Joe Brent plays mandolin

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Electronic Music

It’s not that I was ever a Luddite. I like gadgets as much as anyone. Traditionally, I’m a pretty early adapter when it comes to new technologies. Once, I even owned a robot dog. 

But I’m also a lifelong player of acoustic instruments. I started on violin, but quickly picked up mandolin and guitar, and I still play all three in addition to ukulele, banjo, vihuela and a slew of others ranging from Baroque mandolinos to Andean charangos. I’m even pretty good with a set of spoons, though I don’t usually admit that to strangers. 

Playing acoustic instruments wasn’t just an artistic choice for me, but a crucial part of my musical identity. I like knowing that wherever strings were plucked over a resonating chamber, be it an animal skin stretched over a gourd or an archtop wooden body of maple, mahogany, rosewood or spruce: there, folk music was made. The tradition of plectrum instruments lies almost completely within the realm of secular music. This is music for dancing, for social gatherings, for your family and friends to sing together. The harp is played by harpists. The mandolin is played by your Uncle Bob. 

I have a message for other acoustic instrumentalists fearful of making the plunge: It’s okay. You can do this.

Playing the mandolin puts me within a centuries-old, secular folk art lineage. So it wasn’t that I ever really turned my nose up at electronic music or instruments, it’s just that so much of the music that inspired me was informed by this vast, rich heritage. Electronic music production only goes back to the mid 20th century, with the likes of Edgard Varèse, Léon Theremin, Charlie Christian and Les Paul. I jammed with Les Paul once. How rich could the tradition be?

Of course, this is a profound oversimplification of the history of electronic music. But for better or worse, that was pretty much my view until recently. And now, having incorporated electronic instruments and music into my own sound world through my band 9 Horses, I have a message for other acoustic instrumentalists fearful of making the plunge: It’s okay. You can do this. There’s a big and beautiful electronic world out there just waiting for you. Start with the first step: listen.

The first thing you should know is that I’m no expert. Still, if you’re looking to add electronic music to your palette, I’m fairly confident telling people that, like any other kind of music, doing a lot of listening is a great way to begin. Start with the foundations: Edgard Varèse, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Milton Babbitt, Charles Wuorinen, Mario Davidovsky, Pierre Boulez. Contemporary musicians like Missy Mazzoli, Ted Hearne, Anna Clyne and Pieter Snapper are some examples of composers who have approached electronic music from a Western classical background. Wendy Carlos’s early recording of Bach on the Moog synthesizer influenced generations of rock, pop and R&B musicians like Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman, Stevie Wonder, Prince, M83’s Anthony Gonzalez and LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy.

But branch out: Check out Daft Punk, Aphex Twin, DJ Shadow and Flying Lotus. Explore the work of producers like Dave Fridmann, Daniel Lanois, J Dilla, and Organized Noize. Note the way film composers like Hans Zimmer and Alexandre Desplat combine electronic sounds with orchestral timbres to enrich a visual medium. 

It also helps, as it does in most things, to know that even if you aren’t an expert, you can still surround yourself with them. For 9 Horses’ recent film project “the water understands,” I knew I wanted a foundation of ambient electric mandolin and programmed synths with acoustic textures layered on top. So I brought a MIDI version of my initial orchestration of the piece to my friend Justin Goldner and asked a simple question: “How far can we transform this and have it still be recognizable as itself?” 

I’ve found that music written in an electronic palette comes with a certain limitlessness that was outside my comfort zone as a composer.

Justin is, among other things, an expert in Ableton, a program which, in fewer than 20 years of existence, has become an essential tool in the modern musician’s arsenal, but about which I was hopelessly ignorant (and pretty much still am). Justin took the MIDI file, fed it into Ableton, and transformed it into something strange, wonderful and wholly original. From looped samples of my own acoustic mandolin, to glitchy, stuttering percussive beats, to recreations of a synth bass sound I adored from several of Desplat’s film scores, Justin’s sonic backdrop perfectly supported and enriched what was, in essence, a simple melody over triadic harmonies. See for yourself

With a little experience, I’ve started to integrate electronic music into my compositional process in a way that works for even an old acoustic musician like me. For example, I’ve found that music written in an electronic palette comes with a certain limitlessness that was outside my comfort zone as a composer. Orchestrating for acoustic instruments is a process of creative problem solving: what instruments sound good together in which range and inversion, what can they do effectively in which tempo and dynamic. But instead of a series of stumbling blocks, I’ve found that having a set of parameters stimulates, rather than throttles, my creativity. You learn the rules, and then set about breaking them in creative ways. But digitally created instruments don’t have those limitations. The bassoon passage in the opening of “The Rite of Spring” sounds visceral and primal because it’s at the extreme limit of the bassoon’s natural register. But once sampled into a program like Ableton or even ProTools, you can artificially raise or lower an instrument’s pitch, have it play impossibly quickly, or transform it into another instrument or a granular series of freaky digital bits and bobs if you so choose. These are mostly freeing opportunities, but sometimes too many items on the menu can be a bad thing.

Joe Brent plays the electric guitar, multiple effects pedals on the floor in front of him

Joe Brent swaps out the mandolin for some electric guitar. Photo by Brenda Berry.

I also think that the human ear craves a little imperfection. We like to hear sounds that were clearly made by humans, and we are, by definition, imperfect. Our time and pitch waver in ways that machines don’t, but we’re unconsciously trained from the womb to identify these imperfections as warm, human and familiar. Machines can’t yet believably replicate this. It’s therefore probably not a good idea to simply replace acoustic sounds with digital recreations, but rather use the tools at your disposal to start from scratch. Music that uses technology to overcome the limitations of human performance can easily sound cold and robotic rather than exhilarating or virtuosic. And I hate to sound like an old fuddy-duddy, but I can’t help but wonder what some modern radio pop and R&B songs would sound like with an old-fashioned drummer like Bernard Purdie, Clyde Stubblefield or Questlove in place of the drum samples and loops.

Still, as a composer, instrumentalist and general music nerd, I have to say that in the right hands, anything can be made to sound musical, beautiful. I’m as inspired today by musicians like Flying Lotus as I once was by his great-uncle John Coltrane when I was a student. As of now, I’ve only got a toe in this water, but I’m looking forward to exploring the possibilities of electronic music for the rest of my life. 

Joe Brent

Joe Brent is a composer and mandolinist who has been hailed as “one of the truly exceptional musicians of his generation,” and whose music has been described as “bursting with emotion … …more 

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