Amrosia: About a Culture

A review of Amrosia: About A Culture by James Cummins

Published on April 20, 2009

Amrosia: About A Culture
James Cummins

Clark-Nova Books

James Cummins, author of the obliquely titled Ambrosia: About a Culture, is quite right when he argues that “rave culture” and “electronica” are generally misunderstood phenomena in music history. Especially in North America, dance music and its various cultures have always had an uneasy relationship with a music industry built around the more accessible and change-resistant world of the guitar. Meanwhile, electronic dance music has evolved at a speed too fast to comfortably categorize, flourishes in a scene that ventures well beyond the accepted guidelines of a last call, and is conspicuously lax about taboos surrounding drugs, race, and homosexuality. It’s a pretty tough sell to the casual listener.

As a result, the best of what dance music has to offer (before the internet age) often operates far in the margins of music history and is under-documented by rock-oriented journalists. But under-documented doesn’t mean un-documented, and this is where Ambrosia makes the first of several crucial missteps in its valiant attempt to address many of the misnomers surrounding the generational trends that were raves and electronica. The book sells itself as nothing less than “the most important book ever written on the subject of modern music,” and “the most complete and original investigation into the rave scene and electronica ever written.” It is neither.

Though Cummins works under the assumption that he’s pretty much starting from scratch, the foundations of Ambrosia could have greatly benefited from a survey of the many preceding investigations into this subject that have emerged in the decade since rave and electronica began to fade away as cultural forces: Simon Reynolds’s Generation Ecstasy, Mathew Collin’s Altered State, books by Bill Brewster and Peter Shapiro, films such as Modulations, articles in The Wire, or painstakingly thorough compilations by labels such as Soul Jazz, Sub Rosa, and others that offer scene-spanning retrospectives, complete with extensive essays.

Rather than address or build upon this important secondary research, Cummins instead offers pages upon pages of tenuous and often anecdotal trivia that ranges wildly from Ancient Rome to India, from Greek myth to T.S. Eliot, discussions which attempt to legitimize the electronica and raves by positing them in a serious sociological context that most often reads like the lecture notes of an undergraduate humanities course. To be sure, there is a fertile avant-garde history behind dance culture that could have afforded Cummins the heft he’s after, but he would have been advised to look deeper into mid-century minimalist composers such as John Cage or Steve Reich, or musique concrète pioneers such as Pierre Schaeffer.

Context is crucial to explaining any community, and in Ambrosia context is often awkwardly presented in sections that fray the central argument and offer a poor sense of the world that could have produced rave culture. The author’s attempts to explain rave and electronica also suffer due to his lack of first-hand experience within the communities he writes about. One sympathizes with how much Cummins obviously likes this form of music, but he ultimately doesn’t stray too far beyond what he already knows to elucidate his case. Electronic music is, more than other forms of music, a global culture, and although Cummins does dedicate chapters to various scenes around the globe, the reader never gets the sense (nor does Cummins go out of his way to provide it) that he’s actually ever visited any of the places he writes about. In the world of non-fiction, that sleight of experience and lack of authority is a major problem.

In the end, Ambrosia is the work of an obvious fan, but not someone with the inherent authority or understanding of electronic music and its communities to add to the already substantial works out there on bookshelves. mRb

Dimitri Nasrallah's second novel will be published next spring.



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