Ishkur’s Guide to Electronic Music: An Interactive, Encyclopedic Data Visualization of 120 Years of Electronic Music

In a very short span of time, the descrip­tor “elec­tron­ic music” has come to sound as over­ly broad as “clas­si­cal.” But where what we (often incor­rect­ly) call clas­si­cal devel­oped over hun­dreds of years, elec­tron­ic music pro­lif­er­at­ed into hun­dreds of frac­tal forms in only decades. A far steep­er qual­i­ty curve may have to do with the ease of its cre­ation, but it’s also a fac­tor of this accel­er­at­ed evo­lu­tion.

Music made by machines has trans­formed since its ear­ly 20th-cen­tu­ry begin­nings from obscure avant-garde exper­i­ments to mas­sive­ly pop­u­lar gen­res of glob­al dance and pop. This pro­lif­er­a­tion, notes Ishkur—designer of Ishkur’s Guide to Elec­tron­ic Music—has­n’t always been to the good. Take what he calls “trend­whor­ing,” a phe­nom­e­non that spawns dozens of new works and sub­gen­era in short order, though it’s arguable whether many of them should exist.

Ishkur, describes this process below in an excerpt from his eru­dite, sar­don­ic “Fre­quent­ly Unasked Ques­tions”:

If fart nois­es were sud­den­ly pop­u­lar, each scene would trend­whore it with fart­step, fart­core, tech­fart, far­t­house, fart trance, etc. It is espe­cial­ly notice­able in clas­sic tracks that are remixed into mod­ern gen­res, which some might con­sid­er sacre­li­gious. A good exam­ple is the Dream Trance hit Robert Miles — Chil­dren, in which there is now a Hard­style ver­sion, a Dutch House ver­sion, a McProg ver­sion, a Euro­trance ver­sion, a Goa Trance ver­sion, and even a Snap ver­sion and a shit­ty Brostep ver­sion. None of these gen­res exist­ed when the orig­i­nal song came out in 1995.

Vicious­ly irrev­er­ent tone and com­pletist atten­tion to detail are typ­i­cal through­out this ency­clo­pe­dia, an inter­ac­tive Flash flow­chart that chron­i­cles the devel­op­ment of 100s of gen­res, sub­gen­res, micro­gen­res, etc., with stream­ing musi­cal exam­ples of every one. It’s a deeply researched, and con­tin­u­al­ly expand­ing project first cre­at­ed by Ishkur, aka Ken­neth John Tay­lor, in 1999. In 2003, Tay­lor updat­ed and expand­ed the project and moved it to its cur­rent loca­tion. He has con­tin­u­ous­ly updat­ed it since then.

The record­ed exam­ples on Taylor’s time­line cur­rent­ly span around 80 years, from 1937 to 2019—a tiny drop in the great ocean of musi­cal his­to­ry. Nonethe­less, the music shows how rich and com­plex elec­tron­ic music his­to­ry tru­ly is, despite its potential—as its devel­op­men­tal speed (and tem­pos) increased—to pro­duce dis­pos­able, deriv­a­tive com­po­si­tions as much as chart-burn­ing clas­sics and inno­v­a­tive, mind-expand­ing cre­ative work.

As you zoom into the chart and click on the dots next to each genre, you’ll have the option to pull up Taylor’s wit­ty guides, as infor­ma­tive as they are unspar­ing­ly crit­i­cal. He explains “Chill Out,” for exam­ple, as a grab-bag term for elec­tron­ic easy lis­ten­ing that “goes down easy like a fresh glass of cool lemon­ade or light­ly sprin­kled vanil­la sun­dae…. Not only did it appeal to post-come­down par­ty kids but their moms too, as heard in movie sound­tracks, adver­tise­ment jin­gles, or played over the radio while shop­ping at the mar­ket.”

Does he approve of any forms of elec­tron­ic music? Obvi­ous­ly. No one would spend this much time and effort and amass “30 years of back issues of Elec­tron­ic Music and Key­board mag­a­zine” and “an ungod­ly num­ber of books” on a sub­ject they despised. It’s just that he’s… well, a purist, you might say. Any media, for exam­ple, of any kind, that “uses the acronym ‘EDM,’” he writes “is com­plete don­key balls and should not be relied on as a source for any­thing.” He’s also ambi­tious­ly com­pre­hen­sive, includ­ing Hip Hop and all of its vari­ants in the mix, a move most his­to­ri­ans of elec­tron­ic music do not make, for fear of get­ting it wrong, per­haps, or because of cul­tur­al bias­es and nar­row ideas about what elec­tron­ic music is.

The data visu­al­iza­tion crossed with exten­sive pop musi­col­o­gy crossed with an almost quaint kind of ultra-nerdy online snark has some­thing for every­one. But don’t call it art, as one inter­view­er did. “I feel uneasy about this,” Ishkur answered. “It’s a joke more than any­thing. Very fun­ny. Very sil­ly. I poke fun at a lot of gen­res. It’s meant to be enter­tain­ment.” This is the stan­dard inter­net dis­claimer, but if you fol­low the guide’s branch­ing streams through hun­dreds of expand­ing gen­res and scenes, you might just find you’ve become a seri­ous stu­dent of elec­tron­ic music your­self, while learn­ing not to take any of it too seri­ous­ly.

Ishkur’s guide has recent­ly been updat­ed for 2019. He’s also released a “15 hour DJ set of elec­tron­ic music,” he announced on Twit­ter, “span­ning sev­er­al eras and a wide range of gen­res, all mixed in that inim­itable Ishkur style.” Get the mix here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The His­to­ry of Elec­tron­ic Music in 476 Tracks (1937–2001)

Hear Sev­en Hours of Women Mak­ing Elec­tron­ic Music (1938–2014)

Pio­neer­ing Elec­tron­ic Com­pos­er Karl­heinz Stock­hausen Presents “Four Cri­te­ria of Elec­tron­ic Music” & Oth­er Lec­tures in Eng­lish (1972)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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