The Mountain Electric
The Mountain Electric is an audiovisual ethnography structured around Mountain Skies Electronic Music Festival 2019. Held over three days in North Carolina’s Black Mountain region, the event celebrates ambient electronic music as well as the passionate networks of people who collaborate and improvise together to create this particular style of sound. Sara Snyder Hopkins’s ethnographic film thus explores how ambient music creates a community of practice across both virtual and physical realms. Members of the community connected on the web in the 1990s and early 2000s, and nostalgic fondness drives them to continue using somewhat dated – but by no means unloved or underappreciated– technological means through which to hear, distribute and create ambient music. The Mountain Electric likewise adopts unpretentious filming and recording technologies, actively performing the DIY ethos of this grassroots festival while drawing from 80 hours of footage and over 30 interviews with ambient artists.
Authors: Sara Snyder Hopkins
Format: Documentary Film
Duration: 1h 28′
Published: October 2022
As one of the film’s interviewees states, “ambient music is not a style, it’s an ethos and how you support each other in the community.” The Mountain Electric explores ambient electronic music as a community of practice (Lave and Wenger 1991; Li et al. 2009) connected by “a web of relations, those labyrinthine connections…link the most unlikely subjects [persons]” (Toop 1995: x). These people coalesce around concepts of sound, space, and music in a shared journey of making and listening (musicking) rather than a finite, technologically distributable product (Keil and Feld 1994).
Nonetheless, technology plays a outsized role in this community, where the fetishization of music “gear” is pervasive. Music technologies such as modular synthesizers, DIY circuit-bending technology, and extensive musical effects pedals and software dominate the music-making process from how the music sounds to how it is performed to how people describe it. Unlike films such as I Dream of Wires (Fattinatto 2014), which explores the renewed popularity of modular synthesizers and many of their (famous) proponents, this film looks at how electronic musicians experience sound in relationship to place and how technology makes their experiences possible yet also intrudes on sound- and place-making. As the musicians often say, “it’s not about the gear.” From a Sound Studies perspective, the film explores technology as an “infinite series of objects and techniques” through which ‘culture’ is always already constituted” (Steingo and Sykes 2019:11). In other words, how is meaning created through musicians’ relationships with technology and each other? In place of the usual interview questions that electronic musicians anticipate about gear and gear techniques, the interviewees were asked questions such as, “how do you think of place and space when creating music? What makes a sound meaningful to you? Do you have a spiritual or meditative relationship to making music?” In responding, interviewees often drifted into longer narratives and tangential excursions that, when paired with clips of performances, evoke the ephemerality and atmosphere of the festival event (Reidel 2019).
The Mountain Electric is an ethnographic film that documents a three-day festival of ambient electronic music in Asheville, North Carolina (USA) called Mountain Skies that happened during May 2019. The film is cut from 80 hours of footage taken during the festival and 30 interviews filmed before and during the festival. It also includes footage from a virtual performance in Second Life. Mountain Skies belongs to a series of connected festivals held most recently in North Carolina and New York that this community of musicians has been hosting for a couple of decades. The musicians come from across the United States and several countries in Europe. Despite their geographical disparities, these musicians are deeply connected through online platforms they utilized extensively even prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. Unlike large electronic dance music festivals, these festivals are intimate and subdued and the musicians themselves form the majority of the audience. The film also explores how the core members of this community, who connected via Internet media in the 1990s and early 2000s, have clung to increasingly dated means of distributing, listening, and discussing music and musical practices. Many of these platforms are pre-Facebook, pre-MySpace streaming platforms such as Second Life, online radio stations, chatrooms, websites, forums, and even mailing lists and the now-defunct Yahoo Groups. Due to the older median age of the community and the pervasive use of increasingly obsolete forms of online mediation, the community in its present form may be in danger of fading into technological obscurity.
The film takes a discursive approach to interviews and use of participants’ words to trace how phrases, terms, and utterances as concepts are repeated, re-signified upon, reanimated, and reimagined from mouth to mouth, from moment to moment (Urban 1991; Silverstein and Urban 1996). Through repetition, words create a durable yet emergent matrix of concepts and practices. The film forgoes formal narration altogether and allows the voices of the musicians to flow along with the ambient music they describe. At times, longer interview segments are included in the film because storytelling is important for understanding ambient musicking because stories demonstrate how to listen. Ambient music allows those making it to create “narratives of meaning that help them understand the world and their place in it” (Mulcock 2001, 181, quoted in Till 2017; Toop 2018). Their narratives train listeners toward particular kinds of emplaced listening and relationships to technology. Moreover, stories of how the musicians are interconnected emerge organically from the juxtaposition of interview clips.
Ambient electronic music – often with hazy, soft-focus sound and understated performance practices – lacks the ‘flashiness’ and large concert attendance of more popular forms of electronic music. Unsurprisingly then, there are few documentaries that explore ambient music while many documentaries concern the history of electronic dance music (e.g., Hindmarch 2001; Classen 2006; Iannapollo 2007; Smith 2019) and its producers and artists (e.g., Johnstone 2008; Southern and Lovelace 2012; Martin-Delpierre and Rozenman 2015). Ambient music largely appears in the background of documentaries about other topics as opposed to being the focus itself. In its style, The Mountain Electric tries to capture the sense of shifting of background and foreground that ambient music evokes. The film technique sometimes embraces the unsteadiness, grain, and shifting focus of the handheld camera; its ‘ambient gaze’ drifts alongside the eyes, ears, and imaginations of the performers and listeners. The short film Chihei Hatakeyama, a day trip with an ambient musician (2018) explores similar themes as this film such as sound and space/place and storymaking in trying to explain the ethos of ambient music for the viewer. The older (1989) film Brian Eno: Imaginary Landscapes explores the psyche of the most famous ambient musician and producer. However, these films do not explore ambient music making broadly from an ethnographic perspective.
As a practice-based ethnographic film, this work contributes to ethnographic works that “study up,” or turn an anthropological eye toward so-called “Non-Western” people and places (Nader 1972; Born 1995; Gusterson 1997; Souleles 2018). Yet, work such as this from a social scientific perspective contributes to unraveling these problematic dichotomies around modernity. Studying-up often becomes “studying within” (Priyadharshini 2003) and dismantling the Western-via-Other perspective demands rigorous inquiry into communities that fall below the radar as ‘not other enough’ to warrant inquiry such that their cultural patterns go unscrutinized. Many of the musicians from the film are affiliated or familiar with academic institutions and are aware of how “sound” and “music” have been interrogated since before John Cage. Adding another layer of ethnographic reflexivity, the film gazes inward in that the co-producers, a husband and wife team, are marginal participants themselves in the ambient electronic community and have performed at the festival several times. Thus, the film is, in part, the producers’ own journey to understand this community of practice to which they belong, an audiovisual odyssey to make the familiar strange (Mannay 2010).
The film was pre-screened at the Society for Ethnomusicology Annual Meeting (2019), the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (2019), and the Society for Ethnomusicology Southeastern Chapter (2021). The predominant sentiment among previewers was that the film provoked a otherworldly, meditative state that could not quite be explained in words; exactly the kind of listening state that those who attended the event being documented in the film are seeking to experience. The film engenders a jarring sensory or affective experience as a “sonic ethnography” (Castaing-Taylor and Paravel 2012; Kara and Thain 2014). This quality will make The Mountain Electric particularly useful to Sound Studies scholars and ethnomusicologists who struggle to articulate concepts around sound and music with textual representations alone. The film can take a listener from understanding in an abstract way to a feelingful experience of what is being represented. We hope that it will encourage more ethnomusicologists and Sound Studies scholars to pursue film as a viable alternative to text for demonstrating their research. The film presents a multitude of ethnographic examples useful for teaching about sounding and listening practices.
This work has not been publicly dissemenated beyond the pre-screenings. We are seeking an organizational home for the film that can support its distribution as a teaching tool and as documentation of unique cultural practices. It would be ideal for the film to be available on platforms beyond academic settings as well. This work will be of interest to a substantial number of musicians around the world who are interested in electronic music, particularly those who are interested in understanding interpersonal connections and musical experiences beyond the focus on music technology (and its creators) or famous personalities. The film also documents a portion of ambient music social history. Once the film is distributed, we plan to create an accompanying website to host full interviews and audiovisual recordings created for the project so that all those who participated in the project can be heard and not only those who were featured in the film.
Born, G. (1995). Rationalizing culture. University of California Press.
Gusterson, H. (1997). Studying up revisited. PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review, 20 (1), pp. 114-119.
Kara, S., & Thain, A. (2014). Sonic ethnographies: Leviathan and new materialisms in documentary. In Music and Sound in Documentary Film (pp. 194-206). Chicago: Routledge
Keil, C., & Feld, S. (1994) Music Grooves: Essays and Dialogues. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991) Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge university press.
Li, L. C., Grimshaw, J. M., Nielsen, C., Judd, M., Coyte, P. C., & Graham, I. D. (2009) ‘Evolution of Wenger’s concept of community of practice’. Implementation science, 4(1), pp. 1-8.
Mannay, D. (2010). Making the familiar strange: Can visual research methods render the familiar setting more perceptible?. Qualitative research, 10(1), 91-111.
Nader, L. (1972). Up the anthropologist: Perspectives gained from studying up.
Priyadharshini, E. (2003). Coming unstuck: Thinking otherwise about “studying up”. Anthropology & education quarterly, 34(4), 420-437.
Riedel, F. (2019). Atmosphere. In Affective societies (pp. 85-95). Routledge.
Reyner, I. (2018) ‘Fictional narratives of listening: crossovers between literature and sound studies’. Interference Journal 6, pp. 129-142.
Silverstein, M., & Urban, G. (Eds.). (1996). Natural histories of discourse. University of Chicago Press.
Souleles, D. (2018). How to study people who do not want to be studied: Practical reflections on studying up. PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review, 41(S1), 51-68.
Steingo, G., & Sykes, J. (Eds.). (2019). Remapping sound studies. Duke University Press.
Till, R. (2017) ‘Ambient music.’ In C. Partridge and M. Moberg, ed. The Bloomsbury Handbook of Religion and Popular Music. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017, pp. 327-337.
Toop, D. (2018). Ocean of Sound: Ambient sound and radical listening in the age of communication. Serpent’s Tail.
Urban, G. (1991). A discourse-centered approach to culture. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Ybema, S., & Kamsteeg, F. (2009). Making the familiar strange: A case for disengaged organizational ethnography. Organizational ethnography: Studying the complexities of everyday life, 101-119.
Brian Eno: Imaginary Landscapes (G. Cardazzo, G. and D. Ward, 1989, United Kingdom)
Chihei Hatakeyama, a day trip with an ambient musician (Archipel, 2018, Japan)
Daft Punk Unchained (H. Martin-Delpierre and M. Rozenman, 2015, France).
Don’t forget to go home [Feirn] (M. Classen, 2006, Germany)
Fyre: The greatest party that never happened (C. Smith, 2019, USA)
I Dream of Wires (R. Fattinatto, R, 2014, Canada)
Kraftwerk And The Electronic Revolution (R. Johnstone, 2008, United Kingdom).
Leviathan (L. Castaing-Taylor and V. Paravel, 2012, USA)
Made in Sheffield: The Birth of Electronic Pop (R. Iannapollo, 2007, United Kingdom)
Pump Up the Volume: The History of House Music (C. Hindmarch, 2001, United Kingdom)
Shut Up and Play the Hits (L. Southern and W. Lovelace, 2012, USA)
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows:
Review 1:Accept submission for publication with no amendments.
This film explores sound and the relationships that emerge from sounding practices in the context of a community-based ambient music festival in North Carolina. In her statement, the author writes: “how is meaning created through musicians’ relationships with technology and each other?” I would argue that herein lies the strength of this film, but that in fact it more specifically explores how meaning is created through musicians’ relationships to sounds, technology and each other. The audiovisual format lends itself well to answering this question, as we are able to learn not only from the voices of the film’s protagonists, but directly from the sonic experiences and social events that are meaningful to them.
Juxtaposed between edited sequences of a one-room, low-budget festival, protagonists speak enthusiastically about flow states, sound producing technologies, and the ability of sounds to act as a portal into inner and outer space. In other scenes, we see interviewees distracted by the whizz bicycle wheels or the sound of crickets, illustrating an enchantment with sonic diversity both natural and human-made. Where I occasionally found myself questioning the filmmakers reliance on verbal narratives, by the end of the film I realized that these stories provided valuable interpretive layers that helped viewers experience the performance sequences within local frameworks of meaning.
The film also explores the question “why do people make music” but does so focusing on a very specific community of musicians who ground their sound making practices within an ethos of locality, collectivity, grassroots connections, and against the capitalist tendencies of the mainstream electronic music industries. Comments like “everybody loses money when we put one of these events on, and people sign up to do that” speak to pride community members feel for the social aesthetic of events that are 100% generated and sustained by community efforts. Although we often associate grassroots music scenes with youth culture, most of the protagonists of this film were middle-to-retirement aged white men. As such, the film offers a powerful look at the way music-making hobbies and the social communities of practice that surround them can offer vital spaces of belonging and social connection for adults entering into retirement. While not directly addressed in the statement, it seems a focused exploration of music and aging could offer new avenues of research within this community.
Although I appreciate long-form narration and the intentional slow flow of the film, I believe some of the sequences could have benefited from further editing. The author states that one of the goals of the project is to resist the anthropological temptation of studying the Other and to focus on subjects closer to home. In the statement, she explains that she and her husband are a part of the community. It would have been nice to have some recognition of her role in the community within the film narrative itself.
Overall I think this audiovisual ethnography contributes to sound studies and successfully offers an intimate portrait of a community of practice held together by long-standing human relationships and the collective enthusiasm for the ambient sounds and sonic experiences that tie them together. One of the most exciting sequences in the film for me was the exploration of Second Life. As someone who has heard about but never experienced this platform, I thought the seamless flow from the festival stage, onto digital radio and then into a virtual world illustrated beautifully how meaning is produced through musician’s relationships with technology and each other.
Review 2: Accept submission for publication with no amendments
Can cyborgs die? Long the fascination of cyberpunk literature and sci-fi cinema the cyborg is an entity that exists as an interface of organic and technological biology. The living expression of Heidegger’s fear of the dehumanization of technology, the cyborg was once an Other to Humanism. If the story arc of the Terminator movies are instructional in any way we might see Schwarzenegger’s cyborg transformation from cop killing predator to rural family man as a personification (cyborgification?) of a society wide change in attitude towards the cyborg, perhaps its domestication. The Mountain Electric (2019) (Sara Snyder Hopkins dir.) enters into the question of technoculture domestication precisely in this way, a gentle and curious inquiry into the sustainability of a musical technoculture that was once considered a disruptive threat to Humanist definitions of music and musicians.
Almost twenty years ago Lysloff and Gay posed the possibility of “an ethnomusicology of technoculture” which they described as being “concerned with how technology implicates cultural practices involving music. It includes not only technologically based musical countercultures and subcultures but behaviors and forms of knowledge ranging from mainstream and traditional institutions, on the one hand, to contemporary music scholarship” (Lysloff and Gay 2003: 2). The Mountain Electric poses two questions. The first, a kind of technoculture salvage ethnographic question about the sustainability of a technocultural practice and a community that may be in “danger of fading into technological obscurity” (Hopkins). The second, much more interesting ethnomusicology of technoculture question, is the expressive potentiality of human-machine interfaces. Everywhere in The Mountain Electric we see-hear mature human-machine expressive interfaces that are getting older. The handheld cinematography attempts to express this. How might the film feel if parts of it were shot using VCR, Super8 cameras, or MiniDV cameras? Would the technoculture machine aesthetics carry affects across the mutating pixels and aspect rations? A music of machinic artefacts expressed on screen with machines that contribute machinic artefacts. Would there be a technocultural machinic poetics of a-semiotic signification that would bring us closer to the love affair or worship of the sound machine’s sonic embrace that is reported in the interviews? Connecting the form of the inquiry to its subject by way of cinematic poetics would have contributed substantially more to the cinematic inquiry instead of requiring the interviews to carry so much of the exposition.
Does Sara Hopkins love their light-machine the way these sound artists love their sound-and light-machines? It is hard to say from the film itself. There are a few moments of cinematic delight that punctuate the routine sit-down interview and performance footage. The extended tour of Second Life (or the afterlife of second life) was glorious and well placed. The film returned me to the excited grad school conversations in the mid 2000s where technocultures and Second Life were all very exciting. But it did so in a way that also made me wonder about what happened to that excitement? Watching a deserted Second Life—as Meta is being launched—highlights a fundamental cyberpunk theme, not death per say, but “retirement” a la Blade Runner. The festival seemed subdued and sparsely populated and the filming’s tight focus on the inside of the festival space seemed to cut it off from the rest of the city where it was happening. Everything that was outside of the festival space was shown in still photos. It contributed a pervasive feeling of the unreality of nature, and a breaking up of the techno-nature-culture ecology that some of the sound artist worked to bring together. The choice to construct interview and performance refrains added a binary that did not quite get to the joy of the human-machine interface that many of the interviewees remarked upon. The film’s opening clips of sound machines added to the feeling of technology being left behind and perhaps worked against the thesis of the film, that there indeed exists a global technoculture of ambient music that continues to live despite its faded place in popular culture consciousness. The Mountain Electric is rich in questions and brings the viewer into a space that was once considered a cutting-edge location of technocultural experimentation, and then leaves us with questions. I think this is a rich pedagogical approach. The accompanying statement is articulate and deliberate. There is a rich puzzling of ethnographic practice that is well cited and makes an important contribution to thinking about the ethnomusicology of technocultures, even if it is not mentioned by name.
Lysloff, René T. A. and Jr Leslie C. Gay. 2003. Music and Technoculture. Wesleyan.
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response.
Sara L. Snyder is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Sociology at Western Carolina University and Director of the Cherokee Language Program. She received a PhD. in Ethnomusicology from Columbia University in 2016 with additional specialization in linguistic anthropology. In addition to her academic interests, Sara also sings and composes with the electronic music project, Stereospread, and plays trumpet with community bands and jazz ensembles across Western North Carolina.