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23 October 2018

The Nostalgia Curse

The Nostalgia Curse

Please note, there is an update at the bottom of this post.

I have an issue with Nostalgia. It may be because I’m living in a country that is literally tearing itself to pieces, largely due to weaponised nostalgia. I have my own pet theory that the constant repeats of Dad’s Army – a nostalgia for an already nostalgic show – is partially to blame for Brexit.

So when I see Synthwave as a genre, I stand in two minds about it as a genre. I love the original 70s and 80s scores and kosmische that this genre is paying homage to, and there undoubtedly some brilliant musicians out there who can work in this genre and make great music from retro sounds.

However, there seems to be a danger of tipping into easily generated pastiche in musical and visual aesthetics. The artwork to this blog post took me 10 seconds to make in an online generator. Most VST synths come with presets that allow you to call up classic Vangelis tones in a second, and I think even John Carpenter would admit it’s not difficult to make a score in his style.

This isn’t a complaint about people making music in a style they love. God alone knows the world needs more people bringing joy to themselves and others. It’s just something that I, personally, have misgivings with.

I’ve even felt uneasy in the past about using analogue-modelling VST instruments. Which is odd, as no-one thinks of an orchestra as sounding nostalgic, despite the fact that the arrangement and types of instruments in orchestras only really became formalised long after Mozart, Bach and Beethoven had composed their epitaphs.

I’m not sure where the line is drawn. Some of my in-development music calls on classic analogue arpeggios and sounds, but I don’t feel that I am working on music in the style of the past, but one that references it. It’s a very subtle distinction and it may only be something I can perceive as I go through the creative process. You may feel entirely differently.

And it is really, really difficult to innovate in music. In a world where free jazz, field recordings, harsh noise and musique concrete are long established genres, it’s difficult to define what music is beyond “curated air”. There is literally nowhere new to take music, beyond creating your own microgenres (Dongjing-klezmer-donk anyone?) or developing a psycho-acoustic instrument that allows people to create unique melodies in their own heads.

The electronic music of the 70s and 80s was the soundtrack of the future, ushering in computers you could fit in your pockets and tin-foil suits. But the future from 2018 seems so bleak and depressing, maybe the thing people feel most nostalgic for is a better future?

UPDATE:
Firstly, I sincerely apologise to anyone I have offended with this post, this genuinely wasn’t my intention. It was intended primarily as an exploration of my own personal relationship with nostalgia and my creative process, not as a criticism of others.

I have also confused issues by grouping distinct genres under the Synthwave label. There is a big difference between people who make their own music on analogue synthesizers and those who set out to make a pseduo-soundtrack. And even within the pseudo-soundtrack community, there is a huge difference between the grimy Giallo exploitation movie sound and the glossy Miami Vice world.

As Neil Grant pointed out on Facebook, there is an odd expectation on electronic musicians that they are expected to innovate and push sonic boundaries, that is no longer there in rock or pop. It is my fault in thinking that a classic Moog, Prophet or SH-101 belongs in the past when no-one thinks the same about a piano, a Fender Stratocaster or an orchestra.

There is definitely a noticeable, indefinable quality to music made by people who have music coursing through their veins and in their every breath. Maybe it is this factor as much as any that makes the difference.

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