Sharps & Flats

"Early Modulations" captures the important (and unlistenable) history of turntablism, electronica and drum 'n' bass.

Published January 20, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Perhaps because the cycle of discovery, appropriation and obsolescence has gone into warp speed in the past few years, suddenly the music world seems gripped by nostalgia for the avant-garde. Sonic Youth recently released "Goodbye 20th Century," their take on such rarified experimental icons as John Cage and Steve Reich.

The Whitney Museum is currently hosting an "exhibition" of "sound art" recordings called "I Am Sitting in a Room: Sound Works by American Artists 1950-2000," which includes pieces by the aforementioned musicians as well as more modern figures like Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson and the ubiquitous DJ Spooky. The same edition of the Sunday New York Times that carried an article about the Whitney show also featured Adam Shatz's essay on the 20th century's musical avant-garde, which hung on a joint review of "Goodbye 20th Century" and a new recording of Cornelius Cardew's "Treatise."

And now future-culture documentarian Iara Lee's label, Caipirinha, has released "Early Modulations: Vintage Volts," a primer on the roots of electronic music, from 1939 to 1967. Both in her movies "Synthetic Pleasures" and "Modulations," and on Caipirinha's other releases, Lee has consistently explored the junctures among underground music, fashion and academic theory. Often, she's been quite successful. "Modulations," her documentary about electronic music, covered an astounding amount of ground without ever seeming shallow, tracing the music simultaneously to block parties, discos and universities.

Similarly, the Caipirinha release "File Under Futurism" teamed up the turntablist-cum-post-structuralist theorist DJ Spooky with an experimental band from the Columbia University Computer Music Center, resulting in some of the young Derridian's most compelling and, ironically, least pretentious work.

Many who buy "Early Modulations" will likely do so just to get a feel for the innovators name-checked by people like Spooky and Sonic Youth. John Cage is represented with "Imaginary Landscape No. 1," and so is Iannis Xenakis, Pierre Schaeffer and Morton Subotnik -- there's a 12-minute excerpt from his famous synthesizer composition "Silver Apples of the Moon."

Still, any novice who buys the compilation to learn about electronic music history will probably listen to it only once or twice. To say that "Early Modulations" is inaccessible is an understatement. Even those who groove on abstract artists like Squarepusher, Aphex Twin and Autechre might find that ugly little conservative voice in their heads sneering, "This isn't music, this is just, just ... noise!" during pieces like Vittorio Gelmetti's "Treni d'onda a modulazione d'intensiti."

It's hard not to be cowed by the highbrow cachet of works like this, works that weren't made to be liked. Featuring long, droning tones of various degrees of intensity and unpleasantness, "Treni d'onda a modulazione d'intensiti" certainly does evoke maddening claustrophobia, even terror. If listening to it is horrible, if it makes you want to run screaming from the room, well ... that's the point.

Part of the problem is that this kind of music is often more theater than consumer product. The liner notes to "Early Modulations" describe an early performance of Iannis Xenakis's "Concret PH," "While the tape was being wound back, the amplified crackling and spitting of burning charcoal punctuated the dome through 400 speakers." Through 400 speakers, the bright, crackling textures of "Concret PH" might have been otherworldly, exhilarating, shattering. Heard on a regular stereo, though, it's just nearly three minutes of hissing and popping.

Certain tracks, like Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky's eerie "Incantation" (1953) and Pierre Schaeffer's "Itude aux chemins de fer" (1948), are obvious precursors of turntablism and electronica. "Incantation," a melange of synth squiggles, piano-like frequencies, metallic gong sounds and haunted-house moans anticipated contemporary ambient music in prizing mood, texture and tone over melody, harmony or rhythm. Meanwhile, Schaeffer's "Itude aux chemins de fer," which finds rhythm in the sounds of chugging trains and industrial crashing and clanging, prefigures the poly-rhythmic symphonies of urban decay in drum 'n' bass.

Nevertheless, the songs here are interesting more as museum pieces than anything else. Obsession with machine sound certainly predates disco, and that today's dance music has a high-art pedigree. But the real lesson on this album is how far electronic music has come in it's half-decade journey from elite appreciation to street-level love.

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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