What is Electronic Dance Music?
by Mike Robertson (February 2007)


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I think you have no idea how BIG that question is. Fact is, the origins of what we now call electronic music go at least as far back as 1903 and the birth of the Italian Futurists movement. Especially Luigi Russolo and the 1912 manifesto titled “The Art of Noise”. Eric Satie and other French composers of that era picked up the theme and began to celebrate industrialism in sound and other art forms. So where does it begin? John Cage picks up the gauntlet in America in the 20’s, along with Stravinsky, the choreographer Diaghilev and the dancer Nijinsky, cubism and Surrealism and Dadaism in art, and much much more.

But you're probably asking about the birth of electronic dance music, right?
There are many places to start. 1982 is the birth date of MIDI, the language of machine music which made it possible to orchestrate and synchronize electronic instruments. The development of affordable electronic music machines, especially the Roland’s 303 synth and 808 drum machine. The creation of electronic video games and arcades along with the amazing futuristic repetitive hammering sounds that come from those machines. Youth became acclimated to these sounds and began tinkering with the new sound toys. All of a sudden the sounds around us began to sound more and more like music itself: the repetitive pounding of factories and vehicles; the exposure from birth of silly commercial music on TV repeating itself endlessly until all meaning and content disappears.

Where does electronic music come from? It is such an inescapable part of the fabric of urban culture that it’s hardly noticeable until it's abstracted by artists and musicians and made into "tracks." Then into vinyl, then selected and played by DJ's to accompany their relentless simpleminded drum machines (the 808 and many others).

Or maybe it was 1970, when Bob Moog put together his first commercial, affordable analog synth. Or in ’61 when he built his first synthesizer, the size of a room. Or to 1949, when Werner Meyer Eppler wrote his essay on 20th century music: “Electronic Tone Generation, Electronic Music and Synthetic Speech,” outlining the new direction that popular music was about to take.

Or was it the 1930’s and ’40’s when Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry began tinkering in a lab in the back of a radio station to make odd noises from various tube-based receivers, and laid the result to a new device called a tape recorder  and performed it in art houses, calling it ‘music concrete.’

Or 1929, when the first actual keyboard synthesizer was built by Edouard Coupleux and Armand Givelet, calling it the “Givelet Electric Organ.” Or 1917 when Leon Theramin invented the strange sci-fi device known by his name.

Sorry, again it's electronic dance music you're after, isn't it. Okay, think about Caribbean music and its varied rhythms, especially reggae, which spawned Dancehall, which spawned a recording industry in Jamaica, which spawned Dub Reggae (the B-sides of all those reggae hits with instrumental-only versions with heavy reverb and added effects). All of which migrated north to collide with jazz in the Midwestern US, especially in Chicago and Detroit. In New York it morphed into Rap which became instantly popular. Enter people like Lee “Scratch” Perry, and other DJs in the clubs of towns like Detroit. Reggae also hits Europe where it finds homes in art houses and jazz clubs and stimulates the Beats, the Dadaists and Surrealists, and especially to Germany where Krautrock is gaining a foothold — the fragile and sometimes dangerous reaction of Germany's young and disenfranchised. From this emerges a seminal band called Krafwerk with its studied, minimalist repetitive odes to computers and automobiles and industrial noises. In the UK, Factory Records is born, electrified by shock-rock, especially the Sex Pistols. And Manchester becomes another of the earliest scenes for warehouse-scale DJ-driven dance music — at the same time it's happening in Chicago and Detroit and then New York.

There is no one Cause. No one person or element or influence. Electronic Dance Music is one of the most powerful scenes in history precisely because it's nobody's marketing invention. It came out of the woodwork around us all, as inevitable as cockroaches and sex and asbestos and sugar-pops and i-pods.

It's who we are. It's what we do. It can barely be understood and it can't be judged. It's a manifestation of the urge to create and to celebrate and to move and change and procreate. It's fascinating and beautiful and ugly and it gives hope and shelters the despairing all at once. It is the thrust of animus, of the Creative Force as it finds its union with anima, the Receptive. It is the force which makes us more human. It is Dance.

Forgive me. I've loved music all my life, since I was a child. But when I discovered electronic dance music in all it's many forms, it was like I had been living my life powered by a 12-volt battery, and someone finally threw the main switch and upped it to 220. I'm lucky I wasn't young when it happened or I probably would have died long ago from ecstatic shock.

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Notes about myself:
I consider myself an “elder raver”, an unrepentant utopian idealist, and a champion of all things young and brave. I am an active musician, composer, graphic artist, audio engineer and recording studio executive running an occasionally active boutique record label specializing in ambient electronic music. I am also a writer of fiction, poetry and technical articles. I enjoyed limited publication in college literary magazines in my youth, wrote plays, one of which was staged by my college drama department, and have written film reviews for a daily newspaper, contributed technical articles to national magazines and chapters to books on computing technology. I currently focus my energy on writing fiction and propagating the concept that we must all accept responsibility for our thoughts and visions - that the reality we live is the reality we create with our minds - by leading a ten-year project to perfect the art of group composition and celebration called the Convergence Conspiracy Collective. I am also currently developing a screenplay about a woman who alarms herself and her young son by producing stones inexplicably from thin air and who is visited by a group of bumbling scientists from the future. I have managed businesses and non-profits and worked in more bands than I can count as a bassist. When possible I escape it all and appear, dazed and moderately confused, at Burning Man and other exhausting outdoor dance parties. (2007, for Vox Magazine)

mike@michaelgrobertson.com