This all vinyl mix comes to us from Ryan Alexander Diduck, a fellow music critic writing for such outstanding publications as Fact Mag and the Quietus. We’re also both products of McGill University’s department of Art History & Communication Studies, so I’m especially honored to present this mix. (Joseph Sannicandro)
Stream/download above, or listen at Mixcloud.
In addition to writing about music for a ‘popular’ (if perhaps niche) audience for outlets like Fact and the Quietus, you’re also an academic, working on a dissertation about MIDI. Can you tell us about your work, and how these two parallel but distinct practices might inform one another?
I just finished my dissertation, actually. It’s called “Global Controller,” and it’s a cultural history of MIDI, aka the Musical Instrument Digital Interface. So it’s about the musical and technological climate that led up to MIDI’s introduction in 1983, and how those events played out subsequently for the musical instrument industry.
MIDI is the standard protocol for connecting digital musical instruments — for triggering one device with another. And it’s still in wide use today. It’s an integral part of most electronic musicians’ practices.
I wrote an article for the Quietus in early 2013 commemorating MIDI’s 30th anniversary, which got me thinking about writing it as a dissertation. Nobody had compiled and synthesized all these great stories from musicians and instrument makers, and I wanted to document the real drama that went into MIDI’s development. It wasn’t quite the prevailing feel-good story that it was universally embraced. There were lawsuits, and ruined friendships, and corporate takeovers. MIDI also created a host of cascading problems, both for musicians trying to use the technology, and for instrument makers incorporating it into their new devices.
Writing for the Quietus and Fact has been immensely helpful for the work I do as an academic. I’m especially grateful to John, Luke, and Rory at the Quietus. I’ve had opportunities to talk with some outstanding musicians and instrument engineers thanks to them. Popular outlets also tend get read by a lot more folks than peer-reviewed journals, although those journals are important venues. But the people who read and comment at Fact and the Quietus are, in some cases, more the peers I’d rather review my work anyway. It hopefully makes for more thoughtful, more interesting writing.
Over the next few years, I’ll be expanding the dissertation into a book, and I’m working hard on publishing some excerpts through various online channels first.
Congrats on finishing the diss. That’s a pretty astounding turn around time! What kind of work were you doing before turning your attention to MIDI? You’re working with Jonathan Sterne, I assume. I’ve been thinking a lot about that period myself, in terms of the ways tape and digital technologies of that era seem to have opened up aesthetic areas of exploration that weren’t practical in the institutional confines of academic electronic music or commercial popular music (eg. “Cassette culture,” noise music, etc).
Aside from your experience as a writer, can you tell us more about your background, and how you got into electronic music, etc? Was it through the club scene, or was it more the punk/DIY evolution?
Yes, I’m working with Jonathan now. Before, I was writing about speed and slowness in media. I’m really interested in mediated temporality. It’s great because Jonathan is now working on a cool project about time-stretching, so I’m helping him compile resources for that. I find it fascinating that we tend to time-stretch written words now too. Like: ‘Aphex Twin has a new album, yessssssss!”
I loved Harold Faltermeyer‘s soundtracks to “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Fletch” when I was a kid, and, of course, Jan Hammer‘s “Miami Vice” theme. The first time I remember seeing a sampler was in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” and I wanted one more than anything. During my dissertation research, I interviewed the founders of E-mu and discovered that John Hughes contacted them to lend an Emulator to the production. So it was really product placement. But apparently, Hughes liked it so much that he bought it for himself after finishing the film.
I must have come to electronic music by way of industrial bands like Skinny Puppy, and even before that through stuff like Depeche Mode, M.A.R.R.S, and Yello. Somehow, I got a copy of Coil‘s “Love’s Secret Domain” in 1992. That album literally remapped my mind. There was a great late-night show on CBC called Brave New Waves, hosted by Patti Schmidt, that I learned a lot listening to. That was the first place I heard things like Trip-Hop and Jungle. I was involved with a few bands in the late 1990s. We weren’t very good. But we had a blast and played around in clubs and gave our friends a laugh.
You’ve got me thinking of the use of MIDI in seemingly less conventional ways in the early ’90s, for instance Robert Hampson’s use of the guitar as a MIDI controller in early Main records, or composers like Bob Ostertag searching for more expressive controllers (MIDI or otherwise). I wonder if it’s maybe a dead end, but at the same time I think this search for a controller as “expressive” (if that’s even the goal) as a theremin or electric guitar has functioned as something of a Holy Grail for electronic musicians. And then on the other hand you’ve got an artist like Laurel Halo doing hardware sets that aren’t plugged into a sequencer, aestheticizing the imprecise interplay, challenging the grid to some extent. How do you situate these impulses within your history of MIDI? and how does the evolution of MIDI, or the capabilities it opens up (or closes off) change how we think about music?
The main reason MIDI has failed to address expressivity is because it was an inherently “claviocentric” technology — that is, it was designed for a piano keyboard interface. Aside from velocity, pianos are largely on/off musical instruments. Once a note is played, little can be done to change the pitch or timbre, unlike other stringed or wind instruments, for example. Continuous controllers went some way to emulating a kind of expressivity, but I argue that claviocentrism has ultimately led to a more percussive rather than melodic rubric for MIDI-enabled musical composition. But electronic musicians are creative. They have figured out ways around this. They also find ways to make electronic instruments expressive in ways that only electronic instruments can. Laurel Halo is an excellent example. With the advent of digital audio, more and more artists are escaping the structural rigidity imposed by MIDI.
Very interesting. And do you want to talk about the mix in particular? About the theme, how you put it together and so on.
The mix I’ve presented here is all vinyl — literally what I was listening to the day you put out the call. I just recorded it live and fixed it up in bits in the computer, although there are still mistakes. This represents a lot of my favourite stuff lately. I’m a big fan of all these artists and labels. Bill Kouligas is releasing such innovative work right now on PAN. Hospital is another label that releases consistently interesting music. Diagonal and Jealous God are two of my new favourites. And I cherish everything on Blackest Ever Black. Kiran Sande gave me a start at Fact magazine when he worked there as an editor. And his label is unimpeachably cool. Then, I wanted to give the first word to the dear late Robin Williams — rest his soul — and save the last dance for Enya. Thanks, and I hope you enjoy taking a closer listen.
Robin Williams – Adrian Cronauer Interlude – Good Morning Vietnam OST – A&M
James Hoff – Sterbla (33rpm) – Blaster – PAN
Lee Gamble – Mimas Skank (33rpm) – Kuang EP – PAN
Clay Rendering – Temple Walking – Waters Above The Firmament – Hospital
Shapednoise – The Existence Of A Vital Reality – Russian Torrent Versions – 011
Black Rain – Endourban – Dark Pool – Blackest Ever Black
Bronze Teeth – Albion Pressure – A Waif’s Rent – Diagonal
Helena Hauff – The Purely Painful Confrontation Of Opposites – Solar One Music
Perc & Truss – Van Der Valk – Two Hundred – Perc Trax
Function & Vatican Shadow – Bejeweled Body – Games Have Rules – Hospital
In Aeternam Vale – 808TS – Jealous God – 05
Lussuria – Petra Marina – Industriale Illuminato – Hospital
Enya – Miss Claire Remembers – Watermark – Geffen