Techno and dubstep, the kindred styles of electronic groove music that dominate dance-club life around the world, are hard to make well because they are so easy to make. Since techno emerged in force, around Detroit in the last years of the twentieth century, hundreds of producers have been generating electronic music, whether on location in dancehalls or off-site for later use in clubs or for individual listeners to download. Electronica, at this point, is well established as the sound of young social life, as established as jazz was in Fitzgerald’s day. It’s long been a truism that we live in the digital age; in musical terms, though, this is the electronica age.
As forms of aural collage, techno and dubstep (and their many offshoots and subgenres, such as dub techno, acid techno and others too numerous for me to list or to grasp) are constructed though the accretion and the manipulation of samples and digitally generated sounds. The accessibility of the basic equipment makes the creation of this music seem deceptively simple, much as the availability of guitars in the second half of the last century made every undergraduate think he or she could be another Elvis or Dylan. A form at least two decades old, electronica now has its Elvises and Dylans: Juan Atkins, the great pioneer of techno; Benga and Skream, early innovator of dubstep; and Skrillex, dubstep’s pop star, the name most people outside the music (like me) most love to name-check. Skrillex, a former singer in post-punk bands with a songwriterly sense of musical structure, has surely done more than any other electronica artist to bring the music into the mainstream, and he got three Grammy awards this year (including a big one for Best New Artist) as the prize.
I make no pretense of being deeply immersed in this sphere of art. I’m picking up my nine-year-old son from school when most club kids are getting up for breakfast. Still, as a former Mudd Club guy, I have a weakness for good groove music, and I’ve long had a special fondness for the experimental music of Morton Feldman and Milton Babbitt. This week, I heard a new piece of work, “Luxury Problems,” released as a digital download by the dub techno producer Andy Stott, and I’ve been listening to it almost constantly—with earbuds, on the street, which is a serviceable way to take in electronic music if you’re too square for the clubs. The music is superb, by any standard: beautiful, in its industrial severity; complexly structured, with unexpected but organic-sounding shifts and turns; and distinctively the work of its creator. Stott’s use of vocal samples, provided by his former piano teacher, a classically trained singer named Alison Skidmore, gives the work a human warmth, too.
An excerpt, in a fan video with visuals clipped from the “Toby Dammit” segment of the “Spirits of the Dead,” the experiment in gothic psychedelia directed in 1968 by Federico Fellini: