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Techno or yes?
Or, can Boston be a dance-music town?
BY NICK SYLVESTER
Related Links

Forced Exposure's official Web site

According to a T-shirt I saw in Montreal earlier this month, "God hates techno." And since T-shirts are Godís official medium for communicating his thoughts, well, I guess itís okay if you hate techno too. Thing is, if God hates techno, then he must really hate Boston. Hereís the word from Montrealís Mutek electronic-music festival, the annual week-long government-sponsored event that brings together the worldís most exciting experimental and dance-music producers for panels and round-the-clock performances: Boston is world-recognized for its experimental artists (one shout-out: Keith Fullerton Whitman) and its long-standing commitment to computer-based experimental music.

The crude, probably inaccurate explanation is this: since early synthesizers were so expensive, only the wealthiest universities, like Harvard and MIT, could afford them. But it wasnít just the price of the machinery that gave electronic music instant elitist status ó it was the promise of unprecedented compositional innovations, of symphonies that invented their own systems and logic. Eventually the stylings of electronic music became cheap and accessible (hip-hop sampled, disco took synth to the halls), but before that gradual democratization of technology began, the appeal of early electronic music ó whether musique concrète, tape manipulations, or computer-generated sounds ó was confined to the few with access to it.

But not only is Boston filled with nerds and rich people, itís also home to the Malden-based Forced Exposure, which brings experimental electronic and dance music from around the world into the US. It is, of course, amusing to think that Europe is exporting dance music to the States when so much European stuff is borrowed from American house, funk, and disco in the first place. Not that the US is producing first-class dance music anymore. For whatever reason, Boston and the rest of the American public have become skeptics.

What will it take for dance music to get mass appeal stateside? That question hung over Mutek like a thundercloud. Amy Grill and David Day, the founders of Boston's sQuare Productions (David is also Label Manager and Marketing Director at Forced Exposure), are producing a documentary along with go-to electronic journalist Philip Sherburne, that examines popular biases and the roots of dance-music skepticism in the States. Whatís the story in Boston? For starters, this is a rock town. Our tastes are meat-and-potatoes, in the best possible way. We appreciate craft and candor and hard work. So the thought of some dude on stage making music with a laptop is frustrating. We donít know exactly how heís making the sounds; either the musicís impossibly difficult to create and understand, or else heís just pressing a button.

One of my favorite Mutek sets was by Montreal native and non-dance music artist Tim Hecker. Hecker hid behind a laptop and a table of gear; the audience, laid out on gym mats and cued in via headphones (thereís a social commentary in there somewhere), listened to him improvise his tundra-like sheets of noise for nearly an hour. It was beautiful, but I wish I knew what the hell he was doing. At a rock concert, you can see the guitarist, and you know that when the guitar is strummed, a guitar-like sound will come out of an amplifier. Maybe live performance could clue people in to electronic music, dance or otherwise. Forget the floating polygon projections. Let artists project their desktop screens so we can watch how they put their pieces together. Give the audience a clear visual representation of the musical process.

Then thereís the idea that electronic dance music is druggy, disposable, and worthless next to rock. In an ideal world, dance would be cool not for high times or mating calls but because the musicís good on its own and dancing to it is fun. Rock has always been body music, but after years of rock-as-art, weíre apt to forget. Sure, much of the dance-oriented post-post-punk stuff coming out right now lacks backbone, and "Itís great because you can dance to it" is too often an excuse for bad songwriting. But inroads are inroads. The best parts of Mutek satisfied me at once both mentally and physically, and Iím convinced we canít ask much more from music.

For tracks from some of Mutekís more notable acts, see this weekís "Download" column.


Issue Date: June 17 - 23, 2005
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