Here are the highlights of a good thread on the term "isolationism" in reference to a style of ambient music, from the ambient music mailing list.
Date: Wed, 05 Apr 95 11:46:28 From: Brian Duguid If nothing else, the "debate" about the validity of the term "isolationism" is a good example of how public discourse turns musical labels into something entirely different from what their creators intended. "Isolationism" is a term that was used considerably by at least three critics (Kevin Martin, Biba Kopf and Simon Reynolds) and was coined to tie together various forms of ambient music that shared the common thread of alienation, withdrawal, and anti-positivity. Similarly, "industrial" and "ambient" now refer to something other than what they used to, and it *does* matter, because lumping various diverse areas into one single pigeonhole only disguises their important differences. > From: Darryl Stephen Roy > As a critic, its his job to parse the enormous variety of music presently > available into digestible categories. To create order out of the chaos of > the creative impulse. And "Isolationism" is just a word, as meaningful > or less as the uses to which it is put. Presently it covers a sufficiently > limited range of musics that the fan has some idea of what he's buying when > an artist is so pigeonholed. While I agree, I think Kevin Martin's use of "isolationism" to describe both musical content and the attitude of the music-makers shouldn't be treated uncritically. He treats as part of the same "trend" musicians whose motivations for making music are often diametrically opposed; Jim O'Rourke, Aphex Twin, AMM and Thomas Koener all have completely different attitudes to the music they make. Similarly, his approach leads to the exclusion of musicians whose music sounds the same as the "isolationist" artists but who don't fit his other criteria: Strafe FR, Asmus Tietchens and Arcane Device might be good examples. And his focus on musical style and creative approach rules out music that is "dark ambient" but more concerned with how the audience perceives it; I'd suggest Pauline Oliveros as an example, since much of her music is every bit as "moody" as the recognised isolationists, but her interests in meditation and audience participation go against Martin's grain. > From: D.A.C. Crowell > Sorry, but I agree with the irate letter. "Isolationism" really isn't all > that different from darker ambient or ambient-oriented noise music, and > I also view it as a marketing tag for The Typical Western Mentality that > _requires_ a label be put on every-damned-thing so that it can be > comprehended. From the way I hear it, the term was developed by some > Promo department types to sell some stuff which they couldn't pigeonhole > as being "industrial" (since that all means dancy stuff with noise and > ugly beats nowadays, natch) nor "ambient" (it wasn't pretty/vapid/ > whatever enough), nor could it work as "New Music" since the artists in > question didn't have sheepskin to explain their noisemaking > with. I personally don't see _what_ is so isolating about this > "Isolationism", myself, and think it's a lousy term to describe some > music which is otherwise well described in other ways. This is plain wrong; it's not how the term "isolationist" came into existence at all. I'm intrigued as to what you mean by "sheepskin", since artists included on the Isolationism compilation such as Jim O'Rourke and AMM are more than capable of being recognised as "New Music". > Well, you know what they say about critics in the art world; they're all > basically people who _want_ to do music/art/whatever but either don't > have the skills to make it work, or when they _do_ do it, it comes out > looking like...well, looking like some halfassed attempt at > music/art/whatever by some critic. Who are "they" and why should we care less what "they say"? > Pardon my cynicism, but I have a feeling that music press will treat > this new category something like this: They'll fixate early on a few > bands to the exclusion of the vast majority of bands that could be > called Isolationist (Main already seems to be a favorite), the bands > they do fixate on will be feted for a few years only to be turned on > mercilessly, a few bands like :Zoviet France will be hailed as great > innovators by critics who wouldn't give them the time of day when they > were actually around, while others, like Coil, will be met with the > usual conspiracy of silence. Finally, the term will be appropriated > by some new genre of electronic dance music with a few "Isolationist" > elements and its originators will ultimately be ignored. Well, this has already happened. Even amongst the originators of the "isolationist" term, the writers at The Wire, certain artists are recognised as "in" while others aren't; this is solely down to the narrow horizons of the relevant critics, and no more or less a problem than for any other musical genre. Zoviet France are still around, incidentally. And at least in the UK press, Coil have had far more attention than ZF throughout both bands' histories. And is it too unreasonable to suggest that if you don't like what the critics are writing, the appropriate response is to write something yourself? Brian Duguid BD1@mm-croy.mottmac.co.uk Date: Tue, 4 Apr 1995 19:55:04 -0800 From: Silent Records / Kim Cascone I started PGR in 1984 and way back then there was no term or phrase for what we were doing, but it eventually got labeled as "ambient industrial"...I have reviews of my work from 1985 that blatantly called PGR "ambient"...I was mentioned by Mick Harris as one of many artists who influenced him (I am honored)...my perspective is this: if you hang out in the music industry for more than 10 years you'll see alot of recycling of ideas...and when a genre or style reemerges it often gets a new name and new packaging slapped on it...I find the term "isolationism" neccessary because nobody (except for the fans) paid much attention to "ambient industrial" music back in the 80's: PGR didn't get much airplay, distributors didn't order it and it was hard to perform live...so in order for it to gain it's place in history it had to resurface with a new package so people would listen to it...besides it isn't like the people involved (Mick Harris, Keven Martin, Bill Laswell, John Zorn etc etc) are new kids on the block...they've been at it for years...anyway, let's not get too hung up on names/terms and just pay attention to the music...maybe there are some pieces from the 80's that should be re-issued in order to present isolationisms history...just some thoughts... KIM Date: Tue, 4 Apr 1995 00:11:11 -0700 (PDT) From: Peter Werner It seems to me like Isolationism is sort of a catch-all for ambient that has been redefined out of "Ambient", industrial that has been redefined out of "Industrial" and other music that doesn't fit into current pigeonholes. Pardon my cynicism, but I have a feeling that music press will treat this new category something like this: They'll fixate early on a few bands to the exclusion of the vast majority of bands that could be called Isolationist (Main already seems to be a favorite), the bands they do fixate on will be feted for a few years only to be turned on mercilessly, a few bands like :Zoviet France will be hailed as great innovators by critics who wouldn't give them the time of day when they were actually around, while others, like Coil, will be met with the usual conspiracy of silence. Finally, the term will be appropriated by some new genre of electronic dance music with a few "Isolationist" elements and its originators will ultimately be ignored. A bleak outlook perhaps, but based on the way the music industry and music press have treated electronic music so far, its an entirely likely scenario. Beast of Eden