re:ECM & Retromania

I’m a huge fan of Simon Reynolds‘ writing on music and popular culture. Rip It Up and Start Again and Energy Flash are definitive accounts of the emergence and development of the post punk and rave scenes. Each book does a superb job of highlighting the socioeconomic backdrop for these exciting new musical forms in turn helping the reader understand and appreciate the music for what it was really all about. So it was with a dash of despondency that I came to the end of his most recent book Retromania. The disappointment didn’t come from the quality of the writing, which was as brilliant as always, nor the quality of the argument, which was considered and on point, but rather the conclusion which the book leaves you with. That message in a nut shell is that modern music has run its course, and that in the last 15-20 years, with the arguable exception of dubstep, we’ve done little but recycle old music forms in an endless youtube– and reissue-fueled  stranglehold of the past.

Music’s place in most people’s lives is undoubtedly changing, and the role it plays and the social effect it can have has changed from the days of post punk and rave. The notable innovation of the last 15 years was not the actual music itself but the medium in which it is delivered (mp3s, iPods etc). Perhaps this is where the immediate room for growth lies. I see parties and clubs as a particularly demanding medium for musical consumption. When done right they require a contribution and a commitment from the participants, and it’s the role of energizing this contribution through the process of producing and promoting and performing at parties which still keeps me genuinely excited today. I would have loved to have read a chapter by Mister Reynolds on this topic. No doubt he would have given a considered view. Perhaps he would conclude, as I often feel, that the potential social impact that club and dance music culture has still to be fulfilled.

But let’s not give up on the music. Perhaps as a civilization we’ve evolved to the point where the conditions for the creation of radical new musical forms (slavery, mass migration, isolated traditions, electronics etc)  are no longer possible on a macro level. Maybe. I’m not so sure. But I do know that we still have authentic artistry at play. For example individuals like Ricardo Villalobos and Max Loderbauer explored the micro landscape, such as the sonic territory between jazz and analogue electronics, in their re:ECM project from last year. This was a record which I slept on until recently, whilst coincidentally reading Retromania. I hear innovation here, and I hear an informed respect for the past but at the same time boundaries being pushed and questions being asked which aren’t all retrospective.  I feel and hear the same in the work of Floating Points, Four Tet, Burial, Flying Lotus, Bjork, Radiohead and PJ Harvey, as well as many others.

So whilst I can’t really argue or deny many of the very well made points made by Simon Reynolds in his book, I see plenty to look forward to from today’s vanguard – be they the producers, curators, remixers, live musicians or party makers that surround us.