Is nostalgia stagnating music’s progression?

I tend to get swept up in the moment of playing a record. I like to sit back and admire the effort that’s gone into the artwork, before I pull the record from its sheath, taking excessive care when placing it on its spindle to touch as little of the hallowed surface as possible with my undeserving hands. A surge of contentment flows over me when that needle eventually slips in to the first groove and the pops and crackles of the old medium come to life again through the speakers. It inspires something in me, the process more than the music. Many of the albums I’ve recently purchased come with a download code and I could easily listen to them through many different digital means, negating the lengthy process in favour of the music’s immediate effect. It could be argued that the process itself, and the consequence of having to consistently handle the short-playing medium, inspires a more concentrated listening experience, but my personal opinion is that I get the same listening experience out of music whether it’s through this beloved medium or a set of good headphones. It’s with this that I’ve recently started questioning my love for what is essentially a set of grooves in plastic. Does it really spark the sincere admiration in music that I think it does, or do I just get swept up in a wave of nostalgia when I turn to a record rather than a Spoitfy playlist? Does the music actually take on a new dimension or do I merely cloud my judgement with employing a process that brings back fond memories? Not my own memories though, since my first record was a compact disc, making me either too young or too old depending on your point of view. It’s the collective memory of a society, a recollection of the music from the past through our previous generation. Have I regressed so much in living in the past, that it’s transcended even my own history into the past of my elders?

Although my listening adventures ultimately inspired this question it was recent developments in electronic dance music that made me approach this question a fresh and more ardently. I’m not referring here to the popularised form of the music, a fetished version of trance and electro that only draws on the most superficial aspects of dance music history with the intention of creating an accessible pop song. This question was actually raised by the various artists that make up the new generation of dance floor producers that re-established my fortitude for the music back in 2008. They are a generation of UK-based artists that restored my faith in the innovative aspects of dance music back, but they are also the artists, who’ve delved more in to the annals of early rave culture. They are Blawan and Cosmin TRG, who keep stick to the sound of techno that was first brought to life in the early nineties through labels like Hard Wax; or they are Untold and Pinch who’ve delved in to the early rave culture of hardcore and jungle recently. They have steadily been digging up the past in their recent releases. They are not the first wave of producers to look into our collective past however, but merely represent the latest swell. Before them it was a sound coming out of the south east of England that drew heavily on the Chicago’s house sound from the late eighties, emphasising the bass end to appeal to the legion of disenfranchised dubstep fans and install it into the present. Considering this, besides a few fringe developments, dubstep (including the various post-branches), footwork and trap are probably the newest forms of music we’ve been subjected to in recent years, with everything else being genres from our past exhibiting minor updates. This is a far cry from anything close to the advancements that came in music throughout the 20th century, where music not only first developed these genres that we are now spinning off of today, but also challenged music theory considerably. In light of this, our musical development in the early part of the 21st century has proved to symbolise very little other than technical advancements in instruments and I’d like to wager that it’s because our focus has been clouded by our collective nostalgia.

It starts with an incredibly obtuse sentiment, one that reads; ‘you have to look back to go forward’. The issue with looking back is that you tend to dwell on the past rather than contemplate the future. While it is important to take music’s history along with you it is important to keep your focus forward. You don’t look in the opposite direction from which you are travelling, do you? So why apply this sentiment to the arts? It’s a sentiment that encourages a newcomer like Tsunga to release what is essentially a 90’s hardcore rave 12” as a debut, and it is the reason we still buy vinyl instead of perhaps incredibly high quality digital formats. Our nostalgic tendencies are influencing the very nature of new music, and although the music is re-contextualised in a contemporary framework, it stagnates the progress of music. A major part of the problem happens at the reception stages with the listener. We are all familiar with the statistics that we turn to the music of our youth as we propel forward into our autumn years, and although statistics are not to be trusted, I think we can agree it is a general habit amongst certain audiences to return to the music they are familiar with, rather than putting the effort into a new artist or music. How many times have you not heard an older person reflect on the music of his/her youth with disdain for the contemporary in that ineloquent hypothesis; ‘it’s not what it used to be’? I don’t know about you, but I take solace in the fact that it’s not what it used to be. If it were, we’d still be of the opinion that the earth was flat and the sun revolved around it. Adopting this attitude towards music causes it to reflect on any new music as a sub-standard version of the music of the past, and many composers and musicians are encouraging the association, by tying to recreate music from an earlier period essentially. It might seem harmless, but making music in a style from the past, because of your personal affection for it, or even just playing time-specific DJ sets, influences the listener and possibly the future producer indubitably, especially since that music is always at his/her fingertips today. And now that most of electronic dance music’s fore bearers are in their autumn years this effect is more palpable than ever. It’s the reason Aphex Twin’s appeal is still so magnanimous against that of a new innovator like Pearson Sound for instance. It’s also affecting a younger audience however as Aphex Twin’s much larger promotional budget can affirm his supremacy as a ‘big’ record like his will govern the press and over-shadow any other release at the time. It’s in these reception stages that newcomers like Tsunga are subjected to a sound of the past and align their sensibilities as such. Why should they embark on a new untested journey in their music, when it’s exactly the old guard that still dominates the press?

It’s something that filters back to the compositional stages as it always does and never before has this regressed as much as it has in recent times. Dance music’s monotone design hasn’t changed much in the thirty odd years since it’s been around, and just as soon as artists started exploring the innovative syncopated rhythms after dubstep, they fell back into a standardised 4/4 groove, with beats pre-conscribed by techno since the 1990’s. A sound palette clouded from the same nostalgic sentiments accompany the dated forms of the tracks as producers rely on the same methods from the past, with modular synthesisers and a Roland drum machines still reigning supreme in the studio. Working methods should not really present a problem for the advancement of music, as it is not in the equipment where-in lies the problem, but the way it is used. A modular synthesiser could still create awe-inspiringly new soundscapes if it were not for the fact that artists still mainly loiter in the noise first established in the 1970’s. Trap music has done much for modernising the 808 drum machine as they use the long sustain of a pitched kick as their harmonic framework for example, but it’s a small victory over the sounds from our past that are still being peddled as contemporary. It is no surprise that companies like Roland and Korg only recreate the machines from the past instead of focussing on new technology. Computers should really be at the forefront of innovation in music considering the advancements in technology they represent, but for the most part they’ve been disregarded by most as a representation of an adulterated sound in strict contrast to the pureness of making music through a modular synthesiser or an original 808. It’s in the collective nostalgia of that tactile function of those machines where we find the true appeal lies for these musicians. Meanwhile artists like Objekt, Katie Gately and TCF really push the boundaries of sound-design through computers and software like Max and Supercollider. In the case of Objekt, they are even able to make functional dance tracks through their methods, displaying the innovation in computer music without falling victim to pure experimentation, that has ironically been plaguing modular synthesiser operators of late, experimentation that has only really progressed the self-indulgent nature of the musician.

It is not all hopeless, as some of these artists have proven and another is about to prove. Helm (aka Luke Younger) has announced Olypmic Mess, a new album due in June and although it will only really light up the margins of the electronic music community, the spirit of innovation is fully encapsulated within. Younger looks forward as always, while at the same time taking the history of music along with him. The latest album is said to be Younger ‘responding to a period spent engaged with loop-based industrial music, dub techno, and balearic disco’, but the little I’ve heard is nothing like its aforementioned fountainheads. I will probably purchase the Olypmic Mess on that beloved format vinyl and when I get the chance to listen to it, I will undoubtedly be sucked in to my own nostalgic impulses again. I fear the appeal of nostalgia might yet be too strong for these marginal artists to make a significant impression in the progression of music, the way the first pop record did or sampling encouraged. Nostalgia is crippling much of music’s progression for the most part, and it has taken electronic dance music, the music of our future, along with it. I subscribe to it in my own personal rituals and some composers aspire to it when the attempt to re-create a sound from the past. As ever, the music spilling out of the margins offers the solution, but it appears that those margins keep narrowing, with the likes of Blawan and Untold, who once represented the margins all favouring the effects of nostalgia. They are already influencing the next generation of artists like Tsunga along the way, making the feedback loop ever shorter. Today we stand the chance of falling in to an irreparable habit of continuously re-hashing our own past instead of moving forward. I am part of the problem with my personal ritual, and it is most likely too late for me. Nostalgia has done irrevocable damage on my listening experience. Nostalgia is stagnating the progress of music today, but progress is unavoidable and it might not be too late for you.