MODULATIONS- The First Full-Length Film About Electronic Music Culture
In one 90-minute film, Modulations attempts to cover the culture of all music where electronic equipment is involved in its production. As you might suspect, this means just about everything created during the past twenty years: Techno, house, jungle, hip-hop, they're all here.
More about the culture than the music, Modulation is a heady, cinematic ride over the surface of a vast ocean of information. Its attention doesn't linger on any subject for more than a few seconds. We fast-forward through Derrick May's club mixing, stop long enough for a producer to run down the technical specs of some effects processors, then skip to an English columnist's philosophy about how the music "drills into your cerebral cortex." Modulations moves like this, non-stop, for 90-plus minutes.
Many scenes are telling: Tom Jenkinson, aka Squarepusher, sits in a rumpled heap on a mattress on the floor. He digs up a cheap toy synthesizer and reveals that he produces much of his music on it, sometimes at that same mattress. Others are spontaneous and funny: a member of Autechre picks his nose, apparently searching for the answer to a question; Panacea, after hearing his thrashing techno played in a huge club, says, horrified, "Oh my God, what have I done?"
The rapid-fire subject-hopping produces a sensory-overload, eye-candy feeling that's similar to being at a rave; however, I found myself wishing for more structure. The producers could take some tips from Public Television's excellent "Rock And Roll" documentary series, which does a great job of leading viewers through the inter-related events that produced popular music.
There are plenty of people in Modulations analyzing the music and its effects on society. Unfortunately, they are presented with the assumption that you are, of course, already familiar with it all. I expected the music itself to be a focal point, but it's kept in the background. Only occassionally do you find out what you're hearing, who made it, or why it's important.
Modulations is also notable for what it leaves out: Very little time is spent examining who goes to these all-night parties, or on disco DJs and their introduction of mixing as we know it today. African-American producers are few and far between; ironic, considering that they were the originators of techno, house, and hip-hop. Jungle music, famous for springing from the Rastafarian neighborhoods of London, is represented almost exclusively by white males. Where are the members of Reinforced?
But Modulations isn't really about the facts and figures. It's trying to convey the atmosphere of the electronic music scene from the inside, and it does this with a good deal of success. The coverage is uneven, and doesn't tie into the rest of music history as much as it could. But it does take a serious, somewhat objective look at the real, day-to-day people and events that create this next-generation music.
Modulations is an exhilirating, sometimes bewildering trip across the vast breadth, and even some of the historical depth, of modern electronic music culture. It doesn't demand that you be well-informed, or even give you much help getting there, but it does provide an enjoyable 90-minute visit.