Sunday Sounds: Above & Beyond

The electronic music world is often accused much more than it is guilty of producing music that disconnects people, either the producer or the listener, from the human heart and soul easily accessible in more traditional music.

“They’re not playing any instruments.”
“They’re not even doing anything.”
“That’s not their song.”

The list goes on, but of course, the list makers have it all wrong. Well, they have it mostly wrong.

It’s true that on first listen, and sometimes first several listens that electronic music can come off as thin, tinny, and more of a representation of a sequence than a means of conveying an emotion or a personal message. All the vocals are pre-recorded, especially in a live setting, which can understandably give off the feeling that the audience is removed another step from the music itself.

Before music recording was invented, the only way to hear music was to go somewhere and see it played live. Even in the first couple decades after Thomas Edison helped pave the way in sound recording, the costs of the devices were so much that people still had to leave the house to join a group of other like-minded fans in order to hear what they wanted.

Slowly, but surely, music playback grew smaller and less expensive, and music spread like a virus into homes, bedrooms, and eventually devices for one person to listen at a time. Even though the tradition of leaving the house to hear that music played live by the people who made it became less necessary, it  never quite went away. Fans and admirers are still drawn to observing the virtuosity of an artist.

When I was first getting into music, I really liked Metallica. The more I listened, the more important it became to me to see them play their songs live. I didn’t know how to play guitar, I couldn’t tell you the progressions Kirk Hammett was moving through on ‘Unforgiven,’ and I had no technical means to quantify his solos, but that didn’t stop me from wanting to see him shred it live on stage.

As the scope of my music I loved grew, so did the expectations and the content in a live setting. Most hip-hop shows were a showcase of the technical skills of a person’s speech, as well as their interaction with the music. Their backing music/production was most often played back as they performed, unless they had their own DJ. Even then, that was a new, more abstract means of accomplishing with two records and a sampler, what would have taken a full band if it were old enough.

Of course, out of hip-hop and dance music came early electronic-based and techno music. House was born, and spread like a creeping weed, peaking in the late 90’s, then quickly tapered off after the turn of the millennium. But not before it spawned a number of sub-genres and offshoots, including progressive house, ambient, and trance. The formation and definition of trance was created by Jono Grant, Tony McGuiness and Praavo Siljamaki who formed Above & Beyond Westminster in 1999.

With a DJ or producer’s live show, you’re removed one step further from witnessing the virtuosity of a musician from that of hip-hop, but you wind up more isolated due to the controls and console being completely hidden from view. You have to trust that somebody is “doing something” up on stage, and not just paying their bills, or playing minesweeper, or worse, faking the performance altogether.

Their music has drums, but they’re not a drummer. There might be bass in their song, but they likely wouldn’t know what to do if you put a bass guitar in their hands. That’s where you lose most people in the argument to determine if a person is actually demonstrating a skill more so than showing off their record collection.

Case in point: I got into this conversation with my girlfriend’s mom, who is a lifetime fan of the Grateful Dead, and all about jams spanning hours, in musicians being defined by the instruments they play, and those instruments having real-world, or acoustic equivalents. They may play an electric guitar amplified by electricity, but at the heart and source of the sound is a set of vibrating strings skillfully plucked in just the right way.

I could tell the argument was in vain, and that I’d never get her to see things my way, right as I was explaining their set-up. “They play music. They may play it differently, and not with such a direct analogous link to the sound itself, but they’re still musicians. They’re still artists.” She asked where the sounds came from. I explained they’re either synthesized in a library, or they’re played by professionally musicians and recorded in notes or pieces, then loaded en masse into a sampler or program. The performers utilize pads and keyboards and any number of playback devices to manipulate prerecorded sounds to both compose and perform their music.

That’s where we lost my girlfriend’s mom, Debbie. She couldn’t get past, or around, or through the fact that the person producing the music wasn’t physically playing it on anything that has a direct analogue counterpart.

“It’s not music, because they’re not musicians. They’re DJ’s, because that’s what DJ’s do; they play other people’s music.” She argued, firmly planting her heels with zero intention of letting up. She’s no stranger to protest, and from what I’ve learned from debating with her daughter, there was little point in trying to force her to budge. So we agreed to disagree.

Still, her words lingered in my head, echoing around my consciousness and eventually counterpoints began to bubble up. One such counterpoint was Above & Beyond. What would Debbie have to say about three classically trained musicians, one of who produced those sample libraries of prerecorded sounds, who’ve all made the conscious decision to create and perform electronic music?

After all, they write and perform their songs in the studio with a more traditional set-up, and only after the song is fleshed out do they overlay more traditional, dance-oriented sounds across it.

Maybe that’s why their songs transferred so seamlessly to their Acoustic series they played in 2014, and why their songs retained such a poignant emotional power through the transition. Though the music has pauses between songs that their ‘Group Therapy’ shows avoid by weaving each songs ends and beginnings together, they maintain a storytelling power and thoughtful programming choices in terms of sequence, content and build.

To her credit, I believe Debbie would (and will) love their acoustic album, and I’m sure the only way to get her to to actually listen to it without a constant stream of arguments is sneak it in, and just put it on in the background when she’s not paying attention. Sometimes deception is the only way to make a persuasive argument. In the case of my girlfriend’s mom and electronic music, it’s going to be the only way to get her to see things my way: by sneaking it in between volumes of “Live at the Fillmore West” when she isn’t looking.

So this Sunday, I’m going to suggest lowering your guard if only for a few minutes, and hear somebody out in an argument where you firmly believe you’re correct. Perhaps more importantly, an argument where you’re absolutely sure the other person’s wrong.

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