OEM: What is Organic Electronic Music to You?

Sometime in 2007 I came up with the term, “Organic Electronic Music” to describe music I was producing with bassist Nils Westdal in our project, Keston and Westdal. I’m sure that I wasn’t the only person to think of this combination of words, and in fact, a quick search reveals several artists, labels, and others using the phrase. Our use of the phrase was a reaction to our distaste for genre labeling. In hindsight it would have been sensible to define the meaning of the phrase there-and-then, instead of simply using it in a few descriptions for tracks and albums.

In any case I found myself thinking about this recently and decided that it wouldn’t hurt to define what I mean by the phrase and perhaps discover some new music that ACB readers feel fits into my definition. In my view any style of electronic music can be considered organic electronic music (OEM). Dub step, house, downtempo, experimental, or even minimal techno can be “organic” as long as the music meets one or more of a few simple criteria. Click the link to read my brief list of parameters.

1) OEM is often not strictly quantized to a rigid grid. Drum patterns usually swing or have hits that aren’t perfectly on the beat. A kit might have five or more separate snares each with a slightly different timbre and attack. Other layers like keyboards and bass are often left un-quantized or partially quantized.

2) The instrumentation is usually not made up entirely of looped phrases. Although samples often exhibit organic qualities, OEM might include full-length parts that are played on non-digital instruments, like electric bass, flute, piano, electric piano, ad infinitum.

3) Generally analog sounds are favored over samples. Sampling is still common in OEM, but hardware like analog synthesis, tactile drum machines, and electro-mechanical instruments go a long way to provide more expressive sounds. In addition, textural and atmospheric sounds and processing often enhance the work.

4) Dynamics are used extensively in OEM. If the dynamics are limited to adding in and dropping out layers then it is probably not OEM. There might be examples of crescendos and decrescendos along with forte and pianissimo sections. Velocity sensitivity is helpful but not required. For example a good synthesist can create dynamics by tweaking the filter, or envelope parameters while performing.

For me a piece might only have to meet one of these requirements and still be able to move me. There are many artists who produce work that arrives amidst these parameters. The intent is not to strictly limit or exclude music, but to bring attention to musicianship and expertise in the production process. Artists as diverse as Kieren Hedben (Fourtet), Boards of Canada, Chromeo, and Herbie Hancock (Head Hunters) all fit the bill. Please share with us artists that you feel are OEM producers. Here’s a Keston and Westdal track from our album One Day to Save All Life to set the mood.

16 thoughts on “OEM: What is Organic Electronic Music to You?

  1. When I read Organic Electronic Music I always think of Organic referring literally to the natural carbon based world. I imagine sound designs based around algorhythms depicting real world life processes of plants and animals and crystals. Or the interfacing of living systems and electronic sound making devices. For example, using a plant hooked up to an electrode to change various parameters of an instrument.

  2. Great description, Ryan. Are there artists in particular that are doing this sort of thing? I’m reminded of Diego Stocco’s piece Music from a Bonsia. Which is of course not only organic in the sense of materials used, but also organic in the sense of sound that is dynamic and played with musicality by a human being.

  3. When I think about organic electronic music I think more about combining completely natural sounds with pure electronic sounds more than anything.

  4. I disagree with the above comments, interesting ideas but I think the John’s descriptions match up with what I had in mind as being OEM.

  5. Hey man, pretty cool article, really dope track at the end. When I think of Organic Electronic Music, I think more along the lines of Organic Ambient Beats composed of field samples with very little to no synthesizers…. Check out ‘Shlohmo’… his older stuff (Bad Vibes) particularly is a very interesting experiment with ambient/organic samples and electronic music.

  6. Cool! I’ve been looking for something like this, and this is pretty much exactly what I imagined. How about Plaid? If you haven’t you’ve got to listen to the soundtrack they made for Tekkonkinkreet. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SFu7gLu2TTQ I want to learn to make music to match the beauty of the animation in this scene.

  7. Thank you, John for this article on OEM, I agree to your definitions.

    Some years ago, in the 2000s, I ran a netlabel, called “TRooRG – the netlabel for electro-organic dance music”, to give my own and likeminded music a proper stage. Unfortunately the label was shut down by the bloody mate, that I had handed it over to in 2009. But the archival releases are still available here:
    https://archive.org/details/troorg

    And I created a moderated soundcloud-group, related to the flavor of TRooRG (i.e. I approve only “danceable electronic music, based on organic or natural samples, sounds and structures, and that merges experimental weirdness with complaisant audibility”, as I defined it.)
    https://soundcloud.com/groups/electro-organic-dance-music

    The more recent of my tunes are available here:
    https://soundcloud.com/fmasterf

    Best regards,
    Sangeeto Lúcido

  8. I have been using the term organic Electronic Music to describe my own music unaware that anyone else did it, but I guess I might have heard it somewhere and picked it up subconsciously.

    For me it is non-computerized electronic music. I create all music with no computer aid except as a taperecorder. The music therefore is played live and/or programmed on analog sequencers drum machines etc.

    Exemples:
    https://soundcloud.com/nielsgordon/sets/ohrnacht-ep
    https://open.spotify.com/album/6jL0pCXDpFOJtOUBQ9m8Fo

  9. @Neils non-computerized is certainly an excellent criteria for OEM. I think many would argue that it’s possible to create OEM with computers. After all, most of the sequencers found in electronic instruments are driven by embedded systems and firmware (essentially computerized). However, I get your position. I have also been doing almost all my production and performances without a dedicated computer since 2012. BTW: Nice synths tracks on your soundcloud!

  10. That’s certainly a point. Even if the sequencers are quite simple , the use of triggering and “perfect” timing speaks against the thougt of it being organic. Maight be that Neo-Kraut better describes my music then. :-) Thanks for enjoying my tracks!

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