Dubspot contributor Michael Emenau investigates the process and influences behind one of IDM’s most beloved projects – Boards of Canada’s Music Has The Right to Children LP on Warp Records.
Music Has The Right To Children
Music Has The Right To Children, by Scottish duo Boards of Canada (brothers Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin), was released in 1998 as a joint venture between the record companies Warp and Skam. The album received enormous critical acclaim: #35 on Pitchfork’s Top 100 Albums of the 1990s, and was ranked #91 in Mojo’s 100 Modern Classics. Air, Super Furry Animals, and Radiohead have sung their praises, and even now, anyone who makes a melodic track drenched in analog synths may find it compared to this seminal recording.
So what’s with all the accolades? Listen to track one, “Turquoise Hexagon Sun”–it has all the elements that define the style and tone of the album:
Turquoise Hexagon Sun
The tone set in this track pervades the entire album (much in the way that I dicussed the Photek album Modus Operandi). By having a defined, consistent tone, the listener is enabled to become fully immersed into their sound, world, and overall vision. If you choose music to listen to by mood, Boards of Canada will be your go-to choice for looking at old sepia-colored photo books on a rainy afternoon.
Defining a Sound
So how did Boards of Canada create their unique sound?
Instead of analyzing track construction, or getting into technical descriptions, let’s talk about how to find your own sound using Boards of Canada as an example.
Their sound might be described as nostalgic, cinematic, and melancholic, but what makes it special is how completely we are brought directly into their sonic world. How did they achieve this? They didn’t wake up one day and say, “Let’s make a retro-feeling album with chill hip-hop beats.” This album, like all of their work, is a reflection of who they are and how they live their lives.
A Musical Upbringing
Michael and Marcus came from a musical family. As teenagers, they were part of many bands. Early incarnations of Boards of Canada had up to 6 members and was more of a typical rock band with the standard instrumentation of guitar, bass, and drums. But like many electronic music producers, they started experimenting, making audio collages with cassettes, and making sound with anything they could get their hands on.
”We started with other musicians within the framework of a much larger collective. But, a few years ago, after having played with guitars and acoustic drum kits, we returned to a more starkly electronic form…We always pushed ahead a little isolated, off in a corner, drawing inspiration from rock music as well as electronic music.” - Marcus Eoin
For most of their adult lives, they have lived away from the daily pulse of society in a commune in the Pentland Hills outside of Edinburgh, Scotland, with a community of photographers, filmmakers, artist, and musicians. Filmmaking played a huge role in their development as producers–as part of collective “Music70,” they were involved in creating short films and documentaries.
“We started making short films as kids in the ’80s [...] So we wrote music for the films. We made abstract movies with our friends, so our music became pretty abstract too. Then it got to the point where we were making film music before the films had been created.” - Michael Sandisonhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lMAVmZ7Kq5M
What is most important to note is that they had no intention of following the career path of most electronic music producers: releasing tracks, DJing, touring. They had little interest in living outside of their world in the Pentland Hills, and their singular development as artists was able to flourish outside the mainstream electronic music culture. Film scoring gave them compositional freedom, and let them explore melody in a way that probably would have been curtailed had they been trying to “make it” in the clubs of Scotland. At first listen, the song “Open The Light” probably sounds more like the work of a documentary film composer than of an electronic music superstar:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8O5LmuBgtTE
Eventually, the elements of their budding career; unique living situation/social influences, background in rock and electronic music, interest in tinkering in electronics, were melded into a singular vision by the use of samplers.
While their unique living situation, background in rock music, and interest in electronics and film were the important elements in determining what would become their sound, sampling proved to be the tool that brought everything together. They size of the group dwindled from six, down to a trio, and finally it was just the two of them tinkering away in the woods.
By existing outside the day-to-day world of EDM, they developed a unique view of the sampler, and this became an important part of the sonic surprises that inhabit their soundscapes. They used the sampler in a more organic, instrument-like fashion, relying heavily on field recordings or sampling performances on acoustic instruments. Everything was heavily processed, but all within the confines of their created world.
“I think the melodies could have been written anytime but the production couldn’t have been done without samplers. It’s maybe odd when you think about it because we work hard to downgrade the sound to make it seem dated and worn. But the chopped up vocals and beats can only be done with samplers.” - Marcus Eoin
“It’s very easy to make mainstream work like dance music once you have a sampler and a sequencer. The technology lends itself to that style, that’s where dance music came from. But it’s more of a challenge to write original melodic music. It can bring rare emotions to the surface, especially if you have an ear for fine nuances. It doesn’t have to sound electronic at all, and once you accept this you can go anywhere with it.” - Michael Sandison
The Sound of Isolated Creation
Even more than their background and the tools they use, the isolated manner in which they choose to live has probably had the greatest impact on their ability to find their own sound so successfully. By being removed from the regular electronic music scene, they were able to discover a more organic approach to creation, driven to look inside themselves rather than to what was happening around them. Their unabashed love of complex, layered, cinematic melodies might not have found much love or support in the dance halls of London, but out in the woods, they were able to spend the thousands of hours hours needed to create a unique sonic world and achieve greatness.
“It takes us ten times as long to finish things,” says Marcus
“Where some people will work on a track solidly for four days, we’ll spend that long just on a hi-hat sound,” Mike laughs.
“It’d be funny if it wasn’t true,” Marcus chuckles.
“Than again, if there was a way of doing it easily, by pushing a button, we’d do something else because it wouldn’t be special anymore,” says Michael.
(from an interview by Richard Southern in Jockey Slut magazine, 2000)
This last line from Michael encapsulates the creative process that they have fashioned for themselves. I am not professing that every aspiring producer should head off to a deserted island and toil away outside of society. However, it’s imperative that we expose ourselves to what our soul or spirit drives us to. These guys knew that they needed to live in their own world, surrounded by a community that would inspire and support them. As artists, we need to look at ourselves and see if we are being true to what we envision we are. Such cliché lines as “follow your dreams” or “the road less travelled” actually carry great weight. They instruct you to find the magic inside and create your masterpiece. Invent a world where your inspiration can flourish. This is where you will find your own sound.
Michael Emenau a.k.a. MNO has worked professionally as a musician (vibraphone, percussion, laptop), producer, remixer and arranger for 25 years, playing such diverse genres as, jazz, rock, drum’n’bass, salsa, techno, country, Hindustani, gospel, baroque and orchestral music. He has recorded on over 150 CDs, composed music for eight films, toured internationally, and lived on three continents. Michael was the house studio mallet percussionist for Sony Records (Japan) in the 90s, was a founding member of the award winning “Jazz Mafia” as well as working as a producer/remixer for Six Degrees Records in San Francisco, arranged and produced contemporary multimedia productions of the 16th-century composer Henry Purcell in Paris and is now writing a musical based on the life of Dionysus and dividing his time between Montreal and New York.
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