Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Music is Our Underwater Torch

November 23rd, 2010 · 4 Comments

While I enjoy a good sci-fi concept album as much as the next khan, few bands are adept at creating mythologies that measure up to their music. Ziggy Stardust’s backstory has always struck me as prosaic, for example, while the “Red Star of the Solar Federation” from Rush’s 2112 is only a tad less schlocky than The Wild, Wild Planet.

The same cannot be said, however, for Detroit techno legends Drexciya, who built an entire career around a single unifying fantasy: the notion that there exists an underwater kingdom populated by the descendants of West Africans who were tossed overboard during the Middle Passage, yet somehow survived and learned to breath like fish. Primarily a one-man show steered by the late James Stinson, who refused to show his face publicly, Drexciya created lyric-less songs that fleshed out the imaginary history of this Atlantis-like world, occasionally expanding the narrative to show how the Drexciyan race evolved over the centuries (for example, by establishing diplomatic relations with a distant star called Clone). It’s daft stuff, but it works because of the sonic textures of Stinson’s work—so much so, in fact, that his music inspired painter Ellen Gallagher to do an entire series devoted to the mythology of Drexicya.

In researching Stinson’s universe, I came across this intriguing tidbit from his obituary:

Although a jazz and hip-hop listener, Stinson also deliberately isolated himself from other electronic music, especially when recording, for the simple reason that he didn’t want to be unduly influenced by other peoples’ ideas.

I’ve often wondered about the wisdom of doing this—of isolating one’s self from new ideas and modes of expression while in the thick of the creative process, so that you don’t end up wearing your influences on your sleeve. A big part of being an artist is opening yourself up to as many ideas as possible, but there’s also something to be said for trusting the visions that are rattling around your head, however odd they may seem. It probably helps to know thyself a bit before deciding whether or not to work in isolation, though; giving the brain too much alone time probably isn’t the best idea for certain neural types.

Many more Drexciya tunes here; I’m partial to “Sea Snake.”


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4 Comments so far ↓

  • eraserhead

    I wish I could remember where I read that a writer shouldn’t read very much, for the same reason as above: you’ll be unduly influenced by other writers. It was either Pynchon or Joyce, but I could be (probably am) wrong.

    But so many other writers say the exact opposite. And don’t forget George Harrison, who probably shouldn’t have listened so much to the Chiffons….

  • Ian Carey

    Some artists are more susceptible to unconscious imitation than others, and I think for those who are aware of it, reducing the potential for accidental osmosis can be wise.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Ian Carey: I think I fall into that category. Which is why when I’m in the midst of a major project, I really don’t read much–or at least much that comes from the same genre I’m working in. I’m pretty easy influenced, sometimes to my work’s detriment.

    An exception is when I’m totally lost on something. Then it can help me to dissect a similar work and understand how the writer overcame certain challenges.

    But I never stop listening to music. No matter what.

  • Ian Carey

    That’s a good point about checking out someone else’s stuff as a way to get a fresh take when stuck–I can remember a couple of times where I hit a block on a tune, and just hearing another solution to a similar problem was enough to give me different ideas for how to proceed (without any direct ripping-off, hopefully).