The Ancestral Influences of Modern Popular Music.
Spectrum City is a music genealogy project that attempts to trace the ancestral influences of modern popular music.
Music follows the same Darwinian principles as life. Natural selection ensures successful mutations are replicated and thrive, whereas sonically flawed mutations become extinct after a few generations.
Musicians make records that sound like the records they like. They’re never perfect clones of the original because of the infinite number of variables that ultimately affect the outcome. It is a perfect expression of chaos theory, where a simple change in a guitar pedal summons into existence Punk Rock. Or replacing the drummer with a machine ushers in House Music.
This idea was the genesis for a personal project that would require me to learn new skills, hone others and brush up on my musical knowledge. The first challenge was how to show the connections between musical genres. I’d seen bubble diagrams map out the connections between bands before. However, these types of diagrams didn’t show the musical linage and place the genres in time.
I was on the Muni in San Francisco when struck with the idea that a station map would be an exciting way to plot the genealogy of music. Each stop a unique genre, the coloured lines the linage of said genre. Where lines met, fusions of culture and styles. Pull back, and one ultimately understands everything is connected.
The wonders of modern technology enabled me to connect the map to a treasure trove of music stored in the Spotify archive. Click a genre, and a Spotify playlist opens in the side panel. Visitors can preview the tracks on the site and click to listen to the full songs on Spotify.
The first challenge was where to start? Tribal music and drum song felt like the obvious choice. I was surprised to discover Spotify had an extensive catalogue that spanned back as far as the first-ever recorded documents. With the aid of Spotify’s magic algorithm, I soon discovered a wealth of tracks and set about trying to classify them into subgenres and map out the linage from the plains of Africa to the furthers reaches of the musical planet.
I scan read lengthily research papers and sought insights from the musical scholars, but eventually learnt to trust my ear. I listened for the tell-tale clues that would help me classify a song, then map the genres in time and influence. Given there are over 210 playlists containing at least 6,600 songs, there will likely be classifications some disagree with.
I began work on the map design after I’d created the playlists. There were countless iterations; I’d think this is it, then realise that Motown Soul would need to connect to Disco, and Disco would need to connect to Salsa. Wrong, do it again. After a couple of months, the map looked to be complete. Bugger, I forgot Trip-Hop and Latin rock, or Gypsy Music. Wrong, do it again.
I’d say one of life’s joyful mysteries is where we pluck inspiration from. The name for this fictional city came to me quite unexpectedly whilst driving in London. It was perfect; Spectrum was the name of the first Acid House night I raved at.
I’d later discover, Spectrum City was the name of Chuck D’s first musical project. He went on to become the lead rapper in Public Enemy, my all-time Favourite Hip Hop band.
What’s more, the name summed up what I planned to do: explore the full spectrum of music.
As I discover more music, I’ll add it to the pre-existing playlists, and I suppose every few years, I’ll have to keep adding new genres to the map.
And You Don’t Stop.