Putting the Morr back in Morrissey: A Morr Music Compilation
Reviewed by John Brady
Thursday, January 25 2001, 4:35 PM
As one of the more significant events in popular music, the flowering of global electronic music -- birth child of cheap, accessible digital technology, the end of the Cold War, and the relative exhaustion of rock 'n roll as a source cultural innovation -- never fails to leave me ambivalent. There is, on the one hand, so very much to like. A highly diverse, internally differentiated subculture, techno culture offers a vast array of unique experiences and pleasures. Countless times I've admired and appreciated the artisanal skills of DJs, who, with little source material (sometimes just two records and a quick cross fader), have mixed and scratched a dance floor full of people before my very eyes. Dancing on such floors in tiny basement clubs or mammoth street festival's like Berlin's Love Parade, I've allowed myself to be overwhelmed by the seemingly endless wash of beats, blips, and samples, imagining the thump-thump-thump-thump of bass as some sort of sonic fingerprint, one leaving behind traces of society's primal rhythms. I've reveled in the culture's unapologetic hedonism. And I've enjoyed techno culture's easy, optimistic embrace of a technology soaked future signaled by its graphic style, fashions, and dominant design conventions, as it provides me with a pleasurable moment of relief from the burdens of my own dystopian pessimism.
But for all the heat it otherwise generates, politically, techno leaves me cold. With a few exceptions, electronica has an underdeveloped political consciousness and has failed to achieve what other genres like rock and hip-hop have, namely the ability to make politics pleasurable by harnessing aesthetics to generate critical political insight. Thus, for example, the sophistication of electronic dance's political discourse rarely rises above endlessly repeated platitudes about love, peace, and unity. And on those occasions when the scene mobilizes politically, when, say, it's clubs are threatened with closure, it exhibits behavior no better than any other self-interested lobby group fighting to protect its political and cultural turf. Ambient electronica - often represented as the intelligent alternative to electronic dance - has its own distinct political shortcomings. Its producers, far too convinced of their own status as a cultural avant-garde, work less on creating an accessible musical language than on fetishizing new sounds. The result are mute tracks hermetically sealed off from the larger audience that doesn't share ambient's sonic obsessions. In both cases there is precious little reflection on the larger social context - the material and political relations governing the production and reception of their sound - to be heard in the offerings of these representatives of the techno world.
But all is not lost. Indications that electronica can productively address its political deficit keep cropping up. One of the latest comes from the Berlin based electronica label Morr Music, which has released a delightful compilation of European ambient electronica, "Putting the Morr Back in Morrissey." The title notwithstanding, this compilation has nothing to do with England's most famous manic depressive. Instead, its devoted to traditional ambient with tracks featuring the imaginative manipulation of digital sound to create intricate and pleasing soundscapes. And what is most attractive, there is also a tantalizing handful of tracks that deploy the aesthetic conventions of the genre - electronic dance beats, collages of processed vocal samples, cyclical repetition of melodies and themes, the fragmentation and reconstitution of units of sound - to suggest wider political and social themes.
In this vein, I was most impressed by Micha Acher's "Tenko Rmx," a remix of an earlier track by Schneider tm and a somber meditation on the interface between digital technology and human life. Acher combines a haunting melody flowing slowly over the downtempo time-keeping of a trip hop beat with a repetitive electronic hissing spookily evocative of an artificial respirator. The track starts quietly, slowly building into an extended crescendo two-thirds of the way through the song as the beats become heavier, crunching out the tracks rhythm, and the hissing louder and more insistent. Listening, one is suddenly struck by how the track seems to breathe. Digital music, which some consider so lifeless, seems very much alive. And in creating this effect, this intricate melding of electronic sounds so as to suggest breathe - an essential component in the reproduction of human life - Acher delivers an aesthetic shock. It's a shock that interrupts one's pleasure in the track and initiates a moment of reflection regarding the promises and dangers defined by the ever-changing nexus between technology, machines, and human life.
The tremendous expansion of the internet, the continuing sophistication of wireless devices and technologies, the growing feasibility of ever smaller - even cell sized - machines: all have dramatically expanded humanity's reliance on the artificial constructs of technology and further eroded the distinction between the organic and the inorganic. Some futurists on the fringe, citing the possibility of conscious machines, have joyfully forecast the subordination of humans to a new species of more than human machines. Such questionable celebration aside, this latest period of technological change has been, and will continue to be, an ambivalent development to be sure. The latest advances have spurred unprecedented advances in the material security of human life. But justifiable anxiety is present, too. Then these same advances have too often only assisted in the colonization of everyday life by capitalist and bureaucratic imperatives, threatening basic human sociability and community. With its combination of a haunting, beautiful melody with the understated aggression of its beats and the eerie breathing of the track, Acher's track conveys this fundamental tension in our relationship with technological progress. In holding and presenting this tension, Acher again presents the listener with a moment to reflect on the political and social realties of her time.
Listening to electronica, one can't miss its potential to become one of the dominant musical forms of Post-Fordism in much the same way that guitar based rock was the music of choice during the Fordist era. The analog howls, whether bluesy, punk, or soulful, were perfect for expressing mass frustration with the 'analog' forms of alienation and oppression dominant in a society based on industrial production. In a similar manner, electronica's bips and bleeps resonate the danger and menace of everyday life in the digital age. What better way to critically reflect on the ambivalent fragmentation of contemporary experience, where, thanks to digital technology, reality is sliced into smaller and smaller, more and more controllable units, than with a musical form based on the similar fragmentation, manipulation, and reconstitution of units of sound? But to realize its potential, electronica has much work to do. It will have to control its hedonism and tame its avant-garde pretensions long enough to develop a musical language both precise enough to convey political meaning and pleasurable enough to keep us listening. Micha Acher's track and others like it represent an interesting start in this direction.
For more information on this release, contact Thomas Morr, Prenzlauer Allee 216, 10405 Berlin Germany