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Friday, July 28, 2000

'MODULATIONS'

Brief history of all tomorrow's parties


The history of pop music on film has largely been centered on concert performance, with rockumentaries such as "The Last Waltz," "Stop Making Sense" or "The Decline of Western Civilization" buzzing in tight orbit around the stage. This model, however, is next to useless when approaching '90s techno and electronic music, where the action is either hidden away in studios, or dissipated democratically on the dance floor.

How does one approach a group like Future Sound of London, who go "on tour" by streaming live mixes onto the Net without ever leaving their studio, and sneer at onstage performance as being "instant gratification for the artist"?

Technophile director Iara Lee chooses to immerse herself in the genre and employ something that could be dubbed "scratch cinema," a rapid-fire cinematic style that mirrors the sampling techniques of the musicians and DJs she documents. "Modulations," her electronica documentary, could easily be titled "A Brief History of 20th-Century Electronic Music," as the film seeks to trace the intellectual, conceptual and technological fuse that ignited the current explosion of repetitive beats.

All the names that need to be checked are here: Robert Moog, creator of the seminal Moog synthesizers; Roland Corporation, which saw their chintzy TB-303 and 808 rhythm boxes used in unpredictable ways, accidentally defining the dance-floor sound of a generation; Giorgio Moroder, whose work with disco diva Donna Summer infused a warm, moist, human element into cool, sequenced synths; Teo Macero, the studio wizard who arranged some of Miles Davis' masterpieces through cutting up and collaging tapes of the "Bitches Brew" sessions.

Lee takes a cutup approach as well, mixing up snappy sound bites from dozens of talking heads, including active musicians, producers, critics and fans. (A brief name-check would include Mixmaster Morris, Afrika Bambaataa, Talvin Singh, LTJ Bukem, Juan Atkins, Bill Laswell, Darren Emerson and Karlheinz Stockhausen.) Lee sets their observations over a swirling collage of free-associative imagery: When Coldcut's Matt Black asserts that his music "is about mixing things to get new hybrids," Lee underscores the point by beat-mixing the sound (and image) of a locomotive into a looped drum machine.

"Modulations" follows electronica in its flow as the first music of the globally connected age, grooving from raincoat raves on Mount Fuji to Berlin's notorious Love Parade, and ambient otaku Tetsu Inoue sampling the sounds of his microwave oven in his N.Y.C. apartment.

Lee also manages to touch upon all the fractallike strands of modern electronic music -- house, garage, dub, hip hop, ambient, acid, drum 'n' bass and more -- at a dizzying pace, which may leave the newcomer puzzling over the nuances of acid-house vs. acid-trance. Since her film only clocks in at 75 minutes, one wishes Lee had let a few tracks play at greater length. (And the same can be said about the interviews: More often than not, with someone like Laswell or Macero, you're left wanting to hear more of what they have to say.) Lee does, however, succeed at what she set out to do: Techno boffins will groove on seeing their musical heroes discuss their sounds, while newbies will come away with a deeper understanding of what is still mistakenly viewed as an "automatic" or disposable form of music. "Modulations" makes a neat counterpoint to "Better Living Through Circuitry," another techno documentary now making the rounds in the States. Betraying its West Coast roots, "Better Living" places the emphasis squarely on the ecstatic release of raves and the neo-hippie vibe surrounding the scene; "Modulations," with its origins in New York, is more interested in proving its avant-garde credentials, drawing heavily on the canon espoused by Wire magazine columnist and author David Toop ("Oceans of Sound"). While there's some intelligent insight on offer here, there's also a lot of pretentious babble from the likes of DJ Spooky or Scanner's Robin Rimbaud, who can talk the postmodern talk, but fail to deliver the goods musically.

There's plenty of humor to balance the blowhards, though: "Drill 'n' bass" producer Squarepusher echoes Spinal Tap as he drolly comments on the advantages of a home studio: "I like to get up in the morning, have breakfast, and there's the studio -- don't have to get on a bus or anything."

Another great juxtaposition puts the irresistible enthusiasm of a teenage raver, blasted on ecstacy, gushing how "I'm addicted to the beats and having fun," right up against Atari Teenage Riot's Alec Empire, scolding like a dour Leninist in eyeliner: "At ze end uff ze day, it's chust a stoopid party and nothing is acheeft."

Maybe. Music has never changed the world, but it has a power of its own. Consider the question posed by poet-anarchist Hakim Bey: "Let us admit that we have attended parties where for one brief night a republic of gratified desires was attained. Shall we not confess that the politics of that night have more reality and force for us than those of, say, the entire U.S. government?" Judging from the faces of that crowd at Mount Fuji, dancing through a typhoon at an independently organized and anarchic rave, the answer would be "yes."

"Modulations" is playing at Shinjuku Joy Cinema 3.


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