Keyboards and drum machines, laptops and samples may have replaced the electric guitar.
Keyboards and drum machines, laptops and samples may have replaced the electric guitar. Recent years have seen a rising tide of voices and articles about the impending death of the amplified six-string. Maybe it’s not an imminent collapse. Rush sang of machinery making modern music more than 35 years ago, and a few years later Rick Springfield suggested that dancing to a drum machine might be alienating us from each other. The former proved correct. The latter? Well, the jury is still out. Yes, Les Paul’s baby requires current but that’s not what we’re generally talking about when we talk about electronic music. Though it can be.
In his book, Live Wires: A History of Electronic Music , Daniel Warner reminds us that King Crimson founder Robert Fripp transformed the electric guitar via his invention of the pedal board. That most cerebral musician boasts a discography built on exhilarating and meditative recordings on which his chosen instrument often sounds nothing like exactly what it is. Fripp’s friend and frequent collaborator used the studio itself as an instrument with the latest technology replacing quill and staff paper. Frank Zappa noted that his solos were spontaneous compositions, “air sculpture.” He would revel in editing tape so that two or three performances could be spliced together as one. An ensemble from 1968 could take the B section of a tune that a group from 1984 had started and, if the composer felt like it, he could claim that a two chord vamp in the midst of notable pieces such as “Inca Roads” were brand-new songs in themselves. He didn’t even have to use dry ice or wear a cape in the creation or performance of this electronic variation.
Warner takes great pains to unravel the history and uses of tape recorders in the compositional process. Lest we think of them as archaic, we need only to cast our minds back to Wayne Coyne’s parking lot experiments in the ‘90s, which involved a variety of tape decks played at once with variations in speed, volume and tone assigned by the silver haired singer himself. This was the basis of the Flaming Lips’ Zaireeka, a four-disc set that involved four boom boxes each spinning a unique disc of music; that players will fall in and out of sync creates either a giant orgasm of sound, an acid flashback, nausea or some combination thereof.
We visit the genius of Wendy Carlos and Tangerine Dream as they tinker with all manner of synthesizers, embrace the wonders of the turntable as it’s applied in hip-hop and view the microphone with a sense of wonder, especially in the hands of geniuses such as Laurie Anderson. The world of computers gets its due as we trip through makes and models, each with its specific sound and multitudes living in its circuits.
Our author wastes little time in any of the sections and the tone and voice of the writing is easy to read, knowledgeable without being painfully esoteric. A remarkable Recommended Listening appendix should keep us all busy for at least a decade to come, though some will quibble with inclusions and omissions: Zappa’s Uncle Meat gets listed but his Synclavier experiments, including The Perfect Stranger and Jazz from Hell are nowhere to be found; Fripp, mentioned more than once in the body, gets nada, not even with Krimson. But we didn’t write the book. We are merely passengers on this intellectually stimulating and frequently entertaining ride.
That said, there are moments when some readers will find the dizzying spectacle of makes and models a bit much and some may even balk at the fast-and-furious pace. This is, however, a wonderful guide through a still-evolving phenomena and one that now, more than ever, deserves our attention.