BY Dan Fox in Frieze | 04 APR 02
Featured in
Issue 66

Country life

Fields of pastoral electronica

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BY Dan Fox in Frieze | 04 APR 02

The year school was out for good, I got together with a group of friends and started up a pirate radio station. Nothing particularly remarkable about that, except that we all lived, grew up and went to school in a quiet village rather than amid the renegade frequencies of the inner city. There was precious little else on offer by way of diversion. A friend with a flair for electronics constructed our transmitter from mail order parts, a mighty device with a broadcasting radius of no less than one mile. Every Saturday night that summer we played a non-stop selection of hardcore, jungle and ambient records to an audience comprising ourselves, a few sheep and one or two friends tuning in on their car stereo down by the disused railway bridge. Hardly the stuff of balmy summer evenings in the tranquil English countryside, you might think, but we weren't thinking of ourselves as noise-polluting young hooligans. It was just that nothing seemed to soundtrack our bucolic late adolescence better than the samples, breakbeats, bleeps and squeaks of our entirely digital playlist.

Perhaps a few of the musicians and critics currently producing and writing about electronic music had similar formative experiences. The idea that wires and microprocessors can evoke rural scenes better than the fiddles and tambours of traditional folk music certainly seems to be one floating around on the prevailing wind. Recently we've had Minotaur Shock's ornithologically inspired Chiff Chaffs and Willow Warblers (described by the Big Issue as 'where warm, wistful folk gambols with naive, lo-fi electronica in a country glen'), the Icelandic four-piece Múm's Yesterday Was Dramatic, Today is OK album, featuring plaintive song titles such as 'The Ballad of the Broken Birdie Record' and 'Slow Bicycle', and Four Tet's folksy Pause, with a cover depicting a couple walking arm in arm through a lens-flare dusk into a dappled field. Digital clicks and bleeps chirrup away among croaking old harmoniums and plaintive acoustic guitars. Like 1960s musicians seasoning their records with sitars for that frisson of psychedelic exoticism, this is ruralism for post-club urbanites.

Since their 1998 début Music Has the Right to Children, rural Scotland's Boards of Canada have generated reams of critical praise, all employing such an oddly uniform vocabulary that you could be excused for thinking they made music from twigs and reeds rather than samplers and sequencers. 'Always organic', wrote The Guardian of their latest release, Geogaddi (2002), a verdict echoed by dotmusic.com ('organic insights'), and billboard.com ('refreshingly organic'). Virgin.net, dotmusic.com and pitchforkmedia.com talked of 'comforting natural noises', 'comforting pastoral simplicity' and 'gentle pastoralism'. Writers cut from a rather more purple cloth have described Boards of Canada as sounding 'like a quiet walk on a cold day in the back woods' (undergroundsource.com) or as a listening experience akin to 'surveying an early sunset as it explodes across the horizon' (bbc.co.uk), evoking 'relaxed rural idylls' (NME).

Titles such as 'Wildlife Analysis', 'The Beach at Redpoint' and 'In a Beautiful Place in the Country' certainly lay out a framework within which to talk about their music, and Boards of Canada have managed to forge a signature sound that has evidently struck something of a chord within what can be a moribund scene. Listening to Geogaddi four years on from Music Has the Right to Children, it's curious how often their unique sonic palette has been imitated. Plaintive melodies played out on wobbly old analogue synthesizers sound like lost tapes from decades old wildlife documentaries or educational films about space travel. Theirs is a world of indistinct nostalgia, evocative of barely remembered TV programmes and uneasy public service announcements intimating uncertain futures. They have succeeded in creating a music that feels as familiar as the distant memory of a childhood friend. Working from a secluded Highlands studio dubbed the Turquoise Hexagon Sun, their titles and cover artwork have succeeded in generating that just-so level of mystery and quasi-mystical intrigue. The anticipation leading up to the release of their second album has reached a hysterical level among the specialized audiences of leftfield electronic music. Their record label, Warp, even had to construct a separate web page to deal with queries about Boards of Canada's activities.

The idea that music could somehow embody the qualities of a certain environment is, of course, not new, but the change from agrarian to industrial culture precipitated something of a collective nostalgia pang among middle-class city dwellers, who saw the ways of the British countryside and rural culture as somehow embodying a more relaxed and carefree way of life. Hence in the 19th century ascending larks and babbling brooks found their way into British music, and in the early 20th century composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, George Butterworth, E. J. Moeran, Peter Warlock, and Patrick Hadley sought to marry the simple modalities of the folk song with the drifting, evocative textures of French Impressionist music, and it was from this synthesis that the British Pastoral style was born.

The popularity of Boards of Canada's bucolicism is probably not dissimilar in origin. They create a music akin to those ads for mobile phones or Internet providers showing hot young professionals - the kind who probably run successful advertising firms or architecture practices in London but live hours away in deepest Cornwall - at ease with their quiet country life, a mere mouse click away from the FT index or online shopping. Nostalgia for old technologies plays a part too. The dusty old analogue synthesizer has found its way into the hearts of many a band, from Blur to Stereolab, and the Internet is peppered with sites devoted to obsolete computers and outdated bits of musical paraphernalia. One record company even recently released a whole album devoted to music from 1980s Commodore 64 games. Somewhere in among the fad for retro-futurism lies the dubious belief that old technology was somehow more 'authentic' or 'alive', which amounts to a warm, fuzzy kind of sentimentality; an anthropomorphism of the microchip. Boards of Canada's wildlife documentary samples, elegiac melodies and woozy, wheezing textures embody this curious form of animism perfectly.

Sociologically speaking, perhaps interpretations of this kind of music come via the woolly idea that late 1980s and early 1990s rave and dance culture embodied urban 'folk' music, the synthesis of DIY punk attitude and hippie idealism. The generation that went to free parties in the woods and saw the dawn in to the sound of ear-splitting, animal-terrifying techno whimsically conflates personal experience with an idealized urban idea of what the countryside means. The British countryside is now the locus of 'heritage' and tourist industries, inhabited only intermittently by commuters on weekend visits or summer breaks. The local shops at the heart of the village where I grew up no longer exist, and the outskirts are now swelling with bland commuter homes. The expression of this malaise sets Boards of Canada apart. They may make lifestyle music, but it's the music of life lived in beautiful landscapes amid the sounds of rural decay.

Dan Fox is a writer and a recipient of the 2021 Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant. He lives in New York, USA.

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