music is a direct descendent of disco and owes a large debt to techno. It began in
Chicago with DJ Frankie Knuckles mixing disco with European electronic music, namely
Kraftwerk. Its purpose is dance music, as evidenced by the constant bass drum on all beat. This
feature dates back to the jazz dance bands of the late 1920s where the drummer would keep a
constant four-on-the-floor as the rhythmic guide. It also features repetitive bass and melodic
content similar to techno. When compared to other electronic styles, house is one of the most
basic and therefore least respected styles.
As stated before, house split into a number of sub-styles, two of which are important:
deep house and microhouse. Deep house features the four-on-the-floor rhythmical sense of
traditional house music, but is more relaxed and mellow featuring jazzy chord progressions,
female vocals, uplifting thematic content, and more advanced song structure in general. One
typically finds deep house music on compilations as there are few deep house artists releasing
full-length albums. There are two main record labels releasing the majority of deep house music:
Naked Music in the United States and Hed Kandi in the U.K.
Microhouse has a very sparse aesthetic taking small sounds (e.g. clicks, snaps, pings) as
its main rhythmic sonorities. The melodies remain simple in the tradition of regular house music,
but of features have more to do with the aesthetics of intelligent dance music. Thus, we see
another example of a style widely considered to be of questionable quality elevated by the
presence of skilled artists. While there are many microhouse artists releasing 12 singles, there
are also a growing number who are releasing full-length albums such as Herbert (Mathew
Herbert) and Ellen Allien.
3.2.3 Trance
Trance is the least respected of all the electronic styles, a stance which has not changed
much as there have been virtually no artists making any sort of interesting, original music in the
trance style. That is not to say that here isnt a periodic track or two that stands out, but the
majority of the trance output is fairly generic. Trance combines the faster tempos of techno with
the repetitive melodic elements of house. With tempos ranging from 130 to 160 beats per minute,
it is very energetic dance music.
Trance has its roots in the industrial music of Psychic TV, a more dance oriented project
of Genesis P-Orridge and Peter Christopherson, specifically the album, Towards Thee Infinite
Beat (1989). The drug ecstasy, popular with the rave scene, was also central to the formation of
trance, which some artists produce with the intention of enhancing ecstasy trips. A series of
peaks and valleys typify the music, which builds in a slow repetitive fashion over a long period
of time, finally unleashing a massive, loud section thus enabling the ravers to freak out.
There are many sub-styles of trance with the most prominent including progressive
trance, which concentrates on song structure, melody, and chord progressions; Euro trance,
which uses simple, characteristically upbeat vocals; and Goa trance, unique in its use of the
Indian raga, which is uniformly dark and altogether more hard-edged than other trance styles.
These, however, are just a few of the many varieties of trance musica search of Wikipedia
returns eleven additional sub-styles.
There are a number of reasons that critics often see trance as having equivocal musical
quality, but none as important as the saturation of the music world by a glut of unoriginal,
uninspired, derivative tracks by artists who create one track for a compilation and then
disappear. This is due partially to the rather straightforward requirements of trance music
(common tempo, melodic style, and beats, peaks and valleys, and more), but it is also due to the
audience of trance musictypically people at clubs concentrating on dancing and getting high
rather than listening with a critical ear. In addition, there are few examples of trance done in an
original, musically interesting manner. Few trance composers attempt to defy the generic
conventions by producing something innovative or experimental, although BT (Brian Transeau)
and Paul Van Dyk, both examples of what trance as a style could be, put much effort into this
3.2.4 Breakbeat
Breakbeat is a style of music that builds upon grooves (or breaks) sampled from other
records, usually of the funk and soul variety. The break of a record refers to a section in the
middle of the song where all the instruments drop out except for the drums leaving the drummer
to groove solo for typically four bars before the rest of the musicians reenter. Although these
breaks last only four bars, DJs found that the stripped down grooves were excellent for dancing
and began to extend them by using two copies of the same record, a technique called beat
juggling. While the break plays on one turntable, the DJ cues up the same break on a different
turntable, going back and forth as many times as desired. DJs also found that these breaks,
devoid of any melodic content, are also excellent for mixing with other tracks. DJs began using
the break from one record with the vocals and melody of a different record to create different
versions of songs, a technique DJ Shadow (Josh Davis) would take and expand to the extreme
with his album, Entroducing (1996).
Eventually composers began chopping up well-known breaks into segments (referred to
as slices), rearranging them, changing pitch and tempo, and using them in their work. Software
tools such as Propellerhead ReCycle greatly facilitated this and helped give the classic breaks
new life.
Breakbeat music led to big beat and jungle, two important electronic styles. Big beat
differs from the styles discussed thus far in that it replaces the standard four-on-the-floor dance
beat with syncopated funk grooves, as well as its generally slower tempos. Big Beat tends to be
jazzier and looser than the sometimes-stiff programming involved in music such as trance
because a human drummer performs the source material (i.e. the breaks), making them slightly
inaccurate, but with the certain je ne sais qua of a funky drummer. The Propellerheads 1998
album, Deskanddrumsandrockandroll, is perhaps the definitive statement of this style.
Jungle involves sampling a breakbeat and then speeding it up to the 160-180 beats per
minute range, raising the pitch of the sample in the process. Of course, current technology allows
one to change pitch and time independent of each other, but the high-pitched drums are central to
jungles sound. I will discuss jungle at length in the drum and bass section.
3.2.5 Turntablism
Turntablism is very similar to the technique of breakbeat music. Turntablists take ideas
like beat juggling to a new level of complexity by mixing not only beats, but also melodic
material, sometimes from three or more turntables. One of the biggest differences between the
other electronic music discussed thus far is that turntable music is often performed live,
sometimes in ensembles of six or more people each armed with two turntables, a mixer, and a
stack of records. These turntable groups, such as the Invisible Scratch Piklz or the X-ecutioners,
create new works entirely from extant material. One can easily trace turntablism back to John
Cage with works such as Imaginary Landscape 1 (1939), which calls for four turntables, a set of
constant pitched records, and some percussion. To go back even further, the art of creating
something new from found sounds is essentially musique concrete in the style of Vareses
Deserts (1950-54).
Turntablism is also unique in that it won acceptance by the art music community due to
its direct connections to composers such as Cage, Varese, and Schaeffer and due to the efforts of
contemporary composers such as DJ Spooky (Paul Miller) to legitimize the art. DJ Spooky is
particularly successful in this endeavor because he speaks directly to the public about what he
and his colleagues are doing, an activity all contemporary composers should be doing if they
wish audiences to not only hear them, but to understand them as well.
3.2.6 Down tempo
Down tempo is a broad term covering slower electronic styles such as trip hop, chill out,
and ambient, amongst others. Because a great deal of IDM (Intelligent Dance Music) can also
fall under the down tempo banner and because slower tempos dont lend themselves well to
dancing (and are thus used for listening), down tempo has developed as electronic music made
for critical listening. Thats not to say down tempo doesnt have its share of unoriginal artists (as
with any artistic movement), but it does tend to encompass a great deal of the most interesting
and creative electronic music being made today.
Trip hop is an important part of down tempo music. Artists such as Massive Attack,
Tricky (Adrian Thaws), and Portishead borrow elements from breakbeat, dark ambient, and hip-
hop to create an intense, gloomy, and in Trickys case paranoiac, atmosphere. Many consider
these artists and groups to be part of IDM, but choose to classify them as trip hop because it is
more evocative of their sound.
3.2.7 Drum and Bass
Drum and bass has its roots in hardcore techno from the U.K. It began with
straightforward techno rhythms, but soon the beats per minute range increased to 160-180 and
the beat changed to include a strong backbeat
in place of the quarter note driven dance
rhythms. Soon, a sub-style called jungle broke out and drum and bass, previously an
underground phenomenon, began to gain public recognition. Few can agree on the difference
between drum and bass and jungle, but for the purpose of this paper, the following distinction
will be adequate: Drum and bass typically features a more conventional style of drum
programming, relying on a constant, strong backbeat, while jungle features grooves of increased
complexity, often in very syncopated patterns without a standard backbeat. In addition, drum and
bass relies heavily on the Roland TR-808 for both its drum sounds and its bass sounds, whereas
jungle tends to use speeded up breakbeats cut up, rearranged, and pitch/time shifted.
Jungle crosses over into IDM with the music of artists such as Goldie (Clifford Price),
Roni Size (Ryan Williams), and A Guy Called Gerald (Gerald Simpson), artists who expand and
enhance the foundation of drum and bass with a greater level of conceptual complexity. Goldies
Mother (1998) is a massive, fifty-minute work of near symphonic ambition featuring a
complicated formal structure, melodic and harmonic progression, and a true sense of formal
development. Roni Size and A Guy Called Gerald both produce inventive, jazzy jungle, but are
still closely connected to jungles dance roots, where some of Goldies works such as Timeless
(1995) have long sections with no beat at all. However, a number of important artists remained

The backbeat refers to beats two and four played on the snare drum in virtually every style of Western popular
more or less true to the drum and bass form such as Dillinja (Karl Francis) and Lemon D (Kevin
King) who both continue to create inspired drum and bass music that is still as much about
dancing as it is about listening.
Eventually artists such as Aphex Twin, !-ziq, and Squarepusher (all prominent IDM
artists) pushed jungle to its limits creating a style called drill and bass, thusly named for its
lightening fast drum programming. Drill and bass is even faster than jungle with tempos
sometimes exceeding 200 beats per minute, making it a poor choice for dancers, but a great
choice for listeners. Aphex Twin and !-ziq tend to juxtapose extremely fast rhythms with
melodic material, often moving at half tempo, while Squarepusher, on the other hand, tends to
extend the fast, intricate programming to the melodic and harmonic realm. In recent years,
Venetian Snares (Aaron Funk) is exploring the upper limits of drill and bass both in terms of
speed and complexity of programming.
3.2.8 Experimental
While styles such as house, trance, breakbeat, and drum and bass were developing, a
group of electronic artists began creating a radically different style of music, some of which left
its roots in dance music far behind. Merzbow (Masami Akita) is one such artist who takes
electronic music in completely new directions and, in fact, questions the very distinctions
between music and noise. He is the most important figure in the burgeoning Japanese noise
(Japanoise) movement releasing a handful of recordings every year. His current discography
contains over 200 albums including the 50 CD Merzbox. Merzbow experiments with every type
of noise from musique concrete to analogue feedback to pure digital noise. He uses a number of
instruments and common recording tools incorrectly to create new and interesting sounds far
removed from anything that has come before. Sounds that one typically avoids at all costs such
as the noise produced by damaged audio cables, interference from the mixture of power and
signal cables, and loose cable connections are used to great effect in Merzbows music. Pulse
Demon (1996) is an excellent example of his brutal aural assaults consisting of one hour of some
of the most intense sonic experimentation in the history of electronic music. Other works such as
Music for Bondage Performance (1995) show a more gentle side to Merzbow with dark, ambient
soundscapes coupled with some rather perverse programmatic material. One cannot consider his
compositions to be dance music or popular music by any definition. His compositions are highly
theoretical and experimental having more to do with free jazz than techno. However, that is not
to say that his music is totally devoid of history. His influences include experimental electronic
arts such as Nurse with Wound (Steve Stapleton), Stockhausen, and the Dadaist movement in
general (his name is taken from the title of a Kurt Schwitters collage).
Other experimental artists maintain minimal connections with their techno roots while
returning to a more experimental mentality going back to Throbbing Gristle, Coil, and even
Stockhausen. Pan Sonic is a Finnish duo producing experimental and theoretical works similar in
concept to Merzbow, but not as frequently noise and usually with beats. They also work in a
jazz-like style creating works out of coordinated, controlled improvisations as opposed to a more
rigid compositional style.
3.3.1 The Dawn of Intelligent Dance Music
In 1992, Warp Records released a compilation album called Artificial Intelligence,
featuring a number of their artists including, among others, Aphex Twin, Autechre, and Speedy
J. These artists exhibited a different conceptual approach to the dance music of the Detroit
Techno artists such as Jeff Mills, Kevin Saunderson, and Derek May. Early Detroit techno had a
definite function: it was to get people on the dance floor. It consisted of the simplest melodies
with minimal, repetitive arrangements. The tracks could go on for ten minutes without changing
much at all because the audience was busy dancing, not listening for the subtleties and nuance of
fine art. However, the Warp Records artists began to create detailed music with intricate
construction, not strictly for dancing, but for listening. This distinction led journalists to coin the
term Intelligent Dance Music, or IDM for short, but they never offered any sort of uniform
definition and thus people use it rather indiscriminately. From here, Warp Records became the
preeminent IDM label having already signed most all the artists involved. Soon after Warp
Records success, a number of small labels began to spring up catering to the burgeoning IDM
The term IDM is troubling to many because a) it seems to imply that other related artists
are making stupid dance music, b) quite a lot of IDM doesnt have any beat at all, making the
dance part of the title false, and c) because it carries an elitist connotation making the
composers into snobs, whether they choose to adopt the term or not. Additionally, because a
journalist coined the term IDM, it seems to be a tool of the recording industryyet another way
for the market driven culture industry to commodify an artists personal vision. Perhaps is it as
simple as this: techno music had failed to gain critical respect based on its simplistic dance
function and its minimal formal content, so the marketing division of some of the record labels
decided to create a new label to impose on the new trend of listening music for the purpose of
making the consumers feel better about themselvesthe dubious techno music was not very
respectable but this new intelligent dance music was. Regardless, the term IDM was, at this
point, here to stay.
Composers from IDMs incunabula such as Aphex Twin, !-ziq, Autechre and LFO

defined the sound across a wide range with Aphex Twin and !-ziq exploring extremely fast,
intricately programmed rhythms; Autechre concentrating on alien soundscapes featuring bizarre,
undanceable rhythms and lots of original DSP tools; and LFO bridging the space between
straight Detroit techno and the more experimental groups. LFOs example shows that IDM does
indeed have strong connections to the syncopated dance rhythms of Kraftwerk and Jeff Mills
with tracks such as Tied Up (1996), while Autechre shows that rhythm need not be present at all,
especially in tracks such as Bronchusevenmx24 (1996).
IDM is a difficult style to describe because it is as much a philosophy and an ideology as
it is a musical style. Stereotypical IDM usually features highly processed sounds, often produced
with custom-made hardware and software, set to intricately programmed grooves. While tempos
may vary, IDM tends to be moderate around 95 to 130 beats per minute. Of course, there are
prominent exceptions such as the drill and bass of Squarepusher and !-ziq. Overall, there is
considerably less repetition in IDM as it often features grooves that constantly vary or expansive
forms that wander across many colors and textures, especially when compared to the minimalist
aesthetic of techno composers like Plastikman.
While most electronic music involves a substantial amount of digital signal processing,
IDM composers are particularly creative in this department, often taking sounds previously
thought to be undesirable (such as the sonic result of a CD skipping) and making them
interesting and expressive. Austrian duo Fnkstorung were among the first composers to explore

LFO (Low Frequency Oscillator) is the project of Mark Bell and Gez Varley and should not be confused with the
pop group of the late 90s that bear the same initials.
stutter edits
giving rise to a sub-category of IDM called glitch that imitates skipping CDs and
damaged audio files.
These glitchy beats have significance beyond their novel aural quality: they break the
bonds that held previous electronic music to a steady 4/4 pulse by showing that almost any beat
pattern, no matter how complex, syncopated, or asymmetrical, could fulfill the functions of a
groove if repeated in a periodic manner. Although Tricky is primarily associated with the trip
hop style, he makes effective use of a groove that, over the coarse of two measures, speeds up
and slows down on Talk to Me from his album, Angels with Dirty Faces (1998). The groove
takes on an irregular breath-like quality adding to the thick atmosphere of stygian dread that
Tricky cultivates so effectively. IDM is important as a style, concept, and ideology because it
fosters this creativity, this lack of generic restriction, and this freedom to explore that which
certain other electronic styles will not.
3.3.2 Music today
Many artists from the beginning of IDM remain active and continue to push the
boundaries of electronic music. However, since the introduction of the phrase intelligent dance
music in 1992, a number of other labels for this style of music are beginning to gain
prominence. Labels such as headphone music and electronic listening music are preferable
to most composers and listeners because they dont comment in a negative way on other forms of
electronic music and because they more accurately describe the intent of the music (i.e. they
explain that the music is made for listening to rather for dancing).
This leads to my proposed label of contemporary electronic music. This term serves to
differentiate between music created for the sole purpose of dancing and music created for
listening critically, it replaces the problematic IDM label, and it brings the music closer to what

Edits created by slicing an audio file and removing tiny sections to produce a stutter effect.
the critics and academics refer to as electronic art music. Labeling something contemporary
has some obvious flaws as it could easily fall into a trap similar to the term new music, which
is commonly used to refer to music ranging from early twentieth-century Schoenberg to the early
twenty-first century minimalist triadism of Philip Glass. Something labeled contemporary is
entirely relative to its position in history and so music that one labels contemporary today will
not be contemporary in twenty years. This is by design: the term is a stepping-stone between
popular music and art music. Its relative temporal quality will force it to expire fairly quickly at
which time it is my goal that scholars and critics will simply drop the contemporary part of the
label and allow it to integrate into the class of electronic art music.
Rather than definitively dictating what constitutes contemporary electronic music, I am
choosing to provide a list of characteristic features that may or may not be present in any given
electronic composition for the reason that an immutable ontological description of anything
relating to the arts is simply not possible. A term covering artists as varied as Autechre,
Merzbow, Pan Sonic, and Squarepusher must have room for the artists to explore music in very
different ways.
Much like my proposed hybrid aesthetic theory, the following list of characteristic
features is not a set of requirementsmany works will possess a selection. Additionally, I am
choosing to define contemporary electronic music according to the existing styles described
above, as this style did not materialize in a vacuum. Contemporary electronic music can take the
form of any existing electronic style (e.g. house, techno, breakbeat); it can include a prominent
groove typically, of increased complexity compared to that of other styles; it can feature a greater
complexity of form and scope comparable to that of traditional and experimental Western art
music; it can feature advanced and original digital signal processing and, consequently, original
and distinctive sounds; it can combine electronic and acoustic music in performance and
composition; it can borrow from the vast tradition of Western art music; it can exploit its
electronic medium and its typical reliance on pre-recording and extensive editing; and above all,
it must, in every case, necessitate its electronic medium by striving to provide something
unrealizable through acoustic means. If contemporary electronic music can meet sets of these
features, and much of it already does, it will categorically make a valuable contribution to our
fine history of art music.
Now that we have a sense of the general familial resemblance of contemporary electronic
music, its time to test my aesthetic theory. This application will show how contemporary
electronic music can satiate the rigors of aesthetic criticism with ease. I selected three works
from a variety of styles including Aphex Twins Ventolin, Venetian Snares Szerencstlen, and
Pan Sonics Kesto. Additionally, I selected a very poor example of electronic music to show that
my aesthetic theory, though inclusive by nature, is sufficiently exclusory so as to filter out
undesirable material.

4.1 Example No. 1 Aphex Twin: Ventolin
It is fitting to begin with the artist most associated with the Intelligent Dance Music style,
Richard D. James, or as he is better known, Aphex Twin. With five major albums, four
compilation albums of remixes and singles, and countless EPs, released over the course of a
nearly twenty-year career, selecting a standout work is rather difficult. I would undoubtedly
select a different work to introduce first-time listeners, but for the purposes of this analysis,
(1994) will provide an excellent example.
To label Ventolin abrasive or caustic is to do it an injustice as it surpasses both of those
terms. Its an excruciating work marked by a prominent high-pitched tone that pierces the
listeners ears for most of the 4:29 duration. The title of the work refers to the drug Ventolin, an
albuterol-based asthma medicine, pointing the listener to the program: an asthma attack. One
could assume that Aphex Twin himself has asthma and was thusly inspired to compose this
work, although this is difficult to substantiate.
Ventolin begins with the aforementioned piercing tone, quickly adding a strong beat built
from drum sounds layered with high-frequency noise. These two elements remain strong
throughout the work, save for a brief section in the middle where the beat drops out. A one-bar
bass pattern, a one-bar melody, and a two-bar counter melody appear in various configurations
throughout, as is typical with this style of music.
If the intent of the work is to simulate, or mimic the experience of an asthma attack,
representationalism is the obvious critical theory to serve as the basis for the analysis. However,
Ventolin provides something beyond a representation and actually produces similar feelings of
claustrophobia and desperation in the listener making it, as Deleuze would describe, becoming-
asthma. The listener does not actually suffer an asthma attack, but physically experiences
musical representations of some of its symptoms. In this sense, Ventolin is extremely effective in
the realization of its intent, one of the most important critical features of this work.
Creating an effective work is good to a point, but now it is important to ask if this is a
creative and artistically worthy way to produce this representation for simply producing aural
discomfort for a length of time is well within the grasp of any amateur guitarist, provided they

Richard D. James, Ventolin; digital disc (Warp Records, 61790-2, 1995).
have a sufficiently loud amplifier. Aphex Twin doesnt simply provide a painful cacophony, but
rather uses his electronic instruments to produce a constant, focused, inescapable noise, which
would be impossible to recreate on an acoustic instrument. In that sense, electronic composition
is the ideal medium for communicating such a concept.
However, the benefits of electronic composition dont stop with the piercing tone. Aphex
Twin manipulates all the other sounds to provide maximum agitation as well. He increased the
amplitude of the drums to the point of distortion and then layers an extremely distorted, crunchy,
high-pitched screech with the percussive attack transients. Where most grooves have a strong
sense of forward momentum without forcing too much emphasis on any single beat, Ventolins
drums lack this forward momentum, which lends itself to the sense of stasis within the work
the inescapable panic accompanying the struggle to breathe. Rather, each percussive sound is
like an assault, emotionally (from the sense of stasis) and physically (from the piercing attack).
The melodic sounds also benefit from Aphex Twins creative sound design. There is
decent spectral separation between the bass, melody, and counter melody, but a low-pass filter
muffles each line, removing the highs and creating the feeling that they are suffocating. Selective
use of reverberation further heightens this effect by placing the harmonic material at a distance in
a simulated diffuse space in stark contrast to the drums and high frequency howl, which
dominate the foreground. This filtering and reverb also allows the upper audible spectrum to
remain free so as not to encroach on the harmonic space of the constant howl. Where frequencies
occupying the same spectrum would compete with the howl for amplitude, they are not present,
leaving the howl to monopolize. The filter used on the bass synthesizer is set with an extremely
resonant peak to create a high-pitched, crackling distortion that further grates on the listeners
ears. This exemplary use of sound synthesis and signal processing shows that this work would
lose much of its effectiveness if transferred to traditional acoustic instruments, and thus suggests
that this work is only possible through electronic means.
If one were to apply, say, formalism to Ventolin, they would justifiably conclude that the
form is simplistic, repetitive, and generally unimpressive. A formalist analysis would also
completely miss the point of Ventolin because it would fail to highlight the special aural qualities
that allow the work to fulfill its intention.
Ventolin features evocative sound design and excellent use of electronic instruments to
create a work unrealizable with acoustic means. More importantly however, it uses electronic
means to provide the listener not simply with an extraordinary musical representation, but a
genuine Deluzian becoming-asthma attack. For these reasons, it qualifies as thoughtful,
intelligent, and interesting music.

4.2 Example No. 2 Venetian Snares: Szerencstlen
Venetian Snares is the project of Aaron Funk, a Canadian composer, who is creating
some of the most original drill and bass music today. Since his career began in 2001, Funk has
released eleven major albums, five EPs, and many other projects under different names such as
Snares Man! and Senetian Vnares.
Funk belongs to a new generation of electronic composers
arriving well after the beginning of IDM.
During a trip to Hungary, Funk was inspired to create the CD Rossz Csillag Alatt
(Born Under a Bad Star) featuring the work Szerencstlen (unlucky), a frantic
combination of drill and bass and Bartokian orchestra strings. Szerencstlen has some interesting
features including a referentialist use of symbols to deconstruct a binary opposition, a quotation

The purpose of the pseudonyms is to allow Funk to release music on different labels without breaking his contract.
This is a common practice amongst the most prolific electronic composers. Similarly, Richard D. James records
under Aphex Twin, AFX, Polygon Window, Caustic Window, GAK, Powerpill, Q-Chastic, and many others.
Aaron Funk, Rossz Csillage Alatt Szletett; digital disc (Planet Mu Records Ltd., ZIQ111CD, 2005).
to form a sophisticated intertextual reference, creative use of existing material, and novel digital
signal processing, but the work is most interesting in the way that it combines electronic and
acoustic instruments in such a complementary manner. Most previous attempts at blending
strings and electronic music either put the two at odds with each other, or relegated one or the
other to a supporting role, but this is not the case herethey play off each other, sometimes in
opposition, sometimes in unison.
Before commenting on the electro/acoustic relationship of Szerencstlen, I must explain
that Funk actually uses an electronic violin with sampled strings in place of a real string
orchestra. This brings up an interesting point because while the strings are not entirely authentic,
Funk did learn to play a stringed instrument in order to create this recording. This is
commendable because electronic composers tend to work with the samples themselves without
bothering to find a more convincing way to perform with them. Rossz Csillage Alatt Szletett
contains the most convincing sampled strings ever to appear on a recording of this type, thus
rewarding Funks effort in learning to play a stringed instrument. There is no doubt that some
purists will object to the very idea of sampled strings, but I firmly believe that the rigid views of
a few luddites are inconsequential when one assesses the situation of the realization of the
recording. There is no doubt that Funk would prefer a real orchestra, but the cost of this far
exceeds the budget of all but a few electronic composers. It is not a question of which method is
best, but a question of realizing the work at all.
To facilitate an examination of the electro/acoustic elements as well as the implications
of their union, I will treat the strings as if they were traditional acoustic instruments because,
after all, they are substitutes for acoustic instruments. They are substitutes insofar as they take
the place of traditional acoustic stringed instruments and do not use their electronic form to do
anything other than reproduce the string sounds as accurately as possible. If Funk used an
electronic violin for the purpose of expanding or changing the characteristics of the violin, this
would be an entirely different matter.
Stringed instruments have a very deep connection to the tradition of Western art music:
they are present in all orchestral music, much chamber music, and most operas, but beyond this,
they are a signifier of refined art music. Similarly, breakbeats are signifiers of urban and
electronic music, present in all DJ driven styles (e.g. hip hop, rap) and most electronic styles (e.g.
breakbeat, big beat, drum and bass), and in particular, the Amen break is one of the most
ubiquitous samples in the history of breakbeats. The break is part of a drum solo by Gregory
Cylvester Coleman from the song Amen, Brother by The Winstons, a 60s funk band.
Virtually every electronic composer samples the Amen break at some point in his or her career
regardless of the tempo, style, or meter of the composition in question. NWA uses it in Straight
Outta Compton, Dillinja uses it in The Angels Fell, Aphex Twin uses it in Girl/Boy Song, Roni
Size uses it in Brown Paper Bag, and these are just a few of the most famous works based on this
influential break. Because it is so present throughout electronic music, its importance and power
of signification is analogous to that of the violin and the string orchestra.
In essence, Szerencstlen is the collision of the structuralist binary opposition of high art
signifier versus low art signifier to produce a deconstruction of considerable power. Post-
structuralism predicts value in the abjuration of these binary oppositions, whereas structuralism
would never have one attempt to combine these two supposedly disparate elements. The reason
this works is that the symbols themselves are so powerful.
In a very general sense, this fits within Goodmans idea of referentialism in art, although
Goodmans system also works well for a more subtle style of symbolic use that generates
considerably less friction. These are powerful symbols, one signifying the whole of Western art
music and one signifying the core of every breakbeat derivative. In addition to symbolic power,
referentialism also requires a judgment as to the effectiveness of the chosen symbols. Funk
avoids the obvious direction of contrastive exemplification and instead centers on a careful
fusion, a difficult task because of the necessity of avoiding one overpowering the other. During
the middle of the track, there is a section where the electronics take over, totally dominating the
strings, but immediately following, the strings get a chance to respond during a solo section.
While it is tempting to focus on the drums, a close listen reveals that neither the drums nor the
strings dominate the music.
Now let us return to the binary opposition of high art and low art. There are still many
critics who would have us uphold the ancient universal standard of quality, but just how
universal is this standard of quality? Alicia Craig Faxon writes, as we enter the condition of
postmodernism, an era of multiculturalism, global vision, and an awareness of a multiplicity of
standards, it is important to evaluate the basis of aesthetic judgment itself.
Szerencstlen is the
product of just such multiplicity of standards: it pays tribute to the history of Western art music
while simultaneously fusing it with what is arguably the highest development of this particular
style of contemporary electronic music.
In addition to this deconstruction, Szerencstlen exhibits another interesting postmodern
trait in its quotation of the opening gesture of the first movement of Bartoks fourth string quartet
(1928). This quotation occurs early in the work before the drums enter, almost as if to
acknowledge what Funk surely views as the height of Western art music (Bartok and other such
twentieth-century composers) before going on to add his contribution to the future of music. This

Alicia Craig Faxon, Intersections of Art and Science to Create Aesthetic Perception: The Problem of
Postmodernism, in The Elusive Synthesis: Aesthetics and Science, ed. Alfred I. Tauber, (Dordrecht: Kluwer
Academic Publishers, 1996), p. 252.
intertextual reference also points to Funks visit to Bartoks native Hungary where he found
inspiration for this album. The act of historical quotation becomes problematic when used
indiscriminately, without regard to history, context, or any meaning the quote may have acquired
over time. Fortunately, it appears that Funk understands the power and meaning of this segment
of music. The brief opening segment of music is one of the key identifying features of Bartoks
work and is thus an effective signpost for the listener as well as a subtle tribute to one of Funks
chief inspirations for this album.
This quotation is also a clue to the form of Szerencstlen. Bartoks 4
string quartet is
formally different from most string quartets in that it has a fifth movement, thus making the work
symmetrical. Such symmetrical thinking about form had been evident in Bartoks works since
the 1910s, but had never been expressed by him as clearly, either in the music or in his own
. Szerencstlen mirrors this symmetry with a rondo form of ABACA including a
substantial introduction and coda. The coda references the introduction, also mimicking Bartoks
Finale, which contains a coda that borrows from the first movement. These features are not only
formally interesting, but also show that Funk is not quoting indiscriminately, but rather
thoughtfully, effectively using the perceptive listeners knowledge of twentieth-century music to
gain insight into the work.
Finally, Szerencstlen exhibits two features of excellence specific to electronic music:
creative use of existing material (sampling the Amen break) and novel use of digital signal
processing. With all of its appearances in contemporary electronic music, both in thoughtful
works and in unoriginal, generic works, one could reasonably assume that the Amen break is
tired and that the breakbeat community is ready for something new. Funk manages to find new

44 c.40686.5.

life in this ubiquitous break thanks to sophisticated programming and a considerable amount of
digital signal processing. Funk, known for creating some of the most fast-paced, complex beats
in contemporary electronic music, displays his finest and most highly developed effort in
Szerencstlen. The sound has a unity thanks to the single source, but Funks programming
proficiency allows him to find a world of percussive sounds within a five-second sample. Of the
identifiable signal processing, there are all of the standard sample manipulations including time
compression/expansion, pitch shifting, sample reversing, filtering, extensive amplitude envelope
modulation, and some granular synthesis techniques, all done at a virtuosic pace. It is likely that
Funk supplements these techniques with original signal processing software such as Max/MSP, a
common tool among contemporary electronic composers that allows the user to program literally
anything they can conceive.
Much like Ventolin, Szerencstlen is a work that could not exist outside the realm of
electronic musicthe level of speed and sonic manipulation would be impossible to achieve
through traditional acoustic means. The issue of amplitude envelope control alone would render
the percussion part impossible for the simple reason that one cannot control the decay and
resonance of a drum playing 32
notes at 180 beats per minute.
Szerencstlen is a creative example of contemporary electronic music, but it is also an
important attempt at breaking down the barriers between the antiquated class distinction of high
art and low art. It succeeds in creating new and interesting sounds, but more importantly, it is
formally interesting using the intertextual power of quotation, it poses serious philosophical
questions to the listener, and its quite spirited and fun in the process. Thus, it should qualify as
excellent music.

4.3 Example 3 - Pan Sonic: Kesto
Pan Sonic,
a duo from Finland featuring Mika Vainio and Ilpo Visnen, create a style
of electronic music differing from the vast majority of electronic composers today. Many
contemporary electronic composers produce rhythmically charged works with short percussive
sounds, whereas Pan Sonic favors long, sustained sounds that can go unbroken for minutes (or in
the case of Steily, over an hour). In any one song, Venetian Snares easily has five times as many
attack transients of anything Pan Sonic has ever done. If the rapid programming of, say, drill and
bass or jungle sounds interesting, but humanly impossible, Pan Sonic sounds positively organic
with phrasing that has more in common with a wind player than a computer.
Another important factor contributing to their human sound is that they realize all of
their works in real time with no edits, overdubs, or samplesa working method virtually
unheard of in a style of music renown for its complicated signal processing and editing
procedures. When one hears Squarepusher there can be no question: it would be impossible for a
human to perform the music live not just because there are too many parts, but also because each
sound is manipulated in such a detailed way that a cluster of CPUs would be necessary to handle
the processor load.
This sound is a defining feature of Pan Sonics music that separates them stylistically
from many other electronic composers, but how does it compare to music in general? Pan
Sonics main strengths are form, representation, scope, and unique digital signal processing
techniques to produce interesting sounds.
(Strength, or Duration) is Pan Sonics first attempt at a large-scale form, although
that is not to say that it is in any way related to the classic forms such as the symphony. The

Formerly Panasonic before legal threats from the electronics giant of the same name.
Mika Vainio and Ilpo Visnen, Kesto; digital disc (Mute Records, BFFP 180BX, 2004).
works duration is 234 minutes and 48 seconds, but differs from other works of this length, such
as Morton Feldmans String Quartet No. 2 (approximately 360 minutes), in that the intention was
always to listen to it on the temporally limited CD format (80 minutes maximum) and thus uses
the pause between discs to highlight and delineate its four main sections. When one listens to
Feldmans String Quartet No. 2, the time it takes to get up and change the CD is always a
distraction interrupting the flow of the music. When one listens to Kesto, the time it takes to
swap CDs serves a function similar to the space between movements of a classical symphony.
At its simplest, Kesto is a four-section, through-composed form with 33 individual tracks
and a quasi-programmatic style. Each disc has a uniform energy level decreasing gradually as
Kesto progresses. The first disc features the most aggressive material, the second disc is more
relaxed, the third disc is very quiet with expansive ambient soundscapes, and the fourth disc is
essentially motionless with long drones that seem to have no beginning or end, as if the listener
is caught within a single sonic instant, infinite in its simplicity.
Programmatically speaking, Kesto is the journey from the center of a bustling city, alive
with the frenzied commotion of its machines and inhabitants, to the isolation of the frozen tundra
of Finland in the winter. Kesto begins with the noisy, abrasive Rhin I (Mayhem I), appearing
three times in variation and serving as the main theme of the first section, which is suggestive of
the noise and chaos of urban city life. From here, the music gradually wanders away from the
busy inner city as the music becomes more stable and less frantic in the second section.
However, there are still references to the previous material, such as Sykkiv (Throbbing), a nod
to Throbbing Gristle, a major influence on Pan Sonic. Just as much of Throbbing Gristles music
is evocative of industry and giant factories, Sykkiv is both similarly evocative and
programmatically placed near the point where the music is on the very outskirts of the city where
one would expect to find the industrial parks. Arktinen (Arctic), at the end of section two, finds
the music outside the city limits wandering into the cold night. The third section opens with
Viemrimaailma (Sewageworld), the last vestige of civilization with its very deliberate sound of
a toilet flush. Pakkasen Holvit (Arches of Frost) reflects the wintry landscape with its icy,
crystalline surfaces reflecting the light of the moon. By this third section, the music is very
representational from the cold winds of Ilma (Air), to the watery Koljan Uni (Sleep of Haddock),
to the distant, flat horizon lines of Linjat (Lines). The music comes to rest in section four,
consisting solely of the metaphysical Steily (Radiation), as it blends into the frozen earth of the
Finnish tundra.
The scope of Kesto is massive, not just in comparison to typical electronic music, but also
to acoustic music. Even Mahlers Third Symphony, generally thought to be the longest
symphony by a major composer, is less than half the length of Kesto. Is this length necessary,
and if so, is it well used, or simply long for the sake of being long? Kesto is really a special
achievement because most composers dont afford themselves the luxury of slowly developing
works of these dimensions, Morton Feldman notwithstanding. The temporal aspect of the work is
especially important in the third and fourth sections where the music is at its most
representational. Steily really does need to be 61 minutes because anything less wouldnt
adequately convey the total isolation of standing out on the frozen earth surrounded by nothing
but blank horizon and darkness. Ilma needs its ten minutes to immerse the listener in the cold
winter air just as the 18-minute Linjat would not be about to show the listener the distant, never-
ending horizon lines if Pan Sonic were to drastically reduce it.
Kesto features some interesting intertextual references to other composers most notably,
Alvin Lucier in Linjat and Charlemagne Palestine in Steily. As mentioned previously, Lucier is
an important innovator of the more academic style of electronic music influencing a wide range
of contemporary electronic composers. The lengthy sustained tones of Linjat are reminiscent of
the length of wire Lucier used for his seminal work, Music on a Long Thin Wire (1980). This is a
felicitous intertextual connection because at this point in Kesto, Pan Sonic is primarily concerned
with the aural representation of nature thus echoing Luciers concept of organic, self-generated
music controlling its own dynamics, rhythm, and harmonic structure according to natural sonic
Steily also benefits from an apt reference to confrontational, minimalist composer
Charlemagne Palestine, renown for his lengthy drone works with constantly shifting overtones.
This reference provides the key to unlocking the mystery of Steily. In many ways, it is the
antithesis of the Western insistence upon teleologic music with its directionless drone leading the
listener nowhere over the course of its 61-minute duration. At this point in the program, the
music, absolved from the pressures of the urban environment (and consequently, the rigorous
requirements of Western music convention), is free to explore the void of winter night from a
static point of observation. The nod to Palestine is about more than any similarity to his music
his aesthetics and his resistance to the Western musical status quo are the real key here. In a
sense, Pan Sonic is calling upon the precedented aesthetic model of Palestine for support, not in
the sense of artistic justification, but for the aid of interpretation on the part of the listener.
In addition to the interesting formal features, the scope, and the intertextuality of Kesto,
there are important features relating to its electronic form. Beyond the aforementioned real-time
realization and the preference of long sustained sounds over the short, percussive sounds that
typify most electronic music, Pan Sonic adds another responsibility to the role of the composer:
instrument maker. There are a small number of important twentieth-century composers who
dared to take on this added responsibility, namely Harry Partch and John Cage. To a lesser
extent, there are a number of composers such as Iannis Xenakis who didnt so much create an
original array of instruments, but built ad hoc instruments for certain works (such as the Sixxen
instrument Xenakis designed for his percussion work Plades [1978]). An urge to realize music
beyond the scope of traditional instruments drove these composers to experiment with original
designs. Similarly, Pan Sonic must create original electronic instruments to achieve their very
personal and unique sounds.
Pan Sonic has created a masterpiece with Kesto. All the elements including large-scale
form with massive scope; vivid, evocative representation; intertextual reference; original
electronic instruments; a unique creative procedure devoid of any sampling or overdubs; and
their unique, beautiful sound add up to a very special work. This should be counted amongst the
best electronic worksworks that take full advantage of the electronic medium creating
otherworldly sonic landscapes limited only by the human imagination. For these reasons, Kesto
should also be included amongst the best early 21
century musical works.
4.4 Example 4 Exis 01: Music Non Stop
One of the ultimate tests of an inclusive system is its ability to remain open, but without
sacrificing all standardsit must be able to filter out that which is undesirable. An analysis of
Exis 01s cover
of Kraftwerks Musique Non Stop
will test my critical theory in just this
manner as it is a piece of music with precious little artistic merit, if it has any at all. It is
lacking in all the possible features that my theory values.

Cover is a popular music term for an artist playing another artists work, or covering it.
The title of Kraftwerks original is Musique Non Stop, while Exis 01 elects to change the spelling to Music Non
This particular selection comes from the album Trancewerk Express Vol. 1: A Tribute to
thus it is an album of covers of Kraftwerks music in the trance style. As
previously stated, trance is one of the electronic styles most susceptible to thoughtless, generic,
mediocrity because its conventions are very straightforward and thus easily created without any
artistic ability. Although one can find trance music that is artistically defensible, one almost
never finds it on compilations because an artist dedicated to his or her craft will tend to release
an album of material rather than an individual work for a compilation. An Internet search for
Exis 01 yields no references to the artist save for the Trancewerk compilationit is very
possible that this is the only track Exis 01 ever produced. This fact doesnt necessarily guarantee
that the single existing work is of poor quality, but it does indicate a lack of artistic commitment
to music and possibly a lack of ideas.
Exis 01 provides a formally simplistic take on Kraftwerks original composition bring
nothing new to their new version and, in fact, goes as far as to simplify Kraftwerks form to a
single one-measure loop that repeats for the entire eight-minute duration. Where Musique Non
Stop formerly featured multiple sections, development, and introductory material, this new
version reduces the form to a single bar that strangely borrows nothing from the original. It is a
practice in thoughtless stasis without development or any means to generate musical interest. The
clich literally holds true because if youve heard virtually any single measure, youve heard
them all. Had the producer simply copied Kraftwerks original form, it would still be much more
engaging than what he came up with.
This leads to the issue of scope, also an interesting feature with a variety of uses.
Symphonies by Mahler, for example, feature an enormous scope that seem to encompass whole
worlds of music, while certain minimalist works such as Steve Reichs Come Out, provide an

Exis 01, Trancewerk Express Vol. I: A Tribute to Kraftwerk; digital disc (Hypnotic, Cleo 9605-2, 1995).
acute examination of the microscopic events of a one-second tape loop. These examples show
the wide range of interesting uses of scopelarge, small, and many sizes in between can be
effective. Exis 01 obviously chooses a small scope, but fails to focus its small scope on anything
interesting. Even though Reichs Come Out features only one second of source material, it
doesnt remain static for the duration of the workthat would be intensely boring. The two
identical tape loops moving gradually in and out of phase provide constant development;
whereas Exis 01 provides no development save for layering a few additional one-measure loops
on top of each other.
The fact that this track is a cover of an existing work complicates the idea of originality.
While the idea is not to present something entirely new, there is ample room for originality in
other areas: nine years in the future, Exis 01 could provide a new perspective on Kraftwerks
1986 original idea. Forward-thinking conceptual work is a defining feature of Kraftwerk, so
wouldnt a current (as of 1995) examination of Kraftwerks ideas on technology be a rich area
for exploration for a producer revisiting this material? Unfortunately this not present in any
waythis track leaves the listener no interesting ideas whatsoever. If the producer prefers to
avoid any commentary on Kraftwerks vision of the future in 1986, he could have at least tried to
expand on the generic conventions of trance music in a compelling way, perhaps finding a
connection between Kraftwerks sparse, minimalist aesthetic and the flashy, glossy style of
modern trance music.
Complexity of conceptual development is another potential feature that could add value
to Music Non Stop, but instead, there is an absence of concept altogether. In fact, there is nothing
going on beyond the aural stimulationa hollow shell devoid of any creativity, ideas, and
purpose. One could manufacture music of this nature in great quantity with a simple
compositional algorithm.
Having failed on every point of traditional Western art music criticism, the only
redeeming qualities must exist in the more specific set of features relevant to electronic music
such as an novel use of digital signal processing or the creation of new and intriguing sounds.
Creating new sounds is what electronic music does best: finding a personal, unique sound on a
traditional acoustic instrument is what musicians spend a career striving for, whereas electronic
musicians and composers can, with sufficient programming skill, create any sound imaginable.
The sounds of classic synthesizers such as the Moog Modular and drum machines such as the
Roland 808 notwithstanding, its almost a requirement that electronic works constantly explore
new sonic worlds. The use of bland sounds indicates that there was virtually no effort put into a
works creation. For these reasons, I find this work to be without any artistic merit.
After the utter failure of Exis 01, its selection may seem, at first glance, to be something
of a straw man. However, the track is actually very representative of the surfeit of banal,
formulaic sound masquerading as music. One could substitute most any artist involved in the
generic musical style and find the same results. While there may be a number of borderline
cases, it is actually very easy to differentiate between artistic electronic music and manufactured
sound and once critics realize this, perhaps they will be more likely to evaluate contemporary
electronic music on its own terms without relating it to thoughtless electronic music such as the
present example.

5.0 Conclusion
Contemporary electronic music is a vital part of twenty-first century art music. Ventolin,
Szerencstlen and Kesto are just three selections from a rapidly expanding body of work, a body
of work that critics and academics can no longer afford to ignore. These works demonstrate that
there is real depth and substance to this music and they are palpable indicators of the potential of
this style of music to develop and mature. By that time, critics must be prepared to re-evaluate
the music free from preconceived notions and prejudices. My suggested hybrid aesthetic theory
is not an iconoclastic maneuver designed to discredit any theories that preceded it, but an attempt
to find a way to build on the strong foundation of aesthetic criticism and to ensure that these
ideas remain applicable, at least in part, to new directions that music is taking. The preservation
of tradition is extremely important, but it is also important to understand that new ideas do not
threaten traditionthey can coexist in harmony. I make no claim to completion or perfection
with my aesthetic theory and I hope that others will continue exploration in this area, to
champion this music, and to see that it receives the recognition that it deserves. These are steps
worth taking.

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