Tuesday, January 26, 2010

But Is It Art?

Recently Tod Machover, whose work I discussed in a recent blog post, wrote a guest editorial for The New York Times.

It fits in with a topic I have been wanting to cover anyway, the increasing use of electronic tools to easily create music.

As a point of reference, let me say my personal tastes skew toward acoustic music with minimal production. Give me a solo voice or a solo instrument, as unadulterated as possible, and I'll savor the purity of it. I'm partial to warm, uncompressed sounds. Here are two examples:
  • Danielle Ate the Sandwich She has recorded herself in her apartment playing either guitar or ukulele. It's her voice that I love.
  • Chet Baker A great example of emotive jazz.
  • However, I've been reading some very thought-provoking discussions about how new technologies are or aren't good for music and decided the topic was worth exploring. Let me start with this:
    Gary Jarman, singer and bassist for UK indie rockers the Cribs, believes some of the passion has gone missing now that anyone can record and release a song.

    "It shouldn't be easy [to be a musician], you know? Nowadays it's just like everyone's got a laptop, everyone's got GarageBand, everyone's got a MySpace page," Jarman tells Spinner. "People can have a band or do a song as if it's a vanity project." "The Cribs Think It's Too Easy to Make Music," Spinner, 1/11/10.
    In contrast, the people pushing the technology think the ease of creating music is what is valuable.
  • Most of the skeptics I talk to aren’t upset by the use of computer software or programming in and of itself; in fact, many of them are artists and composers who use technology in their own work as well. What upsets them about my work is the way I give up control over the creative process to people who are not necessarily trained musicians and are often complete strangers.

    My response to these critics is to clarify my focus in many of these works: the creative process rather than the creative product. Many of the most exciting, fulfilling, and spiritual experiences of my life have been about creating and performing music. I am trying to share the experience of those moments, not the music that resulted from them, in my own works. "Interview: Jason Freeman," Networked Music Review, 3/11/07.
  • A lot of singers I know don’t like Auto-tune. They grumble that they shouldn’t have bothered to do all that practicing and studying. Auto-tune makes things easier in the studio, and increasingly on stage, no doubt about it. This bothers people who care about how difficult music is to make. Auto-tune threatens some of the myths we have about musicality: that it’s a special talent possessed only by an exceptional few, and that there’s something noble and admirable in the lifetime of discipline it requires. When Lil Wayne goes into a recording studio, smokes a blunt or three and freestyles an Auto-tuned melody off the top of his head, it calls our European-descended assumptions about romantic musical heroism into question.

    In my opinion, this is all for the best. Music isn’t fundamentally about technique. It’s a transmission medium for emotions. A confident and definite performance comes across, accurate pitch or no. When you have a singer do take after take after take in search of technical perfection, you often end up with the sound of a bored and annoyed singer. ...

    It’s way too late in the history of technology to be worrying about authenticity. What’s so authentic about recorded sound to begin with? ... What’s so authentic about multitrack recording, compression, EQ, pop filters, artificial reverb, or selecting from multiple takes to find the best one? All that matters to me when I listen is how the music makes me feel. "In praise of Auto-tune," Ethan Hein's Blog, 12/3/08.
  • Music Creativity Through Technology is dedicated to music educators working with the "Other 80%" of students in our schools who do not participate in the traditional performing ensembles and music classes. With the latest tools in music technology, these educators are finding ways to unleash the creative potential of many of these students....

    The impact that GarageBand had can be seen in the overnight emergence of virtual composers sharing their GarageBand creations on the web and reaching out for comment and guidance. As a music educator, I found this especially exciting as it renewed my interest in finding ways to reach those students in our schools that drop out of the traditional music programs as they progress up through the grades, the traditional programs where more and more emphasis is place on traditional performing ensembles and performance expertise of selected repertoire (see Williams 1987). Through lectures, presentations and keynotes, and the work of my graduate students, I began to focus on what I termed the "non-traditional music student (NTMs)," the other 80 percent of students in our school programs that are disenfranchised from music education in one way or another. "The Other 80% Music Home," Music Creativity Through Technology (www.musicCreativity.org).
  • I watched people go through the same dilemma with online writing. Back in 1998 or so, (a few) people had elaborate personal sites built by hand that would update once a month or so. Then blog software came along and they all thought it was the death of online publishing because anyone could do it, and update not just daily but several times a day.

    And that attitude has been shown to be pretty much total bunk.

    There are now millions of people writing online and if you know where to look, you can find plenty of great things. That also means there are millions of sites that one might call "crap" that don't interest them, but it's worth it to increase that 1% of really good stuff.

    I see the same parallel with music and movies. It's great that things are getting easier. I wish anyone with an idea would write down the idea and have software completely form that into action. I know people invest years in learning tools and they kind of hate it deep down when some kid can pick up the same techniques in ten minutes that took them ten years, but get over yourselves.

    Seriously, the mass democratization of everything is one of the crowning achievements of the Internet. In the long run it will mean tons of great music and tons of great short movies and tons of great writing. Don't worry about the problems of millions of people making music -- there are already tools in place to filter out just the best music (like garageband.com's rating system).

    posted by mathowie at 8:28 AM on December 4, 2004 "Is Reason and other programs making music production too easy?" Ask MetaFilter.
  • Finally, to wrap up the pro-technology folks, let me cite a reader comment on Tod Machover's editorial.
    ... think about musical instruments. How much time does a violin student spend learning to play in tune? Imagine a digital violin that always plays in tune. That frees up hours and hours of time the student can then devote to higher-level exploration of musical expression. (And, yes, the intonation of the instrument can be made contextually 'aware' - q.v. Hermode tuning, an algorithm that tunes digital instruments on the fly according to the harmonic context they are in). ...

    So this is the future I hope we see: digital instruments imbued with context-aware, programmable and customizable musical intelligence. Having tools like that will free people to create music we can't even imagine.
    Paul Henry Smith
    Smith's comment led me to his website where he posted an interview he did.
    This is one of the most exciting and important contributions digital orchestras can make in our musical life. They enable composers to get their music played without the cost and resistance of an acoustic orchestra. My hope is that this new-found avenue for orchestral composition will result in a flowering of activity supporting innovation and refinement in orchestral music, necessary to keep this mode of expression alive and thriving for both acoustic and digital orchestras. In my view, then, acoustic orchestras ultimately benefit from the emergence of very good digital orchestras. Just as interest in acoustic guitar music has been immeasurably increased by the emergence of the electric guitar. "Paul Henry Smith Interview in Beat Magazine," Paul Henry Smith, 9/23/09.
    And this:
    Which brings us to now. The digital instruments are still limited, but they’ve gotten much better than they were even in 2003, and they’re still improving. They are improving faster than acoustic instruments. My five-year investment in learning how to play them, how to master them, is paying off. And within the next ten years there is no question that I will be able to follow my musical imagination anywhere it leads with more suppleness, expression and ease than the current generation of digital musical instruments allows. "Can digital orchestra instruments be musically compelling?" Paul Henry Smith, 8/10/09.
    Among those who do accept technology, they sometimes make a distinction between technology used creatively versus technology used in a banal manner. Here's what Machover said in his editorial.
    Technology has democratized music in ways that are surprising even to me, revolutionizing access to any music anytime with iPod and iTunes, opening interactive musicmaking to amateurs with Guitar Hero and Rock Band (which both grew out of a group I lead at the M.I.T. Media Lab), providing digital production and recording facilities on any laptop that surpass what the Beatles used at Abbey Road, and redefining the performance ensemble with initiatives like the Stanford iPhone Orchestra and YouTube Symphony. ...

    But we can’t take such freshness for granted. Musical technology is so ever-present in our culture, and we are all so very aware of it, that techno-clich├ęs and techno-banalities are never far away and have become ever more difficult to identify and root out. It is deceptively challenging these days to apply technology to music in ways that explode our imaginations, deepen our personal insights, shake us out of boring routine and accepted belief, and pull us ever closer to one another. "On Future Performance," Opinionator Blog, NYTimes.com, 1/13/10.
    Influential musician/producer Brian Eno says that the reason we don't always get great music from technological tools is that, unlike the piano or violin, we haven't worked with them long enough yet.
    On the synthesiser: 1

    "One of the important things about the synthesiser was that it came without any baggage. A piano comes with a whole history of music. There are all sorts of cultural conventions built into traditional instruments that tell you where and when that instrument comes from. When you play an instrument that does not have any such historical background you are designing sound basically. You're designing a new instrument. That's what a synthesiser is essentially. It's a constantly unfinished instrument. You finish it when you tweak it, and play around with it, and decide how to use it. You can combine a number of cultural references into one new thing."

    On the synthesiser: 2

    "Instruments sound interesting not because of their sound but because of the relationship a player has with them. Instrumentalists build a rapport with their instruments which is what you like and respond to. If you were sitting down now to design an instrument you would not dream of coming up with something as ridiculous as an acoustic guitar. It's a strange instrument, it's very limited and it doesn't sound good. You would come up with something much better. But what we like about acoustic guitars is players who have had long relationships with them and know how to do something beautiful with them. You don't have that with synthesisers yet. They are a very new instrument. They are constantly renewing so people do not have time to build long relationships with them. So you tend to hear more of the technology and less of the rapport. It can sound less human. However ! That is changing. And there is a prediction that I made a few years ago that I'm very pleased to see is coming true – synthesisers that have inconsistency built into them. I have always wanted them to be less consistent. I like it that one note can be louder than the note next to it." "On gospel, Abba and the death of the record: an audience with Brian Eno,", The Observer, 1/17/10.
    Musician Jonathan Coulton says that new technologies allow for more experimentation.
    I’ve recently become very interested in all sorts of electronic gizmos and gadgets and composition and performance tools because you can only do so much with a guitar. And I love to play the guitar. I love to listen to the guitar, but there’s really something satisfying about putting it down and picking up a ridiculous piece of equipment with a lot of buttons that’s going to make a lot of noise and also inject a lot of chaos and randomness into what happens. The Zendrum in particular, when I play that, it’s always a little bit different. That’s because I make mistakes and some of the buttons go off by themselves, but you can feel the audience getting sort of excited when that happens. That’s what live performances are about: that process by which you accidentally find something awesome. So for me that’s what I love about those devices and that’s what I love about technology and music: the potential to sort of shake things up and bring you to places you wouldn’t otherwise get to. "Jonathan Coulton Talks Music, Technology and uPlaya.com," The Blogs at HowStuffWorks, 10/28/09.
    In this blog post, producer/composer Spencer Critchley explains why he likes one musician's use of technology, but not another's.
    Thomas' use of technology was creative, taking things apart and reusing them in imaginative ways. His music presented technology through an emotional filter, such as affectionate parody, as in 'She Blinded Me With Science', or a haunting nostalgia, as in much of The Golden Age of Wireless. ...

    The Rhinestone Cowboy's use of technology wasn't creative, just productive. He was simply saving himself the expense of hiring background singers. The harmonizer didn't add anything new to his music, apart from the slightly creepy effect of hearing two perfect clones of the Rhinestone Cowboy. "More Creativity in a Can: When Thomas Dolby Met the Rhinestone Cowboy,"
    O'Reilly, 3/4/09.
    Ethan Hein, who I already quoted above, had this to say about sampling.
    DJs are to traditional instrumentalists as photographers are to painters. You can’t make blanket statements about the validity of the entire medium; you need to go on a case-by-case basis. DJs and photographers have a lower barrier to entry than cellists or painters but the path to mastery is every bit as long.

    We’ve become accustomed to lavish production values in our recorded music, and that comes at a steep price tag if you want live instruments and analog tape. The expensiveness of lavish, dense live recordings forces conservative choices. The effortlessness of sampling leads to more risk taking, more experimentation, more innovation. Also more amateurish nonsense, but that’s the nature of the beast. A low penalty for failure is a necessary precondition for success. "Copyright Criminals," Ethan Hein's Blog, 1/25/10.
    In summary, music technology appears to be either a positive (allowing more people to create music) or, at worst, a neutral (delivering music that may not be artistic, but isn't the fault of the technology).

    Is it bad that technology enables people who might not have talents in the traditional sense to make music? No. If "untalented" people create musical careers because the technology provides a "crutch," then so be it. If the quality of music has gone down as a result of production tricks, then perhaps the solution is to provide exposure to a broader range of musical influences, which does appear to be happening.

    Suzanne Lainson
    @slainson on Twitter

    UPDATE, 1/30/10
    Jazz guitarist Pat Metheny is going to tour with an orchestra of 40 musical robots. They are specially created musical machines which he programmed to play.
    Not only does the visual spectacle of robots playing along with Metheny’s always-impressive guitar work hypnotize the viewer, but it sounds great for the same reason live orchestras sound so much better than CDs: They’re essentially 100-point surround sound speaker systems housed in a massive acoustic space with its own resonances, and no home theater (well, no home theater without robot or human performers) can duplicate that sound. ...

    These musicians may be machines, but their performance varies significantly each time. “Even if you wanted it to be exactly the same every time, it’s not,” said Metheny, adding that subtle variations are caused by the robots’ mechanics, timing and the room in which the machines are playing — and that he can toggle musical parts between the players to switch things up. "Robot Band Backs Pat Metheny on Orchestrion Tour," wired.com, 1/28/10


    1. This is excellent.

      One of the best compilations I have seen of insightful thoughts about the use of technology in music production, and whether such music is as valuable as music done on the traditional way.

      I am a musician who started out playing acoustic guitar in coffeehouses and clubs in the 70s. I moved to MIDI and sampling synthesizers as soon as they were remotely affordable to the average person, in 1985.

      I have had lots of thoughts about whether I was now "cheating" by using a gorgeous cello from a sampling synthesizer in my recordings even though I did not put in the years necessary to learn to actually play the cello.

      I think that once it is clear to most listeners how very EASY it is to produce a wonderful *sound* from these synthesizers, they won't be admiring your "technique and skill" at sound production any longer.

      (Yet perhaps only baby boomers and Gen X listeners are prone to admire such skill, since most of their lives it really DID take lots of practice to produce such a full and sophisticated sound in a recording, or by playing an acoustic instrument, not samples. Gen Y and the current teens more likely understand how Garageband and Live! works and what you can do dragging and dropping loops with a mouse, for example.)

      Which means that the differentiating factor will be the emotional payload it delivers, the ideas in the lyrics, and the creative use of the pure sound that raises the song to a higher level.

      However, listeners who just want a "beat" and a cool sound will have literally hundreds of thousands of "artists" to choose from who can create that with a few mouse clicks.

      To them, the digital artists they listen to will be nothing all that special. Because they know they could do it, too, and without much effort on their laptop, too.

    2. Andrew Bird does a great job of bridging classical-style music and looping technology. So he is exposing two potentially different audiences to each other.

    3. would a story written on papyrus sheets shipped from egypt with a quill pen plucked from a mighty american eagle be a better story than one initially written in Crayon on used napkins?

      the means don't necessarily matter.

    4. dvdherron,

      As long as there is a story, that's great.

      But to continue your analogy, today people are getting all excited about neat typographic effects and cool fonts...but there is not an original story there.

      In some cases it's gibberish. In most others it's just some common standard text they dragged in with the mouse in a cut-and-paste operation.

      But it's pretty to look at, thanks to the newest technologies.

    5. glenn, i don't think we're disagreeing.

      someone using a grand piano can make crap just like someone using garage band and auto tune. the same way someone could like something because it's new and slick and novel is the same way that someone could fetishize something because it's "pure" and "organic." my point is that the tools don't matter. the artist and his skill at making whatever he's attempting to make does.

    6. Suzanne,

      New music technology unlocks the creative music potential and passion in all of us (both non-musicians and musicians) without a traditional musical instrument and steep learning curve.

      New music technology will not replace professional musicians. It will give non-musicians a way to interactive with their favorite artists (rather than listening passively) and it will give artists a new way to express themselves musically and interact with their fans.

      The genie is out of the bottle. Let's welcome the genie with open arms.

      Dan for ZOOZbeat (a new technology musical instrument)

    7. ZOOZbeat,

      "New music technology will not replace professional musicians." I believe you meant professional performers. Even professional musicians, performers or not, benefit from "new music technology" because these techonlogies cut production costs.


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