Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Deadmau5, Daft Punk, and Haunted Technology

There was really no reason for me to be standing in the Target checkout with a Deadmau5 CD in my hand, although it was easy to pass it off as “fate.”  My original mission was to get a gift certificate, but, alas, Target is one of the few chains that actually stocks hardcopy.  I was drawn to the back of the store like a dog to a dropped peanut butter sandwich.  Not that I was really looking for anything, mind you.

For several weeks, though, I had been contemplating picking up a Deadmau5 album.   A friend of mine hipped me to Deadmau5 by way of a surprisingly layered piece called Strobe from his fourth full-length release For Lack of a Better Name.  There was still a modicum of resistance, though, because the music of Deadmau5 and other performers like him have a specific purpose: it is dance music.

Now, let’s get one thing clear: I don’t dance.  It’s just not my thing.  Although I definitely feel the relationship between the body’s motion and musical expression, I generally tend to interpret musical sound as the result of an instrumental interaction.  I do, however, think that it has unequivocally been proven that techno can have a musical value beyond whipping a mass of crazed dancers into a frenzy and keeping them there until either they drop or the club closes.  For example, there is always this gem:

When it came out, Digital Love opened my eyes to the musical possibilities of house-style techno.  Aside from having a great anime video, Daft Punk gets a huge amount of musical mileage with just a few ideas, and subtly constructs variants in such a way that even the most stoic head-bobber will be jumping about by the song’s end.  Deadmau5 has been heralded by many as the successor to Daft Punk's tastefully playful style.

4x4=12Which might be the case.  Deadmau5 represents a newer generation of techno and dance musicians that use programs like Ableton Live and other soft sequencers to construct and compose music on-the-fly, with less reliance on samplers and rigid automation.  In effect, he and other musicians that use this type of technology are opening up the computer’s instrumental potential.  So, when 4 x 4 = 12 jumped off of its prominently displayed but terribly misplaced home in Target’s “Soundtrack” section, it smelled like providence: perhaps it was time for me to get inside Deadmau5’s music and look for the ghost in the machine, so to speak.

Musical risk is part of the “human element” in music, and Deadmau5 obviously knows just like everyone else that dance music can be done badly – sometimes painfully so.  Getting up in front of a crowd and simply pushing “play” on your favorite house album is a dangerous roll of the dice.  In its “native environment,” house music matches and maintains the momentum of the crowd, which requires interaction between performer and audience.  This environment does not exist in my car, my house, or even my headphones, so to gauge the value of 4 X 4 = 12 in those situations may be somewhat unreasonable.

The risk in any recording is minimized: it plays the same every time.  A techno album, though, can be structurally appreciated as an idealized digital “sketch” of what the interaction between artist and audience might sound like on any given night.  Predictably, the tempo hovers around a repetitive 130 bpm for the entire album.  To be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with repetition (otherwise Count Basie's riffs were truly the end of all that is morally good) but ultimately 4 X 4 = 12, as a purely auditory experience, begins to hover on the monotonous.  I feel enthusiastic at the beginning, but after a few tracks, I inevitably begin to think I may not be cut out for all of this mechanized hyperactivity.

Then, the seas parted.  While feeling stuck behind one of Austin’s many public buses, I discovered the song Raise Your WeaponIt’s beautiful, moody gem, made more so by its placement within the hammering pulse that necessarily permeates 4 X 4 = 12.  It’s almost as if Deadmau5 structures the entire album as a frame around this defiantly poignant piece.

The video above is a behind-the-scenes live performance of Raise Your Weapon with audio that seems to be coming straight from the board.  If you just want to hear the song, it’s a decent version.  What I particularly like about it, though, is from this angle, we are privy to the kind of interaction that he is engaging in as he performs.  There are definitely times when he just sort of lets the machinery run, taking time to grump at the soundman (4:13)  mug for the camera (4:27), or flirt with girls (starting at 2:38, but lasting the whole song).  Despite this, there is an element of flexibility and control in his performance.  You can particularly see his level of engagement with the medium increase when he transitions from one sonic “scene” to another. 

The Target checker that ultimately sold me the disc was enthusiastically surprised about her store having 4 X 4 = 12, even more so when it came up on sale.  More serendipity, I suppose, that, at the time, further justified my curiosity.  I can’t say that I share her unbridled enthusiasm for this particular album in its entirety, but I really like its finer points.  These moments whet my curiosity further about Deamau5’s artistic potential in the long run.

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