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Working on a book puts you in an odd, single-minded headspace. I’m writing a proposal for a second book right now. When I was working on my Eno book, I stopped listening to new records completely for a while. I spent two years listening mostly to silence, and 1970s analog electronic music. (I spent a very happy month listening to nothing but Cluster.) Then my book was finished, and I got back into listening to new dance music. I downloaded tons of new DJ mixes; I followed links on Twitter and various blogs, looking for what to download next. But amid all this downloading, I realized that I was missing a crucial part of the picture. I wrote an essay for Frieze last week, to be published in the next issue, about dance music and social context. A lot of this music I loved was site-specific; it didn’t make much sense to me without going out and hearing it, allowing myself to be overwhelmed by an experience.

I realized this on a recent trip back to Berlin, where I lived for a while in 2005. I’ve been going back to Berlin every six months or so for the past ten years; in a lot of ways, it’s a second home for me. In Berlin, everything started to make sense to me again. There was a plethora of venues, labels, magazines, record stores — a whole, vast ecosystem supporting the electronic music I loved. It’s an odd fantasy land of sorts, a place where your taxi driver knows where Berghain is (after all, he was there last week); a place where the music playing at the restaurant is the same music that was playing at Hard Wax.

And now I’ve plunged myself back into engaging with new records. I’ll be at DEMF and MUTEK, and I’m moving back to New York in the coming months, where the current music scene has really started encouraging me again. And art: I’m as much into visual art these days as I’m into music. I flipped back through some old blog posts I’d written, from the deep past, and I found that there were several moments where I fell out of loving music, and then fell right back in love with it again. Falling in and out of love with new music is fine. It’s healthy! It’s a pattern, not a problem. And it’s a circular pattern; I always come running back a month or two later.

Some examples:

2008: “When I was caught up in thinking about music full time, writing to pay the rent, getting promos, dealing with labels, and just trying to keep up with the relentless breakneck pace of all of those bits being pushed around the Web, I started to hate music, and I had to step back for a while. I could no longer keep up with every new release. I started avoiding new releases. I went through one moody month in which I listened to nothing but Sun Ra’s entire discography. Then cycled through other stuff — Coltrane, Ayler, old disco records.”

2007: “I still find myself gravitating to techno, but I find myself less interested in ingesting the very latest 12″ release, and more intrigued by half-forgotten older records played on repeat.”

2006: “I haven’t listened to much new music over the past month. I’ve inherited a pair of Technics 1200s, on extended loan, and I’ve gotten obsessed with buying vinyl. I’m not talking new vinyl here; this is strictly dollar-bin material. I spend literally hours on weekends sifting through dusty old crates on floors in anonymous Brooklyn record shops and thrift shops, looking for that ruby in the rough.”

2005: “I haven’t been listening to music for weeks, which is strange. It’s partially because all of my CDs and vinyl are in storage – stacked and packed neatly away in black milk crates — and my stereo isn’t even plugged in. I’d been thinking about selling all of my records. It was such a pain to move my record collection to a new apartment; sometimes I think my record collection is like a kidney machine or a catheter, something bulky and faintly embarrassing that I’ll have to drag around forever to keep myself in working order. And with the recent death of someone I’d known for years and years, music suddenly seems more irrelevant than ever. I’m finding that mourning the loss of somebody you knew is a gradual process; it’s not something that’s over in a week; it’s something that takes time…[but] because remembering is how the healing process begins, suddenly music seems more important than ever.”

2004: “Sometimes when I get tired of writing about music, I review things like videocameras. Cons: No hot tunes. Pros: 3 CCDs and a sweet Leica zoom lens.”

I have an old Nikon camera from the 1960s. When I got it, it still had a roll of very old color film loaded in it. There were still a few exposures left on the roll. My friend Matt snapped some photos in my apartment with the camera recently, using that film, and developed the film. We had no idea if the photos would actually come out. They did, and I love the way the photos look. There’s an aged, dusty look to them, a strange warmth. It helps, too, that my apartment is nearly 200 years old.

Thelonious Monk spinning on my record player.

Two of my favorite things: single malt scotch and a deck of Oblique Strategies cards.

That’s the Speak and Spell that I used as a child. Now hanging on my brick wall. (It still works! Sometimes I plug it into my mixer and make music with it.)

A big interview I did with David Toop, one of my favorite writers, at Rhizome, in which we talk about sound, painting, and silence for about 3,000 words. (The full interview I did was about 8,000 words; it took me a long time to cut it down. I’ll have to post the whole thing at some point–it was a really fascinating conversation.)

I’ve just returned from a whirlwind two weeks of travel on the West Coast. I flew to Seattle and spoke at the EMP Pop Conference; then I went to Los Angeles for a few days to speak at CalArts, before winding my way up the coast to San Francisco, where I used to live. I’ve been gone from home long enough to catch a cold, get better, and then catch a cold again. Sleep, on a proper bed, seems to be a good cure. After a surreal overnight flight last night, I collapsed into bed with my leather jacket still on, Phill Niblock drones playing on my laptop.

To The Best of Our Knowledge, an NPR program produced by Wisconsin Public Radio, aired a great hour-long documentary this weekend about arts criticism. It includes a long interview with me, talking about writing my Eno book with the Oblique Strategies cards. (I start talking at about 28 and a half minutes in.) The documentary also includes interviews with the mighty New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis, the late Robert Palmer’s daughter Augusta, John Mendelssohn, and Anthony DeCurtis.

It aired on NPR stations nationwide this weekend. You can download the MP3 from NPR’s RSS feed here. Or listen to a stream of it here.

Further thoughts on ’10 Ragas to a Disco Beat’

So what motivated Charanjit Singh to cut an acid house record in 1982, in India? (Here’s the reissue, if you’re new to the story.) What inspired him to play some ragas on a Jupiter-8 with some heavy 808 beats and squiggly 303 basslines? Over the past few days, I’ve been trying to piece the puzzle together.

The first question I had was this: Was it really that strange for Mr. Singh to have had these synths in 1982? The Roland TR-808 came out in 1981; the TB-303 was released in 1982. It’s entirely conceivable that a successful Bollywood musician, one who liked working with lots of instruments and crazy gear, would have had access to new synthesizers as they came out. The 303 and 808 were small, portable synths that cost under a grand (the 303 was around 400 bucks) when they were released. The Jupiter-8 came out in 1981. As Cybore points out, the Jupiter-8 is the synth that’s on the trippy cover of Mr. Singh’s Synthesizing: Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat.

Now, a word about the 808. After years of reading about the 808 — an enormously expensive antique plaything these days — and playing with software versions of it, I actually put my hands on a real 808 for the first time a few months ago. I was in a shed filled with synths in the bucolic French countryside with my DJ pal Tom, who was showing me how to make music with the 808. (He also had a Jupiter-6.) I was stunned by how easy it was to use the little machine. Within minutes, I was making beats — beats that actually sounded pretty good. The preset buttons sounded ace, too; every familiar sound I’d heard in so many techno records came to life. I put cowbell in everything because it was such a great sound. (I know, I know.) The 808 is appealing because it sounds cool and it’s easy to use. It makes sense that Mr. Singh would have used it, if he had access to it.

Singh’s use of the 303 on his raga disco record is more of a mystery. The TB-303 isn’t easy to use — at least not correctly. I have a 303 sitting here on my desk, and it’s a clumsy thing. It was designed to emulate a bass guitar, but it’s pretty hard to figure out how to get it to make regular basslines. It’s easy to get it to make all kinds of interesting noises, but making something normal is difficult. It also sounds wonky, but in a really intriguing, from-space kind of way. It’s likely that Mr. Singh didn’t read the manual. (I bet the manual was in English, anyway, and there was no proper Hindi translation.) He probably just messed around with it, in a similar way that the Chicago house guys would do a few years later. That said, Singh doesn’t use the TB-303 in the wild ways that, say, DJ Pierre used the 303. (Few people did.) Singh uses it in a more conventional way. But the 303’s now-familiar rubbery sounds, combined with unearthly raga melodies, send shivers up the spine. The 303 ends up being perfect for the slithery glissandos in Indian music, the sliding between one note and the next.

The second thought I had was this: What else was going on in India in 1982, in terms of electronic music? It ends up that Bollywood was coming up with epic synthesizer tracks in the early ’80s, modeled on 1970s Moroder. Nikhil Patel pointed me to this song, from a 1982 Bollywood film called Star. The film’s soundtrack is the work of Pakistani singer Nazia Hassan and the Indian disco producer Biddu; in a way, they’re the South Asian version of Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder. This song, “Boom Boom,” bears more than a passing resemblance to “I Feel Love.” Dig that galloping bassline!

India was always a few years behind in terms of assimilating American pop culture, but in other ways, India was a few years ahead. India wasn’t as “with it” as the United States and England were, maybe, but that meant that they got to entirely skip some pop culture revolutions that we should have probably left in the bin. It also meant that in 1982, they were still rocking the cool Munich robo-disco when the rest of the world had moved on to Duran Duran.

The first song Indians saw on MTV wasn’t “Video Killed the Radio Star”; because they got MTV later, their first video was Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” (If you’re interested in reading more about Bollywood and Michael Jackson, check out my essay in this new Michael Jackson book.) When I was in India in 1992, I remember watching the music video for Kate Bush’s 1985 hit “Running Up That Hill” on TV, which was presented as if it was a new song. Kate Bush’s song seemed as strange and modern in 1992 as it probably did when it came out in ’85 — if not stranger.

In India, 1982 was also the year that the Bollywood cult classic Disco Dancer was released. Check out the glitzy poster:

That man in the sparkly suit is Bollywood legend Mithun Chakraborty, the disco dancer. Here’s a quick synopsis of the plot from Wikipedia (Wikipedia’s film synopses are a lot funnier than IMDB’s):

Rebranded as “Jimmy”, the rising disco star must take the throne from Sam and win the heart of Rita (Kim), P.N. Oberoi’s daughter. All seems to be going well until Oberoi hires men to connect Jimmy’s electric guitar to 5,000 volts of electricity, causing Jimmy’s mother to die in a tragic accident. With his legs broken by Oberoi’s goons and guitar phobia from the incident with his mother, Jimmy must claim first place for Team India at the International Disco Dancing Competition amidst strong competition from Team Africa and Team Paris.

Basically, Mr. Singh’s sped-up Moroder disco beats in ’82 make total sense. They didn’t emerge out of a vacuum; they were part of the zeitgeist. His idea to pair those beats with mystical, repetitive, instrumental Indian ragas — and that particular array of gear — was a genius move. With no vocals (except for the occasional robotic utterances), and a drastically faster tempo, 10 Ragas to a Disco Beat propelled Singh away from disco, and into a techno future.


All this talk about 10 Ragas To a Disco Beat reminded me of an essay I wrote for The Wire six years ago. I just found it — here it is.

The Wire, September 2004

by Geeta Dayal

My dad was an organic chemistry professor, an eccentric sort who would often reel off Sanskrit quotes and organic chemistry formulae in the same stream-of-consciousness sentence. He spent lots of time reading in his office in the cellar, with teetering piles of dusty chemistry texts stacked in every conceivable corner. A single photo of Einstein adorned the bare white wall. When I asked my dad why he admired him, he glossed over the physics and said it was because Einstein cycled to work and refused to comb his hair.

When my dad wasn’t thinking about weird science, he thought about weird music. I was a science obsessive and a music obsessive, too. The problem was, our tastes in music diverged wildly and often. My favourite music as a little kid was pop. Meanwhile, he was immersed in Indian classical music by the likes of Zakir Hussain and Ravi Shankar. My dad was a fairly accomplished tabla and harmonium player, and I’d often wake up on weekends to the sounds of him playing ragas in the living room as the sun rose. He was eager to share his enthusiasm for his music, but my eyes glazed over the minute I heard it. Sometimes he would take me to Indian classical concerts and I’d fall fast asleep, what with the constant repetition, lengthy soloing, the insistent soothing drone of the tanpura…

Year: 1987. I’m eight years old and we’re on the annual holiday to a cottage on a lake in New Hampshire. I take out the cassette tape in the car — one of my dad’s beloved Indian classical music tapes — and put in my very first cassette purchase: The White Album.

“Turn this rubbish off!” ordered my dad.

“But Dad, it’s The Beatles! They were popular when you were young!”

“I don’t care who ‘The Beatles’ are. Turn it off!” Continue reading

Thoughts on ’10 Ragas To a Disco Beat’

Last week, some friends of mine in New York and London — friends with very good taste in electronic music — told me I absolutely had to listen to 10 Ragas to a Disco Beat, a new reissue on the Dutch label Bombay Connection. The word going around the Internet is that this album, full of 808-driven beats and TB-303 squelches, was recorded by a Sikh fellow by the name of Charanjit Singh in India in 1982 — predating the Chicago acid house revolution of the mid-1980s. To put the year 1982 in perspective, the Detroit techno godfathers Cybotron released “Alleys of Your Mind,” their first single, just one year before, in ’81. (In 1982, they would release “Cosmic Cars,” followed by “Clear” in 1983.) 1982 was also the year that MIDI, the “musical instrument digital interface,” was introduced — but it wouldn’t be until 1983 that the MIDI was actually being used; the first synths to utilize MIDI were the Prophet 600 and the Roland JX3P, both in ’83. Electronic music as we know it now had some way to go.

Here’s the deluxe new double-LP reissue:

The album — stripped-down, instrumental electronic arrangements of traditional Indian ragas — is fantastic. ‘Disco beat’ is a bit of a misnomer. The disco on display here is minimal, skeletal Moroder-style disco; arpeggiated basslines abound, and the tracks run at a brisk pace. Most of the ragas here feel like they clock in at around 130 bpm. This is techno speed.

Not much information exists on Mr. Singh. Some people surmised that this album was an elaborate hoax — an invention of the Aphex Twin, perhaps. But the more I dug into the story, the more I realized that it was all true. The album was recorded in 1982, and released on EMI India in 1983; Mr. Singh was a Bollywood session musician who had worked on several albums in the 1970s. The original LP was called Synthesizing: Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat, and it looked like this:

We know that Mr. Singh favored a panoply of interesting instrumentation throughout his career — steel guitars, Farfisas, electric violins, Transicord electric accordions, and so on — and later, the Jupiter-8, TB-303, and TR-808. He released an album of his instrumental music that looked like this. Check out this ace album cover:

Drew Daniel of Matmos had tipped off readers to Synthesizing a few years back, in a bit piece buried in a Pitchfork feature in 2006. “Reissue labels take note,” Drew wrote, “this thing is ready to take a cosmic disco dancefloor to a higher plane.” The Sublime Frequencies label was also hip to Mr. Singh, releasing some of his steel guitar work a couple of years ago, on this rather garish-looking album:

Here’s the tracklisting for 10 Ragas to a Disco Beat:

01 Raga Bhairav 04:56
02 Raga Lalit 04:52
03 Raga Bhupali 04:50
04 Raga Todi 04:49
05 Raga Madhuvanti 04:56
06 Raga Megh Malhar 04:58
07 Raga Yaman 05:03
08 Raga Kalavati 05:05
09 Raga Malkauns 04:59
10 Raga Bairagi 05:07

“Raga Bhairav,” the first track, starts quickly, with a wobbly, almost apocalyptic bassline. It is a raga, according to Indian tradition, that is meant to be played early in the morning. You can hear a (vocodered?) robo-voice in the beginning of the track intoning “Om Namah Shivaya” — the traditional prayer to the god Shiva. Have a listen if you don’t believe me:

Click here for Part 2 of the story.

Was walking down the street in Cambridge and fell in love with this stencil, and the way it looked against the mottled, peeling wall. I took this snapshot with my cell phone, but you get the idea.