Electronic Alchemy

[Connecting the dots between Jungle, time travel, sampling, alchemy & Alan Moore]

Two things have got me thinking recently about the role of electronic musicians in an increasingly digital and media-saturated culture. The first was seeing The Last Angel of History, a film made in 1996 by John Akomfrah. Its key preoccupations – the spread of the internet, and the interplay between black culture, technology and science fiction – were tropes of what was then the emerging aesthetic of Afrofuturism.

The film looks at the way computer technologies that were originally designed for military purposes in the wake of the Second World War were being used by the end of the twentieth century by young electronic musicians in the US and UK ‘to construct a soundtrack to the end of the industrial epoch’. While in the US, much of this soundtrack was provided by Detroit Techno, in the UK it was the emergence of Jungle in the early ’90s which signalled a musical rupture. Jungle uprooted rhythms from other forms of music – most notably the ‘Amen Break’ – chopped them up and spat them back out at furious speeds that never been heard before; creating a sonic landscape that simultaneously tapped into the angst and aggression of inner-city Britain and provided a relief from its pressures. With its mix of black and white participants, it often broke down racial barriers in the process.

Goldie – one of the era’s most influential producers – explains the way that the technology used to produce early jungle and hip hop records broke down time: the act of sampling allowed producers from Detroit to Hackney direct access to music such as reggae, soul, funk and jazz that had been produced decades earlier. Sampling thus became a form of time travel – taking splices from pre-existing forms of music and transcending its historical specificity by creating something wholly new. This temporal fluidity meant that jungle was in constant dialogue with other forms of music and other cultural artefacts from the African diaspora. But it also created a separate time/space that made you pay attention: ‘straight in, information; straight out in dance, in aggression, in movement’.

But the film was made almost 20 years ago. We have now moved into a world where a generation is being born who will have no memory of a pre-internet existence. What is the role of the electronic musician in an universe in which the rate of information that is available to us is increasing exponentially? The second thing that got me thinking was a comment by Om Unit – who has been steadily rearranging the parameters of drum n bass in recent years, and is signed to Goldie’s pioneering Metalheadz label. He put forward the notion that musicians, and artists in general, are ‘transreceivers of information‘ – individuals who receive input such as sound or visual imagery – and reinterpret them. So, if in the ’90s, jungle producers were able to disrupt linear time and produce a fractured soundtrack to the end of an era, using Om Unit’s notion, electronic musicians in the current era could be seen as following in the footsteps of the ancient practice of alchemy – the search for new and purer substances by altering materials already in existence, with the intention of eliciting psychological and spiritual changes in its practitioners. In his recent mix for FACT magazine, Om Unit hints at this process by including a sample from visionary comic book artist, anarchist and magician Alan Moore, who posits that art in all its forms is a way of transforming reality by ‘manipulating symbols, words or images to achieve changes in consciousness’. For Alan Moore, the work of the artist or writer is akin to that of the shaman. In a world of increasing information overload, the creative act is as vital as ever. Not only because in creating a new piece of music or art we change the world around us, but also because we reclaim the act from advertisers, those who have the most power at their disposal to create ‘cheap entertainment and manipulation’ and thus shape our culture. 



One thought on “Electronic Alchemy

  1. Pingback: World of noise | Attack/Decay

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