Review: Modulations: Cinema for the Ear
“Modulations” is a 75 minute documentary that purports to chart the development of electronic music in the 20th century. Right out of the gate you would think that anyone with a lick of sense would realize that trying to cover a topic as vast as 20th century electronic music in 75 minutes in anything like a sensible way is impossible. Apparently the film’s director, Iara Lee, doesn’t have that lick of sense or is so filled with hubris that she thinks she can pull it off. She doesn’t.
“Modulations” presents snippets of interview footage intermixed with snippets of cinema effects set to music intermixed with snippets of live footage of dancers, deejays, and electronica artists at concerts, raves or clubs. Snippets, snippets, snippets. The film has no coherent point to make and cannot follow a sustained argument or narrative thread. It’s shallow and scattered and it’s failure to have anything interesting to say is made all the more disappointing given the quality of the interview footage the filmakers wasted. They present bits of interviews with Stockhausen, John Cage, Robert Moog, Ted Macero, Detroit techno’s Derrick May, Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson, Giorgio Moroder, Autechre, two members of Can and many others. Quite a few of these people have a lot to say and “Modulations” would have been a much more interesting and useful documentary if they were given time to say it. Instead we get snippets where interesting ideas are stated but not pursued or developed.
The film doesn’t even do a good job of clearly differentiating the sounds of the many electronica micro-niches it mentions so that a listener who is unfamiliar with electronic music could understand the difference between, say, one kind of techno and another. By running together seemingly random bits of different styles of electronic music “Modulations” has the unintended consequence of presenting much of late 20th century electronica as rhythmically monotonous music that differs in tempo and sound effects made by people with little or no comprehension of meter, let alone harmony or melody. A film that is intended to champion electronica ends up presenting it in an unflattering way. I’m a rhythm-oriented listener who enjoys many different types of electronica but “Modulations” left me wondering why anyone would want to listen to this stuff. This isn’t a film to show to someone you want to turn on to electronic music.
It’s enjoyable to have a chance to see some of the great names of electronic music and some of the cinema + music snippets are very cool. Otherwise, it’s difficult to find much value in “Modulations”. Listeners who are unfamiliar with electronica will not learn much here that will help them make sense of this diverse field of music and listeners who are into the music will likely be frustrated by the shallowness of the film.
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