Culture, General, Music, Nonsense

techno as composition-the antidote to the “soul-less” charge

Aside from the question of aesthetics and personal preference, few casual listeners realize that techno, unlike its more straightforward verse-chorus-verse-structured musical peers, does not rely on a recording of a performance, but on a recording of sound directly from the sheets of musical notation, as MIDI data performs the function of sheet music, in the sense that it acts as a set of instructions for the sequence of notes and sounds as they are to appear on a techno record(ing).

The orchestra performs the same function in the process of getting music heard (be it through a studio recording or live performance) as the synthesizers do once they are connected to a sequencer in order to follow its instructions as per the MIDI data.

The techno producer–as always, using the genre moniker in the broadest sense–is thus nothing less than a modern day composer, different from his/her classical counterpart only in terms of writing music for electronic instruments/sound modules, and putting perhaps more emphasis on sound rather than the progressions of a melody the composition itself.

How, then, does classical composition differ qualitatively from the many complex and heartfelt compositions contributed by the techno world?

Jeff Mills’s live orchestration is perhaps the best proof to date that the boundary between the two musical realms (techno and classical) is blurred, if not nonexistent. Here’s an example where the Roland Tr-909 drum machine plays an integral part in the classical rendition of one of the best examples of beautiful techno. Here’s the original.



  1. adam v says:

    To be honest i don’t see the merits of live orchestra in detroit techno. In fact, i think it hurts it, because it subjugates techno to this archaic idea of what is ‘sophisticated’ and ‘proper’. I think this is very regressive from a philosophical standpoint, and I don’t really enjoy these blue potential recordings from a musical standpoint either. The ‘integral part’ played by the 909 is that without its constant staccato stimulation, the performance would be vapid and uninspiring. The arrangements themselves aren’t that great, nor is the composition from the point of view of classicism.

    Techno’s strength has always been in its potential to transform man into machine through the act of listening its psycho-visceral cross-translation into and from dancing. Techno’s strength is in impossible rhythms and otherworldy sound design. Techno’s strength is that it doesn’t need to be composed.

    I see no need to try to rationalize techno in accordance with any classical notion of composition.

    But regarding this classical notion of Orchestra versus Score, this has been an important aspect of computer/digital music since it was invented (cf.
    When you think of things like player pianos, hurdy-gurdies, etc, what techno does often is nothing new. The whole history of musical instruments starts with the primordial instrument, which is the voice, and then becomes a series of digital (that is, related to the fingers) developments of that (the pipe, with its holes) – the vibrating string being a synthetic vocal chord. Eventually this is digitized into the harp and then the piano, and then the score is digitized into ones and zeros with player pianos, etc (solid, void – ie hole or no-hole)….

    Eventually, years after the development of a new synthetic voice, the oscilator, in the 50s, engineers at bell labs would design the first orchestra/score systems on computers to render pieces of music.

    The score is a language, a symbolic system. Humans can’t really think without symbolic systems it seems. any time we program a machine, we give it a symbolic system so that we can understand what we are telling it to do. So I think it’s given that the score and orchestra are integral to the production of techno music, but I wouldn’t say that this is proof of its ‘legitimacy’ among musical traditions, but rather an inevitable result of human expression

    What is new, however, about electronically-produced music is the ability to de/reconstruct recordings, create impossible rhythms and frequencies, and to synthesize irrational, imaginary spaces within sound.

  2. detroitio says:

    What’s great about the music Mills makes is that the end result is not a by-product of endless derivatives or deconstructions for their own sake or other attempts at a remix, but original compositions.

    My post above is not so much a rationalization as a statement of fact: techno music is composed–it isn’t the result of a live jam session lead by a leading component–such as the voice in popular.

    It has the elements of jazz in that the it often is a result of live improvisation, but also requires a degree of structured composition–often done on the fly. Given the digital interface of drum machines and keyboards, or even midi controllers, techno utilizes the same logic as classical music: namely, you come up with an idea, notate it (on paper/computer screen in the case of classical music, or via whatever interface a techno producer chooses), and then you end up with an end product that neither the classical composer nor the techno producer could perform “live”: a “score”, or a “track”.


    One more thing. Both techno and classical are essentially realms to convey complex musical ideas, and so both serve the same purpose. One may replace the word techno with jazz, and the statement above still holds.

  3. kamo says:

    not so sure about this one…

    not the least because i am highly sceptical of this relation between techno and classical music: why would it be important if something is notated and follows a score? it feels like claiming that techno is in some way superior / more intelligent because it involves composition rather than improvisation and live performance. such claims to high culture are exactly what i personally despise in a lot of european techno.

    apart from that, i believe your view is too rigid. how do you know how mills produces his tracks? how do you know if a track was not an edit of a live jam lead by a leading component (say a 909)?

    what mills is doing here, for instance, cannot be claimed as composition:

    (and please don’t say that ain’t “proper” techno…)

  4. kamo says:

    “Both techno and classical are essentially realms to convey complex musical ideas, and so both serve the same purpose.”

    i am afraid that is exactly the type of attitude i was talking about. why would something complex be better than something simple? does “complex” techno, whatever that may be, work better in your home than in a club?

  5. detroitio says:

    Mills has stated on various occasions that he makes the majority of his tracks in one take, often with live mixing. As complex as many of his recent album length projects were, I doubt that he programmed every single step in each sequence of each sound element live–obviously at least a few sequences would have to have been pre-programmed, and then tweaked live and altered in the mix to a greater or lesser extent.

    Techno can be both–a live jam AND a proper composition–my post wasn’t about one vs. the other.

  6. detroitio says:

    What’s wrong with techno conveying something more than a 4/4 beat?

    Mills, and many other producers manage to weave in many ideas that are far from the simple “boom-tiss and not much more”, which have become the mainstream view of what techno is. Even in the youtube video you posted there’s a fair bit of variety and syncopation.

  7. pipecock says:

    to me, the idea of the techno producer being a conductor and the machines being the symphony is pretty obvious. you tell the machine what to play, and it’s up to you to coax out the performance that you want. when you consider the way a lot of detroit techno specifically is composed using live arrangements and mixdowns, it really combines that conduction with elements of jazz’s improvisation.

    aside from that though, i don’t think there’s any way you can say that what phillip glass or many other modern classical artists are doing is far off from techno in terms of composition. they’re maybe different sides of the same coin. if you’re trying to compare Beethoven and Mills i think you’re gonna have some problems, but Glass or Reich are right there. i think Mills could have gone more avant-garde in terms of the arrangements and instrumentation for that project, but maybe he will work towards that in the future. one good crossover piece is the soundtrack to Requiem for a Dream. is that techno? classical? both? neither?

    there is plenty of techno music that doesn’t even need percussion to be beautiful. techno can be both simple and complex at the same time, this is one of it’s best qualities!

  8. adamv says:

    I understand your point as far as input/output goes, but I would like to argue that this is not the basis of techno, but rather a vestige of electronic music technology coming out of the bell lab days that resulted in the paradigmatic separation of orchestra and score.

    But how would you rationalize acid? Phuture is mostly pure improvization on an oscilating signal. The unexpected result of turning a knob sends input back to the knob-turner, causing him to do something different, and so on – almost as if the electricity is controlling him.

    And then you have people like Rod Modell who leave their gear out in the cold before they record a session so that the analog circuitry produces a sound that is nearly living.

    How do you explain the breakbeat, and what is the ‘techno’ in question?

    Also the whole philosophy of most classical music is based on what I’ll call a ‘horizontal’ approach to sound, time/event based, whereas I think the strength of techno is in its ‘vertical’ approach of layers, or even a dimension of depth.

    Now, I think you might be able to make the argument that mills himself works like a classical composer. There are many ways of working, some people prefer sessions and improvisation, some people prefer score. (I don’t know that much about his way of working to be honest, but i have read interviews where he discusses it), but otherwise I’d say ‘techno’ is just as connected to classical music as it is to jazz, to dub, etc.

    Your point is interesting to me in the sense that the drum machine itself has a score hard-wired into it, so any improvisation is still based on a measure – in essence the improvisation is the improvisation of a composer, not a player. I think this is what you were saying, right? (And this is interesting.)

    I just feel that there are so many other ways to make ‘techno’ involving other sorts of processes and relationship of player/composer.

  9. kamo says:

    variety and syncopation is exactly what i am saying. but it is improvised in this case, not composed.

    i agree with adamv with what he says about acid. it is not just about the sequences, it is what you make with them.

    i still don’t see how such techno producer / conductor analogies are helpful or desirable. unless of course you are trying to argue with what you call the mainstream view of what techno is. but why should you or me care about that mainstream view?

    i don’t see the need to defend techno against widespread ignorance. you go ahead.

    but ask yourself: why do you think techno is better if it can be likened somehow to composition, classical music and all the representative bravado that goes along with it? why do techno musicians strive for acceptance by classical audiences? do they actually recieve it? they would probably agree with what adam v said regarding the arrangement and composition of the mills’ sessions in the first post.

  10. brelson says:

    “such claims to high culture are exactly what i personally despise in a lot of european techno”

    I couldn’t agree more. That Blue Potential project undermined Jeff Mills in my eyes for that very reason. It proved the point that techno music has its own identity, one which it should be proud of.

  11. pipecock says:

    techno does have it’s own identity, but you can look at it from many angles. i mean, derrick may’s classic strings were supposedly recorded from a Detroit Symphony Orchestra session iirc, so that aspect has always been there in the context of producers like May and Mills especially. it’s certainly not the ONLY way to view techno, and to me it’s roots in disco, electro, house, and new wave are much more important.

  12. skkatter says:

    One difference is that practically anybody who’s able to turn on a laptop could potentially create a techno track that wouldn’t be the worst thing on Beatport, but I doubt any of us would get far composing a piece for an orchestra without at least a year or two studying classical music composition.

    And not all techno is made using midi either! The 808 and 303 were both pre-midi, I’m just nitpicking there though. 🙂

  13. Dean says:

    Yeah i’m completely with you on the Reich/Glass analogy. In my opinion the works of Steve Reich and Robert Hood are as if not more intrinsically connected than say Hood’s music and some of the music by other producers considered to work within the “minimal techno” genre.

  14. detroitio says:

    I didn’t mention mediocrity caused by the “democratization” that’s ubiquitous nowadays in the world of EDM.

    I have yet to hear the musical output of someone that “just got a laptop and started making tracks” that sounds anywhere near as good as the music of someone that either studied music, practiced playing some sort of instrument before discovering synthesizers, or at least studied the equipment they use to such depth as to be an expert of all, or at least most of its capabilities.

    Unlike the droves of “techno producers” these days, people like Mills and Banks and a few others make music, not “tracks”.

  15. detroitio says:

    It’s not about the philosophy of one genre against the other. It’s not about one approach or use of particular sounds/instruments, as opposed to others. Both genres (classical and techno) can express complex moods, ideas, and sonic compositions. Like jazz, good techno can employ the process of composition (putting an musical idea down on paper/computer screen/sequencer), and then the element of improvisation comes in to put the human element into it.

    To clarify, by techno I mean any electronic music that is more than just utilitarian dancefloor fodder. However, the producer in question (Mills) can even make drum tracks sound interesting and exciting, and work complexity into what at first listen can sound as a simple musical idea.

  16. skkatter says:

    Phuture was already mentioned in this thread, the world’s first acid track came about because he didn’t know how to use a 303, and thus turned the knobs randomly! Sounds like a great track to me! No expert knowledge needed of the instruments used.

  17. detroitio says:

    Listen to the majority of the trendy productions nowadays, and tell if they belong to the same “happy accident” category as Acid Tracks.

    What are the chances that people with the technology available to them will program a great sequence? The proof is in the pudding of the relatively few good releases released each year, as compared to the sheer volume available over each 12 month period.

  18. skkatter says:

    If you took every classical composer in the world and gave them an intensive one week tutorial of how to use some synths, drum machines and Logic 8, most of them would be able to create techno music / tracks / pieces / whatever you want to call them.

    If you took every techno producer and gave them an intensive one week tutorial of how to compose a symphony for an 80 piece orchestra, most of them would not be able to compose a symphony.

    This is why, in my opinion, saying a techno producer is a no different from his or her classical composer counterpart is wrong. I’m not trying to devalue techno producers here, I’m a huge techno fan, these guys are great. But your comparison of “the techno producer” to “the classical composer” is well off in my opinion.

  19. detroitio says:

    I never made claims as to who could or couldn’t produce a score for an orchestra, but that BOTH the techno producer and classical composer USE THE PROCESS OF COMPOSITION to get their music heard–one does this with a score sheet, the other with a sequencer, to write their music.

    Some techno producers also happen to make great music in addition to what are good dance tracks, and some of the former examples can even be translated into an orchestral score, as the orchestrations in Blue Potential clearly show.

  20. kamo says:

    i still don’t get it. what does this analogy prove when you formulate it this broad? BOTH the average kid on twitter and great philosophers USE THE PROCESS OF WRITING to spread their thoughts, but what is such an analogy supposed to tell us?

  21. morgz says:

    Detroitio, your post title seeks to defend the ‘soul-less’ charge that is often directed at techno. I say it depends where your ‘soul’ is at.

    My soul gets touched by two types of sound. i like to break it down/generalise/simplify these two sounds: one i call black music and the other i call white. Techno is the strong form of the former, while classical is the ultimate form of the latter.

    To me these musics are cheese and chalk, although both strive for harmony of sound. Techno’s all about the rhythm, while Classical is all about the melody. Ya know what i mean?

    When i listen to techno, samba, drum patterns, etc,,,these are powerful sounds, part of my soul is touched, i am energised, i am locked in, i am emotional.

    When i listen to classical instrumentation, drawn out high notes, drawn out long notes, powerful sounds in their own right, a different part of my soul is touched: i am euphoric, i am melancholic, i am emotional.

    So basically, comparing these two forms of music to me is ludicrous, cos they touch two completely different emotional strings. Kapeesh?

    And i’d agree with skkatter, i’d like to see what some some ‘shit hot’ techno producer comes up with when controlling violins, cellos, flutes, pianos etc.

    Nothing very good i’d fucking wager.

    So to finish, examples of these two strands of music that i talk of : ‘black’
    and white

  22. detroitio says:

    If you’d compare the music Mills makes to an average kid’s Twitter posts, and try and compare this mistaken analogy to a great philosopher performing the function of a classical composer, then you’re really missing the point.

  23. kamo says:

    guess i am, guess it must be a mutual experience. i am not even talking about mills at this point.

    all i was trying express was this:

    composition & writing are the ways used to express an idea, but this does not tell you anything about the quality of the outcome. and as such the analogy is so bland that it does not qualify to explain anything really.

  24. detroitio says:

    As most readers of this blog surely know, techno is a unique by-product of black and white music, so the comparison you made doesn’t really apply to what I said in my post.

    What would you make of jazz, since it’s a genre that can neither be called purely white, or purely black–classical orchestration, instrumentation (white) + live improvisation, time signatures, etc. (black)?

    The distinction really isn’t as clear cut as you describe, unless you only referred to rhythm tracks or tribal stuff, which is NOT what my post addressed.

  25. detroitio says:

    I referred to very specific outcomes, citing specific examples.

    Feel free to judge your analogy any way you wish.

  26. kamo says:

    for the sake of readability, i shall judge myself below…

  27. kamo says:

    detroito, i was hoping that my comments would prompt you to reconsider your original idea and perhaps adapt it to account for its (eventual) limitations. if you are engaging in some kind of research that shouldn’t be such a big issue. well…

    i leave you with my final words on the matter. for once i will leave aside the ideological problem i have with your assumption that composition is per se somehow equivalent to quality (i.e. “music” vs. “track”)

    as for naming outcomes, the original analogy was:
    MIDI piano-roll type sequencing = score notation.

    your main example was jeff mills and your main argument that techno can be music of great quality (“soul”) because it uses compositional techniques as its medium.

    some flaws i see in that thesis:

    mills doesn’t hold as an example because you apparently don’t know how he produces his music, but simply assume that the process will involve some composition in whatever way (drum-machine sequencing, pre-recorded phrases).

    this notion is furthermore troubled by the fact that there are of course many alternatives to piano-roll-style MIDI when it comes to making techno. you need to extend the notion of what a sequencer is, or how a sequencer works. how about considering the capabilities of dedicated analog sequencers for a change?

    finally, the comparison between piano-roll-style MIDI sequencing and notated composition will naturally be compelling, simply because that type of sequencer was intended to do that very thing: arrange notes according to the system of notation.

    since you are interested in exceptional characters (jeff mills, maker of music, non-maker of tracks apparently), i try a new analogy: limiting techno to the use of MIDI devices is like saying literature can only be written with laptops.

    control voltage is the pencil of acid!

  28. detroitio says:

    Perhaps you should stick to exactly what your interlocutor wrote, instead of altering what you’ve read as you see fit–since you seem to be fond of this technique in your comments.

    First, there’s more to MIDI than piano-roll-type sequencing. I used very specific examples in my post to illustrate my claim and so there is no reason to repeat them here. Were you arguing with yourself in the comment above?

    Secondly, you really should refrain from using pseudo academic language if you can’t even stick to the most basic critical approach muster, i.e., defining your terms. The one liner pseudo poetics also don’t do your attempt at a critique of my post any favors, either.


    As for Mills’s production techniques–you can read about them in quite a few interviews–I won’t do your homework for you, though.

    If you can’t be bothered to research and/or read, then you shouldn’t engage in a potted attempt at a critique, of what are mostly your heavily altered quotations of ideas from my post.

    Oh, and Mills makes great tracks, alongside great melodic music. You should listen to more of his output before casting misinformed judgment–and let’s not forget reading thoroughly what we’re responding to.

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