Introduction to the Pathfinder
Techno music is a new creation. The genre came into being in the early 1980s. The foundation for its birth came from a century of technology evolving into the machines that make creating techno music possible. Couple that with philosophical musings about that technology and how humankind would be affected by it, and a counterculture is begun.
To many, the first experience with techno music is a lesson in listening to noise. Techno music is created using computers, drum machines, synthesizers, and sometimes, acoustical instruments (which are usually modified digitally). Techno is fast paced, from 120 –160 BPMs (beats per minute), with a heavy emphasis on bass drums, ethereal sounding synthesized melodies, and computer generated (or manipulated) samples. Often these samples come from popular experiences such as TV shows, movies, and even pop songs. Some forms of techno emphasize even faster BPMs, such as Gabber music, which usually sustains BPMs of 200.
One thing that separates techno music from other genres of popular music is its vehicle for exposure. Most forms of music that hit national popularity are given airtime on the radio, show time on MTV, and expensive advertising campaigns in retail music stores. Only recently has techno music begun to be incorporated into mainstream media. Techno can be heard on the soundtracks to many recent video games. One example is Wipeout3, a Sony Playstation game created by Psygnosis. A commercial for Surge soda featured a ‘big band’ techno song in its background (DeSalvo, 24).
Another thing separating techno from mainstream culture is the individualism and independence involved. The ideology of techno is: do it yourself (Collin). If what you need or want doesn’t exist, create it. This attitude pervades the making and distributing of techno music, the clothing, the gathering (raves), and the communications.
The vector for techno, the DJ and dance floor, are most commonly found at events called ‘raves’. Techno’s marriage to the rave scene came about in 1991 when the rave phenomenon crossed the Atlantic and, much like the Beatles did in 1964, invaded North America (Sicko,117). Up to that point, most parties were small and club oriented. Since then the party scene has become one of the hugest non-mainstream avenues for music in the world. Raves usually take place in large warehouses, convention centers, or in large outdoor spaces. It is not unusual for two to three thousand people to attend. A variety of music is played, at different times throughout the rave, or in different areas. Within that structure, techno music, and its sub-genres, pervades the sounds and rhythms chosen for play.
The DJ is a type of shaman, a guide within the realm of fast paced beats, discordant mechanical sounds, and computer generated sounds. Ask any dancer at a rave why they are still awake at 5am (without the assistance of chemical stimulants) and they will give you an answer similar to that which runners claim, of a ‘natural high’. Their energy is the music, fueled by the DJ’s manipulation of the music. Part of the appeal in going to raves and listening to the music is that it is seamless. The DJ uses two (sometimes three) direct drive turntables with pitch controls on them, and a mixer to blend the records together. Direct drive turntables can be stopped instantly and spun backwards without damaging the equipment (unlike belt-driven turntables, which have belts that wear out easily from such abuse). New tracks are added as others are taken out. The high, mid and low level frequencies being transmitted through a very sensitive stylus (needle) to the receiver and speakers can be increased or decreased to add dimensions to the music that the artist never intended. The end result is a completely unique sound, one that will probably never be created or heard again. In a world of mass production and consumption, experiencing something truly unique is appealing.
The people who congregate at raves and clubs to hear techno music and dance tend to be young, under thirty and have assimilated technology into as many areas of their lives as possible. The rise of electronic communications parallels the growing number of parties that happened in the early 1990s. List-serves and news groups provided a venue for advertising events and giving directions to get there. The side effect of not using mainstream publicity was that the general public never knew what was going on, and all the people who attended the events were of the same mind, and were isolated from mainstream influences.
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Detroit, Michigan, in the late 1970s and early 1980s is the stage on which techno music’s development is played out. Beginning with the youth culture in Detroit during disco’s heyday, Sicko describes a city with a unique social and economic situation. Within that world of race and class, there were kids who needed and created a method of release: youth rebellion through music and dance.
The industrious (and bored) Black youth of wealthier neighborhoods in the suburbs of Detroit created their own outlet with private parties they organized. The different high schools had different ‘clubs’, regular weekend dance parties sponsored by the youth. These ‘clubs’ were held in places rented by the kids, some of them before they were old enough to drive. The music played was predominantly ‘funk’ music, in the style of the Electrifying Mojo, one of Detroit’s most well known and loved DJs of the time. Not being able to afford the Mojo, clubs recruited other kids as DJs.
Their parties were meant to be a way to distinguish them from the ghetto. Style of dress and attitude were very important. The ‘clubs’ named themselves after expensive clothing designers in vogue at the time. Friendly competition between clubs made for more interesting parties and more risk taking with the music being played.
The sound and texture of techno music is summed up in the words of Derrick May, one of its progenitors, “I want my music to sound like computers talking to each other (Brewster, 335)”. For the most part, techno music has very little lyrics. Those tend to be repetitive and used for their sound texture, not literal meaning.
Derrick May and Juan Atkins were experimenting with music when they were high school students. They were working on projects and producing records independently of each other. Both artists were influenced by the local music scene, and the synthi-pop music coming out of Germany. Most notable (and influential) was the work of Kraftwerk. Eventually their (May , Atkins, and a little later, Saunderson) records started selling, especially in Chicago. Chicago was a hub for disco and house music. Kevin Saunderson moved to Detroit from New York City when he was fifteen. He met Atkins and May through their high school. They are called The Belleville Three by Sicko and Reynolds.
Juan Atkins produced records under the name Cybotron (with partner Rick Davis), under the label Metroplex, and as Model 500 (after he and Davis split up). Atkins’ music was very much about technology. His lyrics sang of the embracement of technology.
Derrick May has produced records under the name Mayday and Rythim is Rythim. May’s tracks reflected more minimalism than the other two artists. This might be why his tracks opened the door to techno’s success in the United Kingdom.
Kevin Sanderson release records under many names; Reese, Reese and Santonio, Inner City, Keynotes, and E-Dancer. Saunderson had more disco influences in his music than the other two.
In 1987 a producer in England heard some of the music coming out of Detroit, made contact with Derrick May and set up a partnership to produce a compilation album. The album was a big hit in the UK and sparked interest in techno music there. Fate is funny sometimes, and doesn’t always play fair. Techno music became a huge success in the United Kingdom. New artists began producing it there, and new music styles were developed. The irony was that techno still wasn’t catching on in the United States.
Some of the style differences between UK and US techno are racially defined. The Black culture of Detroit produces techno with more ‘soul’ than White counterparts in Europe. The three European countries to fully embrace techno and contribute to the genre were Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands.
Some of the new styles that developed after techno was absorbed in the United Kingdom are: trance, ambient, drum & bass, jungle, and progressive techno.
The massive, all-night parties these forms of music are heard at have become part of youth culture, and a counterculture in their own right.
There is much controversy over the rave culture, mostly due to the drug use that happens. Recently, laws in the US and the UK have been passed to restrict raving. Techno music will not go away though, even with its main vector being limited. The World Wide Web offers many outlets for those who want to share, trade, create, and listen to techno music.
Another issue plaguing the techno music community is that of becoming part of mainstream society. More techno music is being heard in T.V. commercials, video game and movie soundtracks. Being accepted in the commercial mainstream has advantages and disadvantages, which are a point of contention among people (musicians and fans alike) in the community.
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