Intelligent Dance Music

March 12, 2018

There are few genres of which the name is so off-putting as Intelligent Dance Music (IDM). EDM’s supposedly sophisticated counterpart arose in the early 1990s alongside the works of Aphex Twin, Autechre, Squarepusher, and some other British weirdos. Although all have claimed that the label ‘Intelligent’ is in itself dumb, IDM is still a common term for music that is electronic and odd.


[ Warp Records' Artificial Intelligent (1) ]


In 1993 someone in an email list for fans of Warp Records’s electronic music came up with the term, and everyone jumped on the bandwagon. The use of "intelligent" in relation to music most likely derived from Warp’s Artificial Intelligence series; two albums from 1992 and 1994 featuring music by Polygon Window (Aphex Twin’s alter-ego), Speedy J, B12, Musicology, and various others. On both album covers it says ‘Electronic Listening Music’. The philosophy behind these albums was that they were meant for the ‘comedown’, visually portrayed on the cover of Artificial Intelligence (1) by the robot kicking it back in his armchair in a hazy apartment. 


Why stick to Intelligent Dance Music? While pop music (in a broad sense) continued to splinter since the sixties on, it became a form of social politics. That is, the ‘my music is better than yours, so I’m better’ kind of social politics. Better here then means something like more niche, authentic, that kind of nonsense. To define your music as intelligent implies all other (electronic) music is dumb. 


[ Warp Records' Artificial Intelligent 2 ]


But what makes it intelligent? Are there musical parameters that make it smart, or is it purely a cultural thing? Looking at intelligence, this concept has more to do with mental capabilities than with the physique. Comparing EDM and IDM, one could indeed see how EDM - Electronic Dance Music - has a strong four-to-the-flour beat and predictable musical development, one which a dancing body can anticipate without relying on intelligence. IDM, on the other side, is “head music” in the sense that it’s not exactly danceable, and it functions as an in-ear head massage. 


Well then, what is IDM today? Although the initial kingpins of IDM are still touring today (Speedy J seemt to play every event he can physically attend), the genre in itself also developed. For one, Warp Records remains a central institution, with almost any artists signed there carrying the label IDM (Battles, Flying Lotus, Hudson Mohawke, !!!, Grizzly Bear, etc.). Moreover, the original musical characteristics are also key in defining contemporary IDM. Nathan Fake, Four Tet, and Floating Points, for example, are artists whose music tends towards IDM through their integrating of complex rhythms in techno.


 [ Four Tet live Boiler Room London live set ]


Intelligent Dance Music certainly is an awkward name for a genre, but since such labels are rather static, there is no chance that we will get rid of it. Like Richard D. James (Aphex Twin) put it: 'It's basically saying 'this is intelligent and everything else is stupid.' It's really nasty to everyone else's music. It makes me laugh, things like that. I don't use names. I just say that I like something or I don’t.' The chap from Cornwell did however at once label his music as "braindance", which is no less concerning. Nonetheless we’ll have to accept the fact that there is no way of finding an original Artificial Intelligence record under a hundred bucks, simply because it allegedly is so “intelligent.”

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