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Book Review – The Evolution of Electronic Dance Music

In December of 2011, Backbeat Books published The Evolution of Electronic Dance Music, a compendium of articles from Keyboard Magazine and its sister publication, Remix Magazine. The 229-page book was assembled by Peter Kirn, and collects articles published in those magazines between 1982 and 2010. The Evolution of Electronic Dance Music tells the history of electronic dance music (EDM) and it provides an interesting in-the-trenches perspective on the popular side of electronic art.

Editor Peter Kirn is the writer and publisher of the venerable Create Digital Music/Motion blogs. For most high-tech art geeks, these blogs are the center of the blogosphere. He is also a teacher who has taught at various universities, and runs electronic music workshops all over the country. He lends a well-traveled perspective to the book, and the two articles he wrote specifically for the book are insightful additions.

The cover of The Evolution of Electronic Dance Music

The book is made up of interviews interspersed with a couple long-form artist profiles and gear overviews. Most of the 21 included articles are around ten pages long. The book opens with a profile of Kraftwerk from 1982 and ends with an interview of Robert Henke, the co-developer of Ableton Live. The authors sampled include Kirn himself, as well as Greg Rule, Robert Doerschuk, Chris Gill and others. Surprisingly, the articles aren’t ordered strictly chronologically. Since the artists often talk in detail about how they use their gear, this can be jarring at times. While reading the book, I had to occasionally look back at the byline for an article in order to contextualize the artist references to software or hardware. This might be even more difficult for younger readers who can’t rely on their memory of technology from the nineties or earlier.

The interviews usually delve into the creative process for an artist or ensemble that played a role in the evolution of electronic dance music. It’s interesting to hear the often clashing views on creativity in dance music. Patrick Codenys of Front 242 argues that the key to creativity is to “always be aware of your environment.” Other artists, such as Tom Rowlands of The Chemical Brothers, talk about starting tracks by just experimenting with a sample or a certain piece of gear. Although most of the artists employ mass-market equipment, in chapter 12, Richard James, aka Aphex Twin, talks about how all of his tracks begin with his own custom tools. Without a doubt, the book chronicles the way that electronic musicians fetishize their gear, but this is only natural. After all, the evolution of electronic dance music is, in a significant way, the evolution of electronic musical instruments.

Many of the articles touch on the controversy that surrounded the art of sampling in the 1990s. For those of us who were around to witness it, these articles hearken back to the era when sampling was making headlines through the legal system. Chapter eight is almost entirely devoted to artists weighing in on the moral and creative implications of sampling. In a revealing moment, Richard James seems truly exasperated by the whole discussion, claiming that he is “obsessed with using [his] own sounds” and he doesn’t “care if someone copies my whole track and puts it out under a different name.”

Peter Kirn’s own articles supply the highlights of the book. His interview with musicologist Denise Dalphond provides a readable introduction to the academic view of EDM. Her brief comments on sexism in electronic music will ring painfully true for many readers. The concluding interview with technologist and composer Robert Henke provides a strangely contrarian view on the entire book. He sagely points out that as the tools become more refined, they will become less interesting. In other words, electronic music will be mature when writers care more about the conception of a piece than about what gear was used to execute the artist’s plan.

The Evolution of Electronic Dance Music is a very readable introduction to an often-overlooked history. Because the collected articles were written for magazines, they are short and easy to consume. For academics and scholars, the book is a welcome change in style which may be useful for extra readings in a course on electronic music. Certainly the articles on Kraftwerk or rave culture are essays that educators can use to connect academic electroacoustic music to popular EDM. The book fits well with the other books in this category. Readings from this book can be used to augment readings from Christopher Cox’s Audio Culture or Paul Miller’s Sound Unbound.

On the whole, The Evolution of Electronic Dance Music is a valuable resource for educators, composers and hobbyists. It clearly illuminates the history of an overlooked niche of popular music. This history is very important to fans of electronic music, so it behooves educators and composers to gain an awareness of the artists involved. Furthermore, at the affordable price of $16.99, The Evolution of Electronic Dance Music should be on every musician’s bookshelf.

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