I’ve just spent a week away in Sutherland on the extreme Northwest coast of Scotland and once again I have been intrigued by the way that electronic music, so often viewed as a deeply urban creation, seems to come to life in such a dramatic environment. For those of you who have never had the privilege of visiting this astounding edge of Europe there is probably little I can say that will make too much sense. For the first time visitor it may seem as if upon reaching this place God ran out of material to continue building. It seems empty – rock and bog and loch and hillside on the very fringe of Celtic Europe – but it is anything but. It can certainly seem stark, especially when lashed by the brutality of rain squalls and cloud that roll across the land in gangs, and for anyone at home in the city it will seem like an alien place devoid of any of the comforts one takes for granted.
This isn’t the whole story of course, it never is. Even in the grip of a storm, when the mountains seem like angry and terrible sentinels, there is much that is beautiful. It might be something small – a patch of sunlight illuminating part of a hillside under the black light of bad weather when the colours seem to dance all the more brilliantly before the shroud is pulled back over – but there is always something that fans the spark.
I didn’t just take Techno with me – I seldom do – but bookended a number of mixes and albums with Prokofiev, Smetana and other classical works. Last year we drove through Glen Torridon, soundtracked with a deeply experimental mix by Ron Morelli. Although I almost drove my partner mad, I found there to be much in the pulse and bark of the music that echoed what I was seeing with my own eyes. In both cases there was almost too much to take in. The landscape has a way of rendering your humanity down to the purest, most basic level of existence – little more of an animal against the vast and timeless surroundings and in its own way the mix did much the same, reducing my understanding of the music down to its rawest composite parts until it was left as a pure and elemental thing that had little to do with what one would choose to listen to in a club.
In its way I suspect electronic music works so well in these places because it is often so abstract. I drove across Northern Italy a few years ago, travelling from Parma southwards to Bologna across the Po valley and listened to the Last Shadow Puppets first (and last album). It was another case where the soundtrack matched both the psychic and physical landscape but for different reasons. The Last Shadow Puppets entire shtick is to be found in the flicker of European and Italian cinema of a certain era and the sounds reflected the world I was passing through. It wasn’t about abstracts, it was about absolutes and careful definitions.
With Electronica, though – as with classical music I think – there is little reliance on what the songwriter intended us to think, there are no lyrics and few tropes to guide us into a shared mindset and the music instead seems to become detached from our conceits; we begin to experience it through the physical world that lies all around us in a very primal way. I concede my experience may well have been different if I had been listening to Ghetto House or Hardcore, but with the music I listened to it was difficult to ignore the strange synchronisity of sound and landscape and the way a form of music created and influenced by huge cities could so well reflect a place where people – and the concepts we put so much faith in – barely exist.