📚 The notes 📚
You may have noticed that this week’s letter is called Machines with Soul, and if you’re even sharper than that, you’ll have spotted the thumbnail for the mixtape is a picture of Theo Parrish. This is, of course, always intentional, and this week it reflects not only the music that’s on the mixtape (much of which is electronic, but remains incredibly soulful), but also reflects a book I’ve been reading (more below), and something I noticed last weekend when sorting through records.
Let’s start with sorting out records. For about six months now I’ve been out of shelf space at home. This means the floor has been covered in record, and it’s been absolute chaos. I’ve found it difficult to play anything, because the chaos sets off my very low level OCD (it’s my personality, not a diagnosis). So a trip to Ikea, and some new Eket’s and everything is nearly harmonious again. Tonight I’ll be putting the last few bits away, and while it’s taken a while it’s been an interesting process. I used this as an opportunity to reorganise everything (genre, then from each genre I ordered by compilation, LP, then 12, then 7 – if you’re asking). While sorting, I noticed that I had a lot of Theo Parrish records, remixes, and recommendations, I also noticed a sort of ‘Theo theme’ to a lot of what I own. I’m a pretty avid listener (and relistener) to his mixes, partly because they’re an amazing source of finding new music, but mainly because both the music he chooses, and the order in which he plays them usually tells a story. The records he plays make you dance, they tell a story, and there’s often a cutting edge to them. He often picks music that has moved / moves the art form forwards. This cannot be said of all music, and definitely not of all DJs. Many will make you dance, or tell a story, or they’re pushing things forwards. Sometimes two, rarely all three. This is what makes Theo a demigod, my eyes.
That same weekend I finished reading Mars by 1980, by David Stubbs. It’s a history of electronic music that covers everything from musique concrete to Dilla, and I really enjoyed reading it. There’s deep chapters on Sun Ra and Miles Davis, as well as genre focused chapters on Detroit and Berlin – and of course loads of other great stuff too. In lots of ways, it was a real education – especially on some of the earlier and more experimental electronic music. It’s one of my favourite books I’ve read this year, for sure.
It also taught me more about Stevie Wonder. I thought I had Stevie down, but it turns out I had a pretty major gap in knowledge. I had no idea how involved he was with technology and electronic music – and how connected he was to technological trailblazers in music. In fact, my four favourite Stevie albums (the series that starts with Music of My Mind), all heavily feature the TONTO synthesiser system, built by Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil. This was (and still is, I think) largest analogue synthesiser, and throughout the 1970s, Stevie used it almost obsessively. I always knew that he told great stories, and made people dance, but I had no idea how pivotal he was to moving the art form forwards.
In start contrast, then, there’s Pierre Schaeffer. He’s an early experimenter in electronic music and French composer, and Stubbs dedicates a chapter to him and his impact on musique concrete. He did not care for making people dance, or telling stories. He was all about pushing the art form forwards, but with technology, science, and discovery as his motivations. There was a quote that particularly stuck in my mind, where, in the 1950s, Schaeffer vents his frustration at the lack of new music; he believed that there’s only been ‘froth’ since primitive African music – and believed modern music (at this time, jazz, rock, and blues) was just utilitarian. It was made to serve people, not to serve art or technology. I can definitely appreciate Schaeffer’s music, but it doesn’t move me, neither in emotion or body. His focus is purely on technique, not feeling.
There was quite a lot of these types of frustrations throughout the book from different artists / scientists, and I found it fascinating that many of the people who’ve pushed music forwards didn’t necessarily ever achieve (or seek) any popularity. They had a major influence on artists that were enormously popular, but they themselves remained on the edges. I started to wonder why, and then – combined with sorting records, listening to Theo Parrish – I started to think about the perfect combination of attributes for music (in my mind, at least). The music that I love (and that I recognised in Theo, Stevie, and my record collection) almost always had three aspects to them; they told a story (regardless of having lyrics or not), they had a groove (made me dance), and they pushed the art form forwards (either a little, or a lot).
I’m not saying that this is some sort of universal law – quite the opposite – but it does feel like the unwritten law that rules my record collection, and a lot of brilliant music adheres to this three-part Venn diagram. For me, music that has these three aspects is powerful. It is music that can change things, push the world forwards. It can speak to both an individual, and us as a global collective. It can create unity. Stories speak to us at an individual level, groove pulls us all together in a singular motion, and pushing the art forwards gives us something new and surprising, but something that carries us all forwards The best thing is that this level of music comes with no prerequisites; we can all tell stories, we can all hold a groove (it’s in our blood), and we can all try something new. When these three stars align, you can speak to someone on an intellectual, base, and emotional level. This is the type of music that elevates us all towards the heavens ❤️