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May 11, 2014 | by  | in Features |
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Avant-Garde a Clue

Hello, dear readers! As devotees may remember, I’ve been an avid music listener/consumer for years, and I thought I might impart some of my scant knowledge regarding genres on the trail-less-travelled for your amusement. Admittedly, the most common reaction I get from friends is “Can you change the song?”, “This is shit,” and “What is wrong with you are you drunk you need help,” but I hope you’re more amenable.

A quick note: the astute reader will notice that the albums recommended are dominated by male artists. This is because the albums were chosen because of their accessibility – avant-garde genres feature a plethora of women, a lot of whose work is imho better but less friendly to uninitiated ears. Another reason is that, unfortunately, you’re more likely to find these albums in circulation than ones by their female counterparts. Slowboat, for example, has a shit-load of John Cage but no Pauline Oliveros; hopefully, if you explore these genres further, you’ll realise that this shit needs to change. Shake my goddamn head.

Detroit Techno
The acclaimed TV show The Wire taught me a lot more than just how to recognise really good television: it informed me about how drug dealers communicate their location, how homosexuality is perceived in lower socioeconomic strata, how many fingers it takes to fill an Irishman’s arsehole and – relevantly – the genre of Detroit techno.

Detroit techno is a kind of electronic dance music that emerged from an outrageously fecund Detroit scene from the late ‘80s to the mid-‘90s. Its identifiable features include analogue synthesisers and frenetic percussion that tacitly comments on the automotive industry that defines Detroit. It’s clinically and surgically precise while teeming with life and adrenaline. Detroit techno artists self-consciously serve not just as DJs but as curators of a history of dance music; Steely Dan licks are wryly interpenetrated with DJ Jimi’s exhortation to “pop that pussy and shake that ass”, and the effect of this transfiguration is a weird sort of danceable high-art that moves at 120 per sec.

Memphis Rap
Many music listeners go through distinct stages when it comes through hip-hop; there’s the deplorable “Hip-hop isn’t REAL MUSIC” stage, but then there’s the stage where listeners acknowledge hip-hop’s validity but insist that it be either “socially conscious” or “upbeat and danceable”. To which Memphis rap flips its middle finger before dousing the perpetrator in gasoline. Memphis rap is confrontational. It is heavily rooted in horrorcore, death threats and, in Triple 6 Mafia’s case, “the Satan shit”. The beats are menacing, the production lo-fi and grim. It is unabashedly unpalatable, which goes some way to explaining why it never caught on in the same way East or West Coast hip-hop did. Despite the fruitful and diverse scene, which included countless female rappers well before the mainstream cottoned on, there’s something about Memphis rap that relegates it to cult-genre status. Memphis rap thrusts you into the lifestyle without mercy – Memphis rap ringleader Tommy Wright III copped 23 felonies during the ‘90s (in a genre where authenticity is currency, the man is a billionaire).

[Note: The subject matter of Memphis rap could be triggering. If it ain’t your bag it ain’t your bag: forego it at your leisure.]

Free Improvisation
Improvisation has been a staple of music for eons, and is so commonplace in many genres – jazz and rock especially – that placing ‘free improvisation’ on a list of obscure genres might seem bemusing. But ‘free improv’ is an entirely different kettle o’ fish to ‘improvisation’. Its progenitors, the deranged group of people that comprise AMM and Derek Bailey, explained that free improvisation is non-idiomatic (a fancy way of saying that it doesn’t conform to a specific genre) and, well, free – there are no rules, no harmonies, melodies or technical proficiency on display here. Instead, the focus is on atonal interplay, flinging discord between each other and seeing what sticks, and dissonant textures.

Electroacoustic
As with pornography and why Oreos taste so much better when dipped in tea, electroacoustic music proves elusive to define – although you’ll certainly know it when you hear it. To offer an incredibly simplistic definition, ‘electroacoustic’ refers to music that uses electronic technology to explore sounds (that’s the ‘acoustic’ part) that are unusual, esoteric or impossible to achieve with acoustics alone, and it has spawned the sub-genres of ‘tape music’, ‘EAI’, ‘Musique concrète’ and others. There is an academic compositional focus to electroacoustic that must be taken into account; it’s about pushing the boundaries of what sound can achieve and how it can be rendered.

Field Recordings
Field recordings are the most esoteric genre of music outlined here, with some questioning whether they classify as ‘music’ at all. The reason for this is that they are, as the name helpfully suggests, just recordings of everything from the mundane to the horrific. There have been field recordings made of the sea and the wind; there have been field recordings of what it sounds like inside an ice cube or a USB drive; there have been field recordings of psychiatric hospitals and men defecating explosively after eating undercooked fish (I shit you not). Regardless of whether you fall in the “This is ingenious!” or “This is horsecockshit!” camp, you surely must concede there’s something weirdly entrancing about hearing certain sounds re-contexualised as musical compositions – for those who find train stations soothing, La Stazione would be an emotive godsend.

Onkyo
Onkyo, or Onkyokei, describes a niche genre that emanated from Japan that focusses on music textures, silence, and the full range of sounds an instrument is capable of eliciting. Instead of strumming guitars, for example, they’ll be untuned and plucked. The genre is a testament to the diversity of the musical spectrum and a love-letter to music fans in that the silence provides an opportunity for the listener to fill in the blanks.

 

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