Modulating History

Modulating History
As electronically made music becomes more ubiquitous with each passing year, the need to catalog its history becomes greater. Two years ago, Iara Lee's documentary Modulations provided a fascinating survey of the history of electronic music from the dawn of the 20th century to today's contemporary rhythms and textures. One complaint about the movie was the lack of depth in its interviews. Hence the book, Modulations: A History of Electronic Music – Throbbing Words on Sound (

Modulations's main theme is that machine-enabled music questions notions of "human" characteristics such as culture, sexuality and spontaneous improvisation. The book's design helps to impart information in a way consistent with its subject matter. Chapters profiling electronic musical genres unfold in a rough chronological order and contain brief sidebars detailing offshoots of each main topic. Disconnected quotes and questionless interviews — very much like the effect sampling creates with music — rearrange information into a new musical story. These are the most thought-provoking sections: Genesis P Orridge recounts how the aural assault of Psychic TV shows would produce spontaneous orgasms amongst the audience; and futurist Alvin Toffler drops science on how the nature of machines has changed from amplified muscle power in the 17th century to the creativity enhancers of today.

Despite the attractive, non-linear fashion in which information is presented, a non-fiction book has to function differently than a documentary motion picture. A film is as much about the artistry and the experience of watching as it is about its subject. A history book should be held to a greater standard of completeness and accuracy than a documentary film. It should be a reference for years to come, and this is where problems with Modulations arise.

The book is dominated by writers who have contributed to UK muso-magazine The Wire. If you are a fan of The Wire's editorial sensibility, you'll love this book. An entire chapter is devoted to the importance of Krautrock, a term and style of music that has been championed extensively in The Wire over the last few years. Didn't Dark Side of The Moon (not mentioned in the book) influence at least as many budding synthesists as Kraftwerk? Modulations explores only the technological implications of certain styles of music rather than offering a more complete, balanced approach. Much is made of the mechanised side of disco, but would anyone say that Sylvester and Cerrone define the overall form? In defence of Modulations's perspective, critically dismissed forms such as Hi-NRG, Miami Bass and Freestyle are given their due as valid and vital expressions of electronica.
Even by its own editorial standards, Modulations still misses out on some important electronic styles. The section on dub ends in 1985, as Jamaican music becomes predominantly electronic. Regardless of lyrics, dancehall production in the hands of Xterminator, Steely and Clevie and Shocking Vibes crew is as futuristic as anything techno or d&b has to offer. Even more unjust is the absence of R&B since the ‘80s. Techno founders May, Atkins and Saunderson (portrayed quite rightly as offshoots of electro-funk) are given the most ink of any artists mentioned in the book, but the music of Roger (Zapp) Troutman, Teddy Riley and, incredibly, Prince is not even acknowledged. Wack American R&B is one of the most powerful contemporary influences on popular music world-wide, but Timbaland and Rodney Jerkins are not given their due. All of the above have taken contemporary electronic gear and created music that is pushing boundaries in its own ways. But you won't see them reviewed in The Wire.

Modulations is more a history of club and rave music with respect paid to the pioneers of electronics, not an all encompassing study of electronic music. Even the chapter on technology focuses on the best loved machines of house and techno, the TR808 drum machine, the TB303 bass unit, the Minimoog and their new generation counterparts like the NordLead, while the digital Yamaha DX7 is generally portrayed as the villain that killed off the first wave of analog synths. And no mention is made of contemporary electro-acousticists who have built their own music technologies in the last two decades.

There's too much worthy information in Modulations to dismiss it (and it does look cool on your coffee table), but it will need revision in a few years. Nonetheless, Modulations should inspire a young generation to appreciate the history behind the music of their lives in a way few books have attempted.