Modulations: Treatment

By Peter Shapiro

Whether we want to admit it or not, technology has always defined Western popular music. From the development of the microphone that allowed Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra to croon softly on top of a big band to Keith Richards’ discovery of the pleasures of an overdriven guitar amplifier on “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, the excitement generated by pop music is often the thrill of exploration and the sense of possibility provided by the use and misuse of new technology. Modulations is about that ecstatic freefall into the unknown in the era of the proliferation of digital technology; an age in which the boundaries between human and machine are becoming increasingly blurred; a time in which the rhythms of machines are beginning to sound like the “Strings of Life”. Modulations celebrates the kids from the New York ghetto who turned the turntable into an instrument; wannabe disco-philes in Chicago who created acid house out of a poorly designed synthesizer; musicians trapped in post-industrial Detroit who heard the future as the sound of “Kraftwerk and George Clinton stuck in an elevator;” and a generation of disaffected British youth who heard these blips and bleeps as anthems of their own alienation and created their own variations on these sounds through the break beat science of jungle music. The film traces the history of electronic music from the intellectual exercises of musique concrète pioneers like Pierre Henry through the “man-machine” interface experiments of Kraftwerk to the present day where dancing to mechanical rhythms under the influence of a chemical compound seems like the most natural thing in the world.

Just as World War I was starting, the Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo wrote what he hoped would be the death knell of melody and harmony,The Art of Noises. In this manifesto advocating a new kind of music – a music in which factories could be tuned – Russolo wrote, “We must break out of this limited circle of sounds and conquer the infinite variey of noise-sounds.” Writing before the proliferation of even the most rudimentary recording implements, his insistence on the musicality of everyday noises and technology was ignored at the time, but has since become the defining idea of the aural experience of the 20th Century. In New York composer John Cage was putting a different spin on Russolo’s ideas. In pieces like 4’33” (in which an instrumentalist is asked not to play the instrument for four minutes and 33 seconds) and Prepared Piano (in which a piano’s sound is altered by assorted junk placed inside), Cage asked what the nature of music was and called attention to the sound of our immediate environment. In a style that both replicates and clarifies the beautiful noise that Russolo and Cage heard in their heads, Modulations traces the threads of their vision from post-war France to the present day. While early instruments like Leon Thérémin’s theremin created music out of oscillating sine curves, the first step towards fulfilling Russolo’s vision didn’t happen until the development of magnetic recording tape in the 1940s. Conceived by Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry in Paris’ Radiodiffusion Studio,musique concrète took advantage of this new invention by taking a razor blade to tape recordings of both musical and “non-musical” sounds and looping them and rearranging them into new compositions. By hearing music in a non-linear fashion and playing with the quality of sound, Schaeffer and Henry instigated the art of aural collaging that has become one of the hallmarks of post-war music. In the 50s and 60s Karlheinz Stockhausen’s elektronische musik led the way inside machines towards the examination of their electrical synapses. His compositions Kontakte and Mikrophonie pioneered the use of electronic noise machines like ring modulators and the idea that microphones could be used as musical instruments, whileTelemusik and Hymnen predate hip hop’s cut and splice technique by a decade and take musique concrète’s sound manipulations even further. These ideas led jazz producer Teo Macero to manipulate recordings of Miles Davis’ sessions and concerts which made the heretical implication that the recording studio was an element of improvisation every bit as important as a trumpet or drum kit. In a less self-conscious way, these experiments with sound manipulation would re-appear on the streets of New York City in the mid-70s. Hip-hop was the perfect expression of a culture based on disposability: it turned cultural artifacts and ready-mades into something radically new. Obscure records crafted into back-spinning, cross-fading sound collages on a pair of Technics SL-1200 turntables by dexterous DJs were hip-hop’s only instruments until drum machines came along. In the late 90s with the emergence of “turntablist” crews like the Invisbl Skratch Piklz and the X-ecutioners, the techniques of scratching and beat juggling are the notations of a new kind of music based on the dismantling of the old.

Modulations will catalog one of the most unlikely examples of musical cross-pollination: the influence on the urban black communities of America during the late 70s and early 80s of teutonic electronica like Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express and Giorgio Moroder’s cyber-disco productions of Donna Summer and Munich Machine. By mixing two copies of Trans-Europe Express, disco DJs in New York would extend the three-minute hypnotics of “Metal On Metal” into a seemingly endless barrage of inhuman pulsation. In Detroit, WGPR DJ, Electrifyin’ Mojo, would mix Kraftwerk, Moroder and Telex with Peter Frampton’s Talk Box histrionics and Parliament’s ghetto sci-fi. In the mid-70s Düsseldorf’s Kling Klang studio released records that would permanently alter the face of music. The name of Kraftwerk’s studio was apt: with plastic Moog riffs, coldly precise rhythms, chiming keyboards, Kraftwerk was portraying the “rapture of metal.” Where American blues and country artists had used the sounds of trains as symbols of freedom and possibility, Kraftwerk imitated the noises of the freeway (“Autobahn”) and trains (“Trans-Europe Express”) to revel in the glory of speed. Although the motorik pulse of their music had its antecedents in the Velvet Underground’s amphetamine drive, it had nothing to do with VU’s decadence. Kraftwerk celebrated the human as machine, free from the sins of the flesh and the complexities of emotion. All that was left was a pristine, gleaming surface. At the same time as Kraftwerk were wiring their skin to their synthesizers, a Tirolian, journeyman musician was experimenting with new sound technology. With a stage-singer named Donna Summer performing aural sex for 17 minutes over a throbbing, insistent drum machine pulse, Giorgio Moroder summed up disco perfectly on “Love to Love You Baby”. Two years later, in 1977, Moroder invented mechano-eroticism with his production of Summer’s “I Feel Love”. Cited by numerous techno producers as an influence, “I Feel Love” and his theme to the film Midnight Express taught the world how to use the Moog synthesizer as a dance instrument. Mapping the profound after-shocks of Kraftwerk’s robotic invasion of the inner city, Modulations talks to Arthur Baker who helped Afrika Bambaataa build “Planet Rock” around Trans-Europe Express and create electro in the Big Apple. The film will also illuminate the motivations of the so-called “Belleville Three” who created a soundtrack to black alienation called techno out of Kraftwerk’s building blocks in the charred ruins of Detroit. Taking the melodic hook from “Trans-Europe Express” and beats from “Numbers”, Bambaataa, producer Arthur Baker and keyboardist John Robie remade Kraftwerk’s ode to European unity and industrial motion as electro-street-funk for kids hooked on video games and comic books. “Planet Rock” started a deluge of unintentionally Afro-futurist records – music that fused the earthly concerns of African derived dance music with the super-hero dreams of escaping the ghetto. While New Yorkers were doing the Smurf to “Planet Rock”, in Detroit three teenagers from Belleville High were inspired to form the Deep Space Soundworks production company, run The Music Institute Club and create techno after hearing Kraftwerk co-habitate with P-Funk on the radio. Modulations follows techno as the sound of a post-human future; it’s the recognition that not only are machines making people irrelevant, but that they are capable of creating beauty as well. The Belleville Three – Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson – were interested in making music on a machine’s own terms and discovering how it danced, cried and had sex. Of course, techno is music of profound alienation, but it is also music with soul, erotic charge and the funk. Although there was a direct line to the space age funk of Parliament-Funkadelic, the literal alienation of techno seemed to have nothing to do with the musical traditions of Detroit, or anywhere else for that matter. Techno is so alienating because it is the sound of the fall-out of post-industrialisation – the murmuring of a mob of re-animated, discarded drones mistakenly given access to cheap technology. Where P-Funk had re-imagined the inner city as transcendent outer space, Atkins, in his next guise as Model 500, said there were “No UFO’s” – the man-machine music of Kraftwerk was the only way to dream your way out of the ruins of Detroit after the riots. Techno has since escaped Detroit. In Germany, where it occupies a significant portion of the Top 40, it is bona fide pop music. Modulations explores the tensions surrounding the explosion of a once-underground phenomenon into a vast money-making enterprise as embodied by Berlin’s Love Parade. In its infancy the Love Parade was an informal party of 150 people who danced around the city’s gray bunkers to the music of a small sound system. It is now a gathering of 1.5 million people who take over the city center. In response the underground has reacted by getting ever harder and more sparse. Artists like Alec Empire and Panacea have taken the stabbing synth riffs and claustrophobic atmospherics of hardcore and gabber techno and made them even more pummelling with a punk sensibility. The terrordome dynamics of hardcore and gabber were the result of the interface between drugs, music and flesh which journalist Simon Reynolds sees as the fundamental impetus behind the last decade of music-making. The experience of the rave (where this music developed) is that of an overload of extreme sensation – lights, loud music, adrenalin rushes, drugs – in order to produce an ecstatic state.

Modulations follows this pattern to its inevitable conclusion: burnout. As producers saw too much of the dark side, a large contingent began to make electronic music that harked back to Brian Eno’s notion of ambient music. He defined ambient music as a “tint” or a “perfume”; something that “could be listened to just as easily as it could be ignored.” With ever-more sophisticated recording technology available, the re-emergence of ambient music led to a return of the exploration of environmental sounds first proposed by Russolo and Cage almost a century earlier. Musicians like Tetsu Inoue and Scanner use new recording devices to map the experience of living in the post-modern city.

Modulations will trace the explosion of club culture in Europe to a club on Chicago’s South Side. Frankie Knuckles was a disco devoté when he moved to Chicago after his gig with the immortal Larry Levan ended at New York’s Continental Baths. During his residence at the Windy City’s The Warehouse, Knuckles discovered that the dancers really responded to Salsoul and Philadelphia International records augmented with the more rigid beats of a drum machine. Tired of splicing tape at home for his DJ sets, Knuckles produced his own tracks like Jamie Principal’s “Baby Wants to Ride” and Robert Owen’s “Tears”. Meanwhile, other producer/DJs in Chicago like Jesse Saunders were doing the same thing and the house sound of Chicago was born. At around the same time, DJ Pierre and Marshall Jefferson were experimenting with the newly released Roland TB 303 bassline machine. It was incredibly cheap, but it was a terrible machine for its purpose (providing basslines for solo instrumentalists). Pierre and Jefferson however, discovered that by tweaking the machine’s knobs it would produce a strange squelching sound. They passed a tape of their experiments to DJ Ron Hardy who played the tape to an enraptured club crowd. The group called themselves Phuture and the track was titled “Acid Tracks” which would spawn a subculture of its own in Britain in the form of acid house.

Inspired by house, techno and hip-hop, British musicians began to incorporate all three into the first specifically British form of electronic dance music – jungle. As the product of the sampler and the culture of intensity, Modulations examines jungle as perhaps the ultimate example of the interface between drugs, music and technology. The film traces both the darker hip-hop elements of the music and surrounding culture and its movement towards emollient salve with the astral projections of LTJ Bukem.

Of course, anywhere young people, drugs and loud music comingle, the police can never be too far behind. While neither living for the weekend (after all Loverboy sang “Working for the Weekend” in 1982), nor police repression of youth culture are anything new, “quality of life” campaigns which target clubs and raves in the US and Britain’s Criminal Justice Act which forbids gatherings of five or more people listening to “repetitive beats” represent the most severe forms of police crackdown on youth culture in half a century of moral panics.

A funky collage of sounds, images, cross-fades and electronic abstractions, Modulations embodies the experience of listening to these musical cut-ups and re-assemblages and suggests that electronica is not simply a representation of the atomization of culture, but a way of making sense of it.


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We are very excited that Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Ehsani’s newest documentary, “Water Will Take Us,” is now screening at festivals. Check out the trailer! The film delves into the effectsof climate change in Iran, from water shortages to catastrophicfloods. Three women narrate the story, uncovering the causes andmismanagement that led to flooding in 2019.If you're in Seia, Portugal there will be a screening of “WaterWill Take Us” at the 29th Serra da Estrela InternationalEnvironmental Film Festival, which is running from Oct 5 - 13, 2023.Find out more information about the festival more about the support of our sister organization, the L/GFoundation, ... See MoreSee Less
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