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  • How I Arrived Here and Where I'm Going

    28 Mar 2011, 14:59

    As I have recently returned to my personal project of creating wiki stubs for demoscene artists (primarily from the 90s), it has caused me to pause and reflect on the development of my personal musical taste over my life. As this is an inherently conceited subject, I will not be submitting this anywhere or promoting it much beyond my profile. (In fact, that's why I don't link the larger artists I mention, as it actually shows up on artist pages as activity and I don't want a flood of people reading this.) Those reading further will be duly forewarned, I am and always will be a pretentious asshole. While I have learned to politely control the impulse to denigrate the taste of strangers in public, that doesn't mean I've stopped thinking it.

    From childhood to adolescence I was a purist, only interested in Western Classical music. My focus was mainly on German, Austrian, English, and Russian composers (with favorites that would be quite cliche if they weren't so great, including J.S. Bach, Handel, Beethoven, Mozart, Wagner, Elgar, Walton, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Holst, Copland and Dvorak) and largely dismissive of works emanating from cultures speaking Romance languages (I maintain to this day that Claude Debussy destroyed music. However I can't ignore the greatness of Vivaldi, even if he was Italian). I generally preferred music that had gravitas, which even the "serious" dramatic music of Italy, France, or Spain only seemed to ape.

    In the early 90s my parents and I moved to Illinois, which caused me to be exposed to a great deal of benighted boorish philistinism as only such a cultural wasteland could affect. This would lead me astray for a brief period in my adolescence where I listened to country music. The only defense I can offer for this gullibility is that it might have been a subversion of an unsatisfied and to that point unrealized desire for legitimate folk music, to which at that time I had no exposure, so I compensated with the only substitute available in my environment of limited knowledge and experience.

    My aesthetic salvation would come consequent to a confluence of conditions. My family would move back to the culturally rich Seattle metro area in my early teens, and at the same time I was actively pursuing computer-related fields as hobbies and interacting with communities that were developing the wake of Eternal September (the mainstreaming of the internet). This would lead, mercifully, to the simultaneous termination of my interest in country music as well as an explosion of interest in music generally. This is where I began to listen to Chinese traditional and folk music, European Medieval and Neo-Medieval music, classic American R&B/funk/fusion, as well as Greek Rebetiko and contemporary pop music, but the greatest amount of my teenage listening time was consumed by electronica. All kinds of electronica, from generic trance and techno, to psytrance, goa, industrial, chiptune, ambient, happy hardcore, etc.

    At the time I was still on dial-up, so downloading mainstream music took a long time, too much time. When I discovered the world of trackers and the demoscene I was liberated. All the electonica anybody could ever want, packaged into formats which were mere fractions of static recordings, and all of it was free and legal. Tracked media was itself a fascinating concept, not recordings per se (the samples were of course), but rather an array of sounds (samples) which were attached to a set of instructions (instruments, patterns, and loops) that players of tracked media would interpret. So rather than playing a recording, a track of this type was literally "performed" live by the computer. However, there was a downside. Because this involved a player interpreting instructions on how to render the files, some players were better at interpreting files than others. WinAmp was notoriously bad at rendering many tracked media files, and the files would have all sorts of notes and comments about which players would render them best (besides their original tracker software). I used ModPlug mostly, though Sonique's rendering was better than WinAmp's for such times as I wanted to mix playlists with mp3s. (I didn't discover and move to Foobar2000 until 2004ish.)

    I spent tons of time at the pillars of the late 90s US tracking scene: TraxInSpace.com and ModArchive.com. (TraxInSpace would crash and burn in 2001, and although it returned in 2007, virtually all of its relevance and momentum had passed away.) I had many favorite artists, including but hardly limited to iXupi, Heatseeker, Echo Off, The Nuke, Zealan (a track of whose is frequently the ringtone of my cell), ZaStaR, Full Metal Jacket (though of course on last.fm this is just a page about the movie, not the tracker), Noldus Rabiatus, RibinaBJ, D Fast, dustbin, Necros, Myvoice, Dna Groove, Reptile and Sky, Teque, Skaven, Alexander Brandon, Michiel van den Bos, etc. Although many tracks had no artists identified, including ones I rather liked such as "Cream of the Earth" and "The Quick Brown Fox Jumps". I even took it upon myself to export most of my tracks to static formats so I could play them on mp3 players and in my car. This is what enabled me to scrobble these mostly forgotten and/or inaccessible artists when I finally came to last.fm.

    People who look at the 90s tracking scene from the outside probably think it is very amateurish. I think you really have to have been there step by step to appreciate what it represented. It started with the minimalist capacity of Atari, Commodore and NES chiptunes, which are still aesthetically powerful enough that they are still foundational to electronic music today, but it grew to higher fidelity and greater complexity through successive tracking formats. It is a sort of digital folk, created by a community of autodidactic people at home in their spare time for no other reason than creative expression itself. What it lacks in the polish that might come from professional equipment is made up in the innovation within the limitations.

    Concurrently I was also into more mainstream electronica, including big names like Paul van Dyk, Paul Oakenfold, The Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy, Armin van Buuren, Rank 1, ATB, BT, and yes, even Eiffel 65, Alice DeeJay and Dirty Vegas. Despite some fairly awesome stuff by lesser knowns (to the US) like Starecase, Conjure One, Solid Globe, etc. around 2003 my interest in electronica dwindled.

    In its place my interest in Medieval and Neo-Medieval music resurged, spearheaded by the Mediæval Bæbes naturally, but also Dead Can Dance, the Shannon Castle Singers, and innumerable choral societies and such (I was approaching from a more academic perspective than a "popular" one, so I was not very much exposed to folk groups at the time). Around that time the person who would become my spouse introduced me to third wave ska, swing revival, and even some punk bands (including Reel Big Fish, MxPx, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, etc.).

    As my interest in classical and contemporary Chinese culture continued to grow, my fascination with Chinese music resurged to its current level thanks to the catalysts of Twelve Girls Band and Tan Dun's soundtracks to Ang Lee's and Zhang Yimou's wuxia films (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon & Hero). This led to me digging through YouTube for any and all guzheng performances, as I became enthralled with that particular instrument. I discovered Bei Bei He there before she even had an album, as well as great guzheng masters like Lin Ling and Wang Zhongshan and new generation talents like Sun Yunlei (whose music I can't find anywhere but this one clip! argh!), Yuan Sha, and Wu Li.

    It was around this time that I stated taking a more holistic, ethnomusicological approach to my musical explorations. I am first and foremost a historian, so I began to look at the relationships of Chinese instruments and musical styles to the history of China's broader culture and society as it expanded, contracted, influenced and was influenced. As I was initially focused on the guzheng, I studied its predecessor instrument, the guqin, as well as the diaspora of its descendents, the yatga, dan tranh, koto, and gayageum. With the exception of the koto (because as I've said many times, Japan is the lens through which the West and especially the US views Asia), it's very hard to find music played on zithers related to the guzheng. I investigated the different schools of playing style, their relationship to the primary north vs. south socio-cultural division within Han Chinese, and how guzhengs are constructed differently by region and what effect that has on their sound.

    Tangentially I was exposed to the whole orchestra of Chinese traditional instruments and their counterparts throughout East Asia. I was particularly interested in the shamisen, and khaen. The Japanese shamisen is becoming marginally known in the West thanks to the talent of the Yoshida Brothers, but it is truly a unique instrument, ironically not because of the instrument itself which is barely different from its Chinese predecessor the sanxian, but for the percussive aspect that follows from the use of a very large pick/plecturm with which the instrument is played. The Laotian khaen is a relation of the Chinese sheng, though probably not descended from it but from an earlier common ancestor such as the lusheng or yu.

    Very soon before I joined last.fm I revisited European Neo-Medieval music and expanded more into proper folk. In Celtic folk I discovered Julie Fowlis, Kathleen MacInnes, and Karen Matheson. Casting a wider net I started in on Ewan MacColl and Stan Rogers and the shanty tradition, which led to Poxy Boggards. Somewhere in the middle of this I was also looking at Finnish folk and found Räikkä and the Polyteknikkojen Kuoro.

    Then came last.fm and yet another musical renaissance for me. Since my current interest and momentum was on world folk when I joined, I ran with that. It was also somewhat contingent on my joining the Obscure Music Game, where I seemed to blazing a lot of trails in world music. However I won't continue to rehash my library here, that would be redundant. Suffice to say, the combination of last.fm and the Obscure Music Game has pulled and pushed me further than I think I expected to go with my musical knowledge and experience.

    However all this is not just diversion either. I am certain that my musical knowledge is a productive complement to my historical knowledge, and someday when I am finally teaching history I think it will provide a foundation for insight and understanding that many other historians frequently lack. You can only understand a culture to a certain depth if you omit the evolution of its aesthetics and how it related aesthetically to its neighbors as peer, conqueror, or conquered.

    Despite the depth I have reached, it is sobering to think how superficial it all still is, there are so many more artists and traditions in both Europe and Asia of whom and of which I am still ignorant.* I must redouble my efforts to learn to read Chinese and/or Korean Hangul if I am to have any hope of achieving topical expertise.

    To come full circle, I think I am currently on the cusp of exploring where the demoscene is today. Despite the implosion of the American tracking scene with TiS a decade ago, it seems to finally be growing back with Amiga Music Preservation, Nectarine, and a reworked and more useful ModArchive. I have a decade of catching up to do.

    *(The corollary to this is that if I can recognize my own ignorance despite years of reading, listening, categorizing, analyzing, pondering, integrating, etc. when some jackass comes along who has barely dipped one toe into the subject starts acting like he knows as much or more than I do, I want to see them die by the Five Pains. That's hyperbole, son.)