A year ago I damaged my hearing while attending a Shonen Knife gig in Osaka. While I couldn’t really think of a nicer bunch of ladies to lose my ears to, it was a bit of a blow to someone whose life has revolved around music for the last thirty-two years.
Back home, after a series of frustrating visits to non-English speaking doctors, and with no real idea of what had happened or what the prognosis was, one thing was very clear – I could no longer listen to music.
That’s right, goodbye iPod.
For three months I couldn’t listen to any kind of music at all, not even on speakers. It was painful and distorted. And not only my Napalm Death albums: I mean everything.
I had to use my noise-blocking Sennheisser earphones to block out the piercing shrill sounds of everyday urban life that hurt my ears, rather than for music.
Raging tinnitus twenty-four hours a day. Even the voices of interlocutors sometimes caused me to wince in agony.
Imagine that, for a man with 18,653 songs in his iTunes library and a passionate desire to create music as a major driving force and means of expression in his life.
Twelve months later and things are immeasurably better.
I am rarely troubled by the horrendous distortion that previously afflicted me, and the tinnitus in my left ear is barely noticeable, even at night.
Recently I’ve found I can listen to the iPod again, albeit at the lowest volumes.
I can sit down and enjoy music on speakers again. The first time I found I could do that I cried like a baby.
My hearing is still not as it was – I suppose it has been permanently damaged in some ways. I can never go to concerts again. I still have to put earplugs in at the cinema. Some frequencies, particularly bass ones, are still problematic.
One surprising, and positive, consequence of my sonic difficulties has been my return to the techno genre as my main channel of musical creativity.
See, like Beethoven, there was no way hearing damage was going to stop the muse from visiting me. And fortunately just before my ears were shredded, I’d started to get serious about learning Apple‘s superb Logic Pro 9 music software. Beats Beethoven‘s old Bechstein any day.
Even at its worst, I found that I could still compose using this software without having to use headphones, with just the minimum of volume over the iMac‘s internal speakers.
Recording the kind of alternative rock I’d been doing for the last decade or more was out of the question, since this necessarily involves headphones and relatively high volumes to enable backing tracks to be audible over amplified guitars or bellowed vocals.
And so I was forced out of necessity to return to techno, a genre I had been an early convert to, but had not dabbled in since 1997.
How great, then, to be able to discover once again the sheer joy in the organic process of creation that is in many ways much more fluid and open-ended than the composition and creation of guitar-based rock.
What’s the difference? Well, in rock you are pretty much bound by the need to fully shape the song before you begin recording. Only then can you begin to program the drums, followed by the rest of the instruments and vocals track by track. Once arranged, there’s little scope for experimentation.
Not so techno. Here, the composition is simultaneous with the recording : you actually write the piece as you go along, taking whatever twists and turns you feel like along the way.
The starting point is different, too. Instead of working up from a set of lyrics or a melody, in techno your inspiration could be anything from a particular synth sound, a drum beat, a bass line or a sample.
You record a bar, then loop it, then think what else would go well with it. Rinse and repeat, and the piece unfurls almost magically, new sonic ideas and discoveries sparking the imagination to further experimentation, cutting and pasting to taste.
Rather than a formal composition, the techno track is more like a free-form collage unbound by rules or convention, spontaneously created, morphing as it grows, finally reaching completion at that mysterious moment when it just suddenly feels ‘right.’
Does that mean I’m done with alt rock? No way! The ears can now perhaps stand a bit of headphone usage, but for the time being I’m happy to remain within the anarchist-friendly medium of electronica.