Efterklang Fueled Exposition on the State of Electronic Music

Efterklang is an inspiring and amazing band who I first started listening to in 2005. They are from Denmark, and play a fascinating breed of music which blends folk, indie rock, electronic, and their own unique musical sauce into a compelling style of brilliantly dynamic, emotive, and beautiful compositions. I was fortunate enough to see them perform in San Francisco on March 10th.

I had the interesting experience of going to a club and seeing Tipper perform two nights before. For quite a while now, I have been excited by electronic music, and the potentialities for interesting new sonic and musical territories to be explored. All too often (as in many disciplines), I find the majority of electronic music to be uninteresting or even repulsive, because it strongly adheres to established patterns of style and form, is often rhythmically unsophisticated, does not experiment nor innovate, but instead self-congratulates and regurgitates itself endlessly.

As a relatively Anti-Sphexish human, I am predisposed to be repulsed by things that self-regurgitate endlessly. I tend to be interested and excited by things that push accepted boundaries and experiment, and that offer compelling, internally consistent, emotionally powerful, tantalizingly complex, and genuine (in the sense of sincere, profound, and non-cynical) “art”.

The experience of seeing Tipper, Beats Antique, and Anten-nae at the Ten15 Club in San Francisco was an ambivalent one for me. I was excited by the environment of the experience. The 1015 club is truly quite impressive in regard to its light and sound technology. Entering the club was an experience akin to what stepping into the future might feel like. You know when you’re watching a movie, and they have a scene in a nightclub that is intended to evoke “future”? Like that. The ceiling is made of illuminated and animated color, there are projections of abstract patterns sweeping the floor and flaring in your eyes. In the middle of the main dance floor, the sound system is so precisely tuned and so powerful that it sounds amazing, does not hurt, and has close to the most insanely intensely powerful bass I have ever experienced.

With things that impress at first however, often the initial awe breaks down as the experience continues. The show that I saw here was primarily “DJ Entertainment”, meaning that there was a corner of the room with a guy behind a large stack of complicated electronic sound devices and a laptop computer, who (depending on the ‘performer’), would occassionaly wave an arm around or rhythmically adjust headphones on his or her head.

Electronic music is a strange phonomenon. Usually when you go to a concert (historically speaking), you are expecting a performance. You stand facing a stage, on which there are musical performers that you idolize performing songs that are ingrained into your musical memory. This breeds an excitement and an experience of anticipation and release, which is … enjoyable.

With a DJ Performer, there is a disconnect that happens, because while there is a person there making the sounds happen, said person is not necessarily performing said sounds in the concretely recognizable way that a person playing a guitar and singing performs his songs. Additionally, there aren’t individual songs, but rather a long continuous evolving musical structure. The music itself becomes as much of an attraction as the performers being physically present. What then is the difference between sitting in your room alone listening to the music on a home stereo system, and going out to a club and listening to a DJ set? Most notably, there is a sense of camaraderie in being with a large group of other people enjoying the same music as yourself, and dancing. Also the sound system is a lot better than your home stereo. Still, it seems like there is an important difference between a ‘traditional’ concert, and a ‘DJ set’.

In my limited experience of such things, it seems that in the culture of those who go to electronic music shows a lot, the primary attraction is electronic music, dancing, and drugs. Often the experience of the dancing and the “party” atmosphere seems to be considered more important than the music itself, and the quality of the music suffers. Some people might not care, but this environment is not an attractive one to me.

In the last year or so I became relatively enamored of the underground Bay Area ‘crunky’ ‘glitch-hop’ style electro dubstep characterized by the music of edIT, Ooah, Boreta, Bill Bless (Squarnch, Heyoka), Skeetaz, EPROM, and others. edIT’s amazingly nuanced and beautifully emotional album Crying Over Pros With No Reason was one of the records that got me interested in electronic music in the the early days (Summer 2005). His newer music (Certified Air Raid Material) forms an interesting hybrid of the DJ set style of performance and the more traditional song-based structure. He and a group of like-minded musicians have been touring together under the name The Glitch Mob, using an interesting performance structure where they play each others songs in a linear structure, but there is preserved a nearly improvisational performance structure, where the core rhythmic and textural components of the songs are in place, but the structure and the nuances of the songs can be varied each time. There is something compelling about the fact that music is being created on the spot in a performance, and The Glitch Mob come closer to this notion of “performance” than more traditional ‘rave’ or ‘discotech’ style events.

There still seems to be an aura of the “dance party” mindset to even this marginally avant-garde collection of underground electronic musical stylings which I find to be distasteful however.

The real subject that this post is about is the Danish band Efterklang. Efterklang embody just what I love to see in electronic music. Their music is fundamentally constructed around the idea of compositions — songs that are structured in such a way as to have emotional dynamics, crescendos, harmonies, and real depth of feeling. The electronically generated or manipulated sounds are treated as just another instrument with new expressive capabilities, and exists with a larger structure of many other instruments; guitar bass and drums, piano, violin, trumpet, flute, homemade whistle and rattles, and vocals. This plethora of instruments are utilized each in their own uniquely expressive way to create a whole that is beautiful, complex, powerful, and affecting. Much of the purely electronic music I just described is lacking in this “whole”, and relies too much on rhythmic repetition of simple musical ideas, which may be good for dancing too, but to what end does one dance?

The point of this post is actually not to pontificate at length about the intricacies of musical preference and politics, but rather to post some of the Efterklang concert that I recorded on 2009-03-10 at the Bottom of the Hill pub in San Francisco, California.

Here are a couple of songs from the show. If you want to watch it all, there is a youtube playlist. Be warned there are some audio synch issues with youtube and the mpeg4-avc files I uploaded there. I have been too lazy to fix it so far. You can also download the show in 720p files, split by song.

Here is an older song called Chapter 6.

This is a new song roughly titled “Piano Song”.

Here is a professionally shot video of Jojo.

This is what Efterklang’s music really sounds like.

The show was recorded with a Canon HV20 HDV camcorder. I had never been to this venue before, but managed to find a good spot for recording perched on the drink counter at the edge of the room. It was a good spot for video recording, but unfortunately near a subwoofer, and in a bad spot for capturing the midrange PA speakers. I recorded audio with an iRiver H120 + binaural mics also, but the audio from them turned out overdriven and unusable. The HV20 mics actually did a really good job (with ATT turned on). The audio you here is just the straight camera audio, with a bit of multi-band compression to bring out the highs. The video was shot in 24F HDV captured with Final Cut Pro, edited, and brought into After Effects, and exported at 1280×720 23.976p as Avid DNxHD, and then encoded using Mpeg Streamclip and x264 as dual-pass 3000kbps video and AAC audio at 192kbps.

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