Electronic Music, the 21st Century, and Amy Knoles
by Aryo Adhianto & Agung Waskito
Electronic music and the 21st Century. Both are highly correlated with each other. It may be true, if we look at it from a certain, wild viewpoint. For example, we can have an imagination of electronic music that resonatesin the city with skyscrapers as a landscape, bone-chilling cold air as a blanket, and automated machines that coexist with the souls of men within the environment. Yes, probably a setting like this is already manifest in cities like Paris, Berlin, Oslo, Detroit, to even Tokyo and Seoul.
Now back to the electronic music and the 21st century. Add one more word after that: Indonesia. Probably most of us will immediately point out one thing, and a lot of related things afterwards: Is there electronic musicin Indonesia? If it does, does it evolve here? And how exactly is electronic music perceived by the Indonesian?and so on and so forth…
And that’s what happened some time ago—excatly on September 24—in Jakarta, Indonesia. With the headline of “Electronic Music in the 21st Century”, the Sacred Bridge Foundation in cooperation with the National Museum of Indonesia (Museum Nasional) held a one day musical activity by bringing one of the gurus of electronic music, Amy Knoles, a percussionist and teacher at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), also a member of the world renowned group called The California E.A.R. Unit. The activity consisted of workshopduring the day and followed by live performances (opened by Space System, an electronic music group based in Jakarta) by Amy Knoles herself in the evening. It was a capacity building program which was initiated by theSacred Bridge Foundation to provide a thorough understanding of electronic music to the young practitionersand electronic music enthusiats in Indonesia (especially in Jakarta).
And here’s what we gained afterwards…
Okay, first two questions: Why electronic music? And what about Indonesia?
Electronic music, especially in the minds of the young generation in Indonesia today, may be understood and practiced as a ‘new’ media, and the most ideal one in pouring their expression as well as triggering creativity, and also as a fertile land to build collaborative acts between musicians, between generations, and between genres of music. Why? First of all, the breath of electronic music itself is all about explorations and the search for new possibilities in music. This presumably in line with the spirit of ‘rebels’ among the young generation who often go ‘against’ regularities and establishment—although this assumption still needs further verification. Then secondly, the integration of technology and art which beautifully manifested in the structure of electronic music also seem to correspond with how humans treated the 21st century; an era where the role of technology (especially digitization) is inseparable from the life of the young generation, straight from urban to the rurals.
From these two comparisons, then can electronic music indeed be said to be a thing of the ‘new’? Or perhaps it is only an opinion of one or two musicians and practitioners of electronic music within the path of popular music, where the exposure of the media also have a big share in popularizing the term ‘electronic music’ among wider societies across the world?
From the Western classical music’s standpoint, electronic music is not necessarily a ‘new’ thing. It is more of an extension of a relentless struggle of music itself: Right from the Prehistoric and Ancient Eras, the middle ages, the renaissance period, the baroque period, the classical period, the romantic, to the Twentieth Century period, where electronic music was born within this last era. Electronic music was also experiencing its own development, which can be divided into three major periods of time: The end of the 19th century until World War II, post World War II until the 1960′s, and the latter is the period from the 1960s up to the present day.
As a cautionary note, especially in the era of the 1960s, electronic music which had been in the track of ‘serious’ music for decades, and have a relatively small number of audience because of its ‘complexity’ and ‘too-intellect’, electronic music began to reach a wider audience by the time instruments such as mellotron, theremin, Moog, tape recorders, among others, began to be used by popular rock bands and jazz musicians such as Pink Floyd, The Beatles, YES, to Miles Davis, Chic Corea and Funkadelic. And though the meaning of ‘electronic music’ then becomes more and more ‘biased’ among wider societies, but one very important lesson that should be gained from this journey is how electronic music represents a very good integration between the past, the present, and the future. It’s no longer relevant which way you will travel the roads: the serious music, or the popular.
So when we return to the situation of electronic music in Indonesia, it is clearly visible that the benefits of such integration is not yet understood by the young musicians. While in fact, history has recorded that the Javanese gamelan has a significant impact on the development of Western classical music when it was echoed for the first time in Europe ages ago. And quoting from the words of Mad Mike Banks, a prominent Detroit Techno music, “… If you look at some of the most successful-Kraftwerk electronic bands use classical music which was a root of European music and the world embrace it. Yellow Magic Orchestra took traditional Japanese melodies and rhythms and placed it over again the electronic music world and embrace it. Chicago House music took soul from the South. Anytime you share your roots people usually feel it … “(Underground Resistance, “Designs for Sonic Revolution”, Straight No Chaser, Vol. 2, Issue Five, 1999), the integration between the past, the present, and the future, is key to the birth of innovation that will give benefits to mankind.
Right. Now the next two questions: Why Amy Knoles? And what’s with the 21st Century?
First of all, let’s get acquainted with the figure of Amy Knoles. When you see the stature, Amy Knoles still quite beautiful and fit at her age above 50 years. Although the equipment that she brought to Jakarta is quite simple (a MalletKat—MIDI-controlled Marimba, a DrumKat- MIDI-controlled Drum Pad, a laptop, and a video camera), she seem to carry all those stuff by herself everywhere she traveled. Amy Knoles was extremely friendly, easy going, and quite a ‘joker’; in which many people will be fooled by her ‘frightening’ reputation as one of the gurus of electronic music.
Amy Knoles is a hard-working percussionist, composer, teacher, and electronic musician from Milwaukee, Wisconsin (United States) that have been studied from many maestros who might not be too well known here in Indonesia, such as Morton Subotnick, one of the Pioneers in the development of electronic music and multi- media performance. And for over than 30 years now, Amy Knoles has been deeply delved into the world of electronic music, which of course the one that rooted in the Western classical music.
She is one of the members of that infamous group the California E.A.R. Unit, while as a solo artist she also has a long and brilliant resume, as can be seen from the list of the world’s great composers with whom she has collaborated with, such as John Cage, Steve Reich, Morton Feldman, Louis Andriessen, and much more. Not to mention her collaboration with musicians like Frank Zappa, Quincy Jones, and Flea of Red Hot Chilli Peppers. And for the past few years, Amy is still touring with Butoh dancer Michael Sakamoto for the work “Sacred Cow”, in which she was invited to Indonesia last September by the Jogja International Performing Arts Festival on September 26th this year—right after her state-of-the-art performance in Jakarta two days earlier.
Amy Knoles’ presence in Jakarta has reminded us the importance and the irreplaceable values of serious music that is so instrumental in the development of the music itself. One thing that felt increasingly faded within the musical life in Indonesia. While of course, serious music and serious musicians do not have the same amount of audience as much as the popular music and popular musicians do, but this doesn’t mean that serious music and serious musicians are becoming powerless to the society, as if they stop functioning. Amy Knoles and electronic music, is one living proof of such existence. Amy Knoles has convicted herself a long, long time ago to take responsibilities as an example, orientation, and the inspiration for many musicians, including those engaged in the world of popular music. Again, in the absence of such values, undoubtedly the music-and even other art forms-will suffered a deadlock.
And corresponding with the 21st century’s music “industry” that has shaped the composer and musician into an income generating profession, it seems now the success of one artist is measured by the size of income received, and how popular the musician is in public. This ‘forced’ condition may have affected the whole music sector; from the musicians, composers, educators, instrument makers, venues, to even how the music enthusiasts treated music. But does it hold Amy back from doing what she believes? Not a bit. Similar to the true nature of electronic music itself, where the spirit of constant struggle and the purpose to challenge the so-called establishment is the very core of its existence, then should not the electronic musicians stop worrying about their fame and fortune, and start hatching out the real thing?
In finishing this article, I remembered a fragment of a very memorable interview with Amy when I asked what the mission behind all her activities during this time, “Yes, to get rich! Just kidding… My mission has always been to keep the concert music of our time alive. To perform pieces by unknown composers and to create works of my own that mean something. Sometimes “meaning something” can just be making people laugh… or just being like an abstract work of art that let’s one find their own meaning. I have no rules and do not believe in “Style”! And it has always been a struggle and will always be a struggle for anyone whose art is outside of the mainstream, but what a delight when we travel far and meet perhaps a small group of people that actually understand each other!
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