Music by VICE

IDM Was the Romanticism of the New Millennium

What do Aphex Twin and Brahms have in common? What if we told you that Beethoven used the same expository technique as Autechre?

by Giovanni Coppola; translated by Cristina Politano
Jun 10 2017, 3:12pm

This article originally appeared on Noisey Italy.

The term "intelligent dance music," or "IDM," appeared for the first time on a Hyperreal online mailing list back in 1993, coined by fans of a new wave of electronic music that was changing the rules of the game. The genre's artistic epicenter was in the UK, as evidenced by the robust new talent coming almost entirely from the label Warp Records in Sheffield, which unknowingly became a true and proper hive. It started with Artificial Intelligence, the historic compilation album whose cover depicted a robot seated in an armchair, listening to vinyls by Pink Floyd and Kraftwerk. With its release, the phrase "electronic listening music" was launched into orbit like a verdict that prompted existential questions for the community of dance music enthusiasts.

Why "intelligent"? The term itself sums up the controversy of the genre, which is still open to debate today. What's clear is that the word "intelligent" attempts to provide a frame of reference for a cerebral genre—one so strongly connected to technology and dedicated to computer music, but one that was equally philosophical and distant from the basic phenomenology of the same electronic music. One branch of IDM blossomed into the precursors of entire generations, like Aphex Twin, Autechre, Boards of Canada, Squarepusher, and The Orb, which illuminated the path of pop music for later sacred prodigies like Radiohead, Björk, and Moby).

"Can dumb people enjoy IDM too?" was one of the first topics of discussion on Hyperreal's IDM List in 1993, which roughly corresponds to the modern Reddit. Shortly after the first Artificial Intelligence album, Aphex Twin released Selected Ambient Works 85-92. The club scene was torn between those who'd signed on in order to hear refined experiments between breakbeat, ambient, and techno, and those who preferred the more playful and carefree breed of unbridled rave beats. But the music was making the exact journey it needed to in order to return to the center of dance. Techno was in a phase of total diffusion: It had reached the masses in a short period of time. Raves were experiencing the steady upward climb required to become a culture—and made it high enough, probably, to the point where the rate of experimentation stalled in favor of an equally enthusiastic exasperation.

It was IDM's extremely complex, unclassifiable craftsmanship that drew several things from the intelligent side of techno. But what was especially impressive was that IDM succeeded in combining features from a song designed for listening with features of a song you might hear while dancing in a club late at night. The inherited "dance" quality in IDM was familiar, but the method was different. The genre intensified and contrasted historical symptoms that had appeared in music from the previous century.

IDM's ancestry that stands out the most are the influences it drew from the historic avant-garde—think the American composer John Cage, the Italian futurist Luigi Russolo, and Germany's Karlheinz Stockhausen. The reason why IDM was considered "artistic techno" was because it subconsciously made good on conceptualisms from the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. To quote the German composer Robert Schumann, "It seems that music wants to return once more to its origins, when it hasn't yet been oppressed by the laws of the rigor of measure, and rose up proudly independent to discourse free of every constriction."

Hold up: Schumann? Since when did he become part of this conversation?

Let's backtrack for a moment.

We're in the 1800s: In Europe, there's a lively debate raging about how to absolutely define what music is. A term born from the Romantic movement, which we today attribute to the German composer Richard Wagner, evokes spirituality, symbolism, and the motor force of instrumental music capable of totally transporting a listener. From Austrian composer Joseph Haydn to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, continuing down the path of no return with Ludwig van Beethoven, a groove to the past was created. It was impossible to not think of an artist's ideas as symbols—metaphors within the work untouched by the introduction of a third element, like a written text, as was the practice at the end of the 17th century.

In this instance, Arthur Schopenhauer's philosophic contemporaries maintained that music was a "liberatory" art; that it "liberates us from the world of the Principal—from the world of our practical, philosophical, political, and existential Angst." Václav Tomášek, a Czech composer of the period, maintained that artists like Beethoven were cultivating the idea that strangeness and inequality were the principal objectives and driving ideologies of music. It was a superior language that drew force from its own indeterminateness, and it completely destabilized its public audience, who were unaccustomed to having to critically, attentively listen to music.

With the rise of techno and house music in the decade following 1993, IDM would come to redraw the lines of the dance music genre exactly like German Romanticism had revolutionized classical music. To cap off this historical parallel, that meant the structural concepts of "listening" to absolute music were, in all respects, the same that intelligent dance music created within the genre of 1990s dance music as a whole.

Ambition or creativity—or ambition for creativity—meant both artistic trends captured a sort of auditory syncretism that, whether "pure," absolute music or intelligent dance music, sought out the future using ideas left concealed or unexpressed in the past. So Schumann, as well as Berlioz (who once said "music touches, through sounds, being endowed with imagination"), articulated a concept that would become the dogma for bedroom producers once personal computers and synthesizers appeared. Beyond every formalism, the music represented itself and nothing else, whether through an orchestra or a synth, whether it was metaphysical or concrete.

Schumann was right—but he couldn't possibly know that what an 18th century composer was accomplishing, what an entire orchestra was performing and packing theaters full of people with, would be the core component of a genre at the total opposite end of the spectrum.

This leitmotif unravels a myriad of finite but decisive evolutions in music. The fruit of Romanticism and its liberal capacity, had become functions in impressionism from composers like Claude Debussy to Arnold Schönberg; from the liberation of the sound of Edgard Varèse to musique concrète. Through reacting to the past, these stylistic revolutions created a universal language that was intentionally out of sync with contemporaneity. Autechre didn't care that their music sounded atonal, like "jammed electronic machines," because the technical rigor of the songwriting itself was at the same—if not a greater—level as the cyclical loop in hit new wave or pop songs.

Other illustrious artists at the time like Boards of Canada would reinvent spaces like intimate program music, laying down samples (especially field recordings) in the center of a song in a way that evoked a 1970s sci-fi revival. Aphex Twin pulled a Brahms by making virtuosic irregularity the pivot on which a musical narrative established its dialogue. They also knew how to revisit formulas techno had abandoned or never used to its greatest potential (like the piano, on which their 2001 album Drukqs is almost entirely composed), and straddled the line between club music and pop.

The complex, oxymoronic associations of IDM artists also belonged to Wagner, although it was far from Beethoven's idea of "art for art's sake" like that of many other artists from the 90s who approached the dance floor in an increasingly more delicate way, after their experimental phases (think: Carl Craig, Jeff Mills, or The Orb, especially the latter, on account of all the different changes in the band's lineup).

On one hand, there's the risk of wanting to push too far and write this evolution off as a mere discovery due to technology; on the other, there's the risk of seeming like the crazy mentors of a concept of instrumental music impossible to implement. The text is missing—there's no "script" or "pattern"—along with the score and obvious direction you'll find in the most famous romantic symphonies, but once you overcome that initial shock, it doesn't matter. For IDM and Romanticism alike, it was a question of rhythm before it was a question of the revolution they wanted to spark.

The concept of a universal art created by Beethoven's Ninth Symphony made the world aware of an entirely new genre of music, which was passed down through albums like Selected Ambient Works, Frequencies, Incunabula, Music Has The Right to Children. Sometimes our own perception makes us think that these distances don't exist. But IDM honed in on the same romantic spirit from more than a century earlier, identifying a common denominator between Kraftwerk, Brian Eno, and Beethoven. It also especially teaches us—without making us too bothered—to talk about art inside the club.

Follow Giovanni Coppola on Twitter.