Electronic Music 2012, presented by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage at Philadelphia’s Latvian Society on December 13, 2012, investigated the evolving American electronic musical experience and how it relates now to cultural expectations. Within this evolution, electronic music stands at the forefront of several avenues of discovery, including new leaps in technology; the emergence of DIY communities, alternative spaces, and formats of distribution; and a general re-thinking of what defines an artist or musician.
Marina Rosenfeld, Keith Fullerton Whitman, and C. Spencer Yeh joined us for an in-depth conversation about these topics and more. The discussion between these influential leading practitioners in this genre was moderated by Seth Cluett, Assistant Professor of Music in the School of Contemporary Arts at Ramapo College of New Jersey. Cluett provided us with the following synopsis of the day:
Writing about electronic music as a distinct genre in the 21st century may feel anachronistic and perhaps even futile. However, for one extremely productive day in December, The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage gathered not only a panel of progressive practitioners, but also a vibrant trans-generational audience bent on articulating the relevance of this term in our time. When confronted with the pervasive ubiquity of the technologies used for music-making, as well as the fact that almost all current music is electronic by the nature of its production and distribution, the event actively questioned the multitude of contemporary practices that operate under the banner of electronic music and sound.
The discussion seemed to circle around the idea of hybrid practices. Each new topic edged towards exposing a different dichotomy: music and the visual arts, popular music and noise, the computer and the human body, or the balance between composition and improvisation. In each case, the innovation and experimentation to which the electronic music pioneers of the last century subscribed took new form—a form that is defined by a refusal to be defined. It became clear in conversation that these hybrid practices are no longer about the tense opposition of the poles, but about owning and acknowledging the amorphous and porous nature of the in-between-spaces of personal practice.
Systems of distribution, listening spaces, and associated cultures were discussed fruitfully during the question and answer section following the panel. The ensuing dialogue revealed a growing dissatisfaction amongst audiences, suggesting that physical spaces for performance are lagging behind the lo- and hi-fi developments of recorded and streaming media. Makers and listeners alike expressed a need to to create physical presentation spaces for the social consumption of music that are equal to the content. The messy commodity-status of electronic music, it seems, calls for spaces that can support the hi-fidelity needs of focused, quiet sound on the one hand, and immersive, saturated spaces for being engulfed by waves of high-energy sound on the other.
The day ended with a series of performances by the panelists (Marina Rosenfeld, Keith Fullerton Whitman, and C. Spencer Yeh) as well as members of the Philadelphia electronic music community (Ian Fraser, Jesse Kudler, and Data Garden). In other circumstances, the concert would have allowed audience members to let go and engage with the sound alone, but here they also were able to speak directly to the musicians between performances. This juxtaposition was simultaneously disorienting and immensely productive; the soft dialogue of post-show banter was thrown open for public consumption. It was the perfect close to a day that began with lofty conversation about the ideas behind the vibrant, diverse practices of contemporary electronic sound. This is, I believe, indicative of what electronic music might actually be for this century: a community of individuals engrossed in and actively engaged with the dynamic expansion of sound as an aesthetic category.
Watch our video of Whitman discussing the influence of changing production and distribution modes on music-making and how artists approach their creative output: