Tuesday, 14 February 2017

The Changing Sound of Now

My recently published podcast, Electronic Oddities 38, was different to my usual podcasts in that it set out to demonstrate something. It set out to show how the sound of music changes over time, how new things become possible or in vogue musically which replace the old ones. Of course, in such a relatively short podcast of around two hours maximum it is not possible to give multiple examples or work out a fully comprehensive theory full of explained examples. One can only give a flavour of the idea. However, judging by the responses so far it seems that my basic point, in the rudimentary form I gave it, has been accepted.

The podcast journeys from The Who's 1971 track "Baba O'Riley", which features Pete Townshend's use of the Arp 2600, through various 1970s uses of electric organs and synthesizers from Pink Floyd's "On The Run" to the full 22 minute version of Kraftwerk's "Autobahn", Jean-Michel Jarre's airy analog in Oxygene 4 and David Bowie's krautrock homage, "Warszawa", into the 1980s where synthpop, formerly a sound never yet heard in popular music, took over in a hundred groups here represented by The Human League, Duran Duran, Scritti Politti and The Pet Shop Boys. Towards the end of the decade the influence of Hip Hop culture is hinted at in the tracks "I Need Love" by LL Cool J and "Buffalo Stance" by Neneh Cherry.

But its not just musical styles that are referred to here. Instrumentation here also plays a vital part of the story. This goes right from the first track with Townshend's use of the Arp, into the EMS Synthi used to perform the vital repeating arpeggio from "On The Run", through the specific sets ups of Kraftwerk and Jarre at the time and into the 1980s. The Human League track "Do Or Die" from their smash hit album "Dare" is notable for being the first record from the UK made with the new (at the time) Linndrum from Roger Linn and the producer of that record, the now sadly deceased British producer, Martin Rushent, had only a few days in which to learn how to program and make use of the machine before recording. The record wouldn't sound remotely the same without it. The same can be said of other 80s tracks I used. Duran Duran's "Save A Prayer" uses a Jupiter 8 sound for its opening riff, LL Cool J's whole song is a TR-808 and a Yamaha DX7. Enya's "Orinoco Flow" is the sound of a Roland D50 preset. Put simply, some songs here couldn't have sounded as they did before the things used to make them were invented.

Unfortunately, space precluded my podcast going beyond 1989 at the current time but some have already asked me about continuing the musical story into the 1990s and beyond. The story I had already told was one of a rock instrumentation, the set up of the first few songs I played from The Who, Deep Purple and Pink Floyd, becoming infected with electronics until, in fits and starts, a more purely electronic one becomes possible. It would be inauthentic and wooden to describe this as true across the board but acts like Kraftwerk or Jarre, which were pure electronic setups, led the way for others to follow suit and to consider electronics as their new band. Such people made acts like The Pet Shop Boys possible. The technology of the 1980s, paradigmatically represented by the DX7 and TR-808 of LL Cool J's "I Need Love", made music like his and that of a thousand empty synthpop songs possible. A new way to sound gave birth to a rebirth of the pop song of the 1960s. Back then it had been the sound of three minutes of guitars as songs were based in rock n roll. But in the 1980s this was re-invented with synths as synthpop, a totally different sonic palette. 

So if I am saying it was instruments that gave birth and rebirth to new sounding music what happened after the end of my story, after 1989? Well it seems to me that were I to continue telling the story we would move into the digital 90s when numerous new forms of dance music were tried and invented from Rave to Drum N Bass and Jungle. And let's not forget Trip Hop either. Already on the cusp of the 90s there had been a surge in Acid House based on a 1982 invention of Roland's called the TB-303. The sound of this synth, still heard today and either loved or loathed in equal measure, was the new toy to play with and it took a few years for urban beat makers to decide what to do with it. They decided to use it as the centerpiece of a track rather than as its understated bass support. Instruments such as these, which were relatively cheap and accessible not just to professional musicians but also kids in the street, started what would become a democratizing movement in music creation which led directly to the free for all that we see today.

But back to the 90s which I remember as a bit of a digital wasteground. Synthesizer purists today often disdain the 90s as the fashion in synths became for so-called digital romplers, synths with the heart and soul and heft of a warm analog sound removed from them. Often the music of this time can sound fake and cheesy whether that be the wave of New Jack Swing that rolled over us from America or, to my British ears, the urban forms of music which were using digital tools such as the mega-selling Korg M1. Its piano sound would become ubiquitous and annoying throughout the 90s. But there was also a backlash in popular music and a resurgence in guitar bands through the mid 90s as acts like Oasis and Blur rose to fame, the supposed antidote to tracks like the very digital sounding "Rhythm of The Night" by Corona. The problem with digital synths, and this is not just true of the 90s but they are a good example, is that they are too perfect, too accurate, too mathematical. Analog synths contain variation right down at the basic level of the waveform. Digital synths don't. Its a subtle difference but its there. And that changes what you hear.

There is an actor missing from our story so far and this is partly because it was not a feature of music or music-making that I was familiar with. This is the computer. While some had been using rudimentary computers since the 1980s (such as the Commodore 64 or the program Sound Designer, issued in 1984 and which would, in the end, become Pro Tools) many had not. I was one of the ones who had not but as we went into the 21st century everything would change. By the year 2000 Ableton Live and Propellerheads Reason software had been invented and issued for the first time. Software synthesizer plugins  and DAWs had been developed throughout the 90s and by 2000 we had Reaktor from Native Instruments, first issued in 1996 as Generator, which was an environment for creating your own software instruments and sound processing devices. 

Such tools (as well as earlier versions of what would become the Cubase and Logic Pro of today, invented in the late 80s and early 90s respectively) would fundamentally change how music sounded because they moved the focus of writing to a computer sequencer. Whereas before even musicians using synthesizers had still been players making a song according to sound and feel now they began increasingly to make it according to the computer timeline or, a new phenomenon, to simply be computer users who wanted to make music. I can play you a thousand songs from between 2000-2010 that are locked to the grid, as people call it. The influence of softwares like Live, and DAWs in general, not only allowed musical expression but also shaped it as well. They came not as neutral, uninterested parties but with their own inherent philosophies which were inscribed in what they would and would not let you do as well as in how they let you do it. When you have a grid to work to you work to it. You begin to count samples when what you are making your music with is basically just a fancy counting machine. And that's exactly what a computer is.

You might dispute my last claim but I would argue that people, even musicians, are often easily led and so people, even musicians, are much more likely to do the things that are easy to do rather than taking the effort of doing something that takes more imagination or effort or works against the grain of their tools. People are trainable and habitual and they can be molded by their environments. Plus we have to remember that with each new technology it does take some time for these things to mature and so the first uses of these things are unlikely to be the most innovative or the most striking. The first decade of the 21st century, the first proper, fully-fledged software decade, is full of very neat, precise, in the box music that feels somewhat inert, neutered, coiffured and its because now producers work to that grid on the screen. They worry about drawing neat curves in their softwares and how it looks on the screen. This is a fundamental change. Everything lines up and becomes symmetrical. Take a listen to the numerous popular tracks by Timbaland from this period for a perfect definition of this "in the box" electronic sound.

There is another podcast I did in the Electronic Oddities series and it was back in Episode 9. I called it "The Invention of Electronic Dance Music" and it was meant to be similarly educational as my most recent edition of the show was. It aimed to take dance music from the 1980s, the first genuinely made purely with modern electronic devices, but still with an old time player's sensibility and with no computers in sight, and to contrast its SOUND with the dance music we know from today. I challenge anyone to argue that that old stuff is not fuller, fresher, rawer, more alive and with more depth and soul than its modern, computerized counterparts. You can hear it in the beat AND in the sounds. The overall sonic effect is something much more engaging and effective in my ears. The trouble is it gets lost over time. People's ears get used to the new normal. They think things were always like this (or maybe they never knew anything else?). But it wasn't. As these two podcasts of mine show, when you compare and contrast you hear sonic change. To know where you are sonically, you need to know where we've been and where we came from. It puts where you are now in a necessary sonic perspective.

The Roland Jupiter 8, first issued in 1981.

And now we are in 2017. Since about 2010 or 2011 the tools have begun to change again and now electronic music makers have gone in several directions. Software still retains its fans (and DAWs retain their place as the go to recording device). Electronic avant-gardists Autechre, to the chagrin of some, have eschewed all hardware devices in favour of a software environment (Max/MSP) in which they can design unique and individual setups for themselves. They make a music with it that sounds like no other so maybe we can praise their determination and singularity of purpose. They have not been lazy users of software, content to go where it leads by default, but they have used it to further their own unique ideas. On the other hand, we have seen a resurgence of hardware and even of analog devices. Many manufacturers have jumped on this train and a new generation of kids have a multitude of relatively cheap devices to fiddle with. There is also a more expensive version of this based around modular synthesis, a thing which in many ways started the modern period of electronics itself in the mid to late sixties in the pioneering work of Moog and Buchla. Re-imagined in the mid 90s by Dieter Doepfer to a different standard as Eurorack, this form of doing synthesis has come from left field to emerge as a definitive scene within electronic music as a whole. It has led to many modern devices having CV and Gate ports added to their spec. This would never have happened in the 90s!

But there is a further thing to note about today and I leave you with this thought. This is that music is now ubiquitous itself. It is no longer confined to physical products one had to buy, borrow or steal that was made by professional musicians in expensive recording studios. More music is put online in one day than you could probably listen to in your whole life. We are literally drowning in the stuff and much of it is terrible. Much of it is sonic doodling, the effluvia of bored people. Music, aided by the technology which made it possible for anyone to make it by moving their finger across the glass screen of their mobile device on some app, is now everywhere. In many respects it has become worthless. Is it now also pointless too, now that anyone can do it and the most carefully produced piece of music is side by side with thumb jams and sonic afterthought, my latest noodle? Technology made it so anyone could make sounds, join them together and call it creative. But what happened to the ideas? Is music more than sounds?

Saturday, 4 February 2017

What Synthesists Want

It started off, as most things do with me, quite naively. It was then, as is quite proper for the Internet, completely misunderstood and someone chose to be so offended that they left. I had been looking at an article about the Nonlinear Labs C15 which is a software synthesizer designed by the founder of Native Instruments and the creator of Reaktor, Stefan Schmitt, that is essentially built inside its own custom controller. Thus, it has the power and flexibility of a software instrument but wants to beguile the person who can't put away their need for tactile control. It is advertised as being made for people who like playing musical keyboards and now has numerous demos provided by Federico Solazzo on the Nonlinear Labs website. You might be wondering why me looking at an online article about a curious synthesizer caused Internet outrage. It did so because, musing on what I'd seen, I then went to my Facebook group, Electronic Music Philosophy, and wanted to start a discussion and so I proposed, in the manner of a debating contest, that "the most powerful synthesizers available today are software synthesizers". I was referring to their possibilities, flexibility and "bang for the buck" qualities. It unleashed a deluge of commentary (and one person leaving the group).

Nonlinear Labs C15, a software synth in a box.

John Bowen, who was the first official Moog clinician before moving to work with Dave Smith in 1976 (he's responsible for pretty much all the Sequential Circuits presets thereafter) and later worked with Korg (he was product manager for the Wavestation and helped voice the Korg Z1), in the past few years designed and brought to market his own synthesizer called the Solaris. The Solaris, I saw advertised in one video I watched about it, was said to be a hardware synthesizer designed to be like a software one. This about face from the usual claims of synth manufacturers, a territory that is chock full of software designers telling you how much like hardware their digital plugin sounds, was jarring at the time and it stood out from the crowd of those hawking their products. It's what? Its a hardware synth that wants to emphasize how like software it is? I'm pretty sure I remember John Bowen saying this on a video I watched. This claim must surely have set all sorts of alarm bells ringing for some. I have never played a Solaris so I cannot comment on what it is like but I understand that it has some pleased owners. Some, so I read, were a bit baffled by its complexity.

The Solaris, designed by John Bowen

Perhaps the people in charge of Roland heard of the Solaris too. Bowen went through many iterations of the Solaris before he finally produced the one which would be the production version. So maybe somewhere in some dark room at the Roland headquarters in Japan some eagle-eyed soul saw this claim of being a hardware synth but with the functionality and features of a software one and a light bulb clicked on above their head. What Roland did was invent what they call ACB which stands for "analog circuit behavior". This is a fancy term for the modeling of all the componentry of an analog circuit in order to compile a digital recreation of it. This process is the basis of all the Roland Aira devices of the past few years as well as the Boutique recreations of the much more analog Jupiter 8, JX-3P and Juno-106 and the new flagship System 8. These are hardware devices which contain what are essentially soft synths. Indeed, the System 1 and System 8 synths use what are called by Roland "plug out" synths which can also be used as soft synths in a DAW environment. Its an interesting concept and in some contexts I'd have cause to criticize it. But not today.

The Roland System 8, essentially several soft synths in a custom case.

Autechre are a leading avantgarde electronic act beloved by many and with a hardcore fanbase of often tech savvy people. They have evolved to work exclusively with Max/MSP, a software platform which enables them to essentially build whatever devices they need. Thus, they have the flexibility to design a rig that is a custom fit for exactly what they want to do musically. In interviews they claim to have lost interest in hardware synthesizers with throwaway comments such as that they have not even bought a hardware instrument for at least 5 years. In this they are not like their fellow fan favourite of the electronic intelligentsia, Aphex Twin. He has a well known love for all things hardware and software. For Autechre, though, their move into software is simply led by their musical desires. As they have said, what they want to do can only be done if they can build their devices in a custom way from the ground up. Digital software is the only game in town for that. Autechre have said that they could not replicate in hardware the things they can do in software. Its food for thought when they are making music that many would regard as "cutting edge". In distinction to many electronic musicians like them today, you never see any pictures of Autechre posing with the latest hardware super synth or a giant modular rig. Their musical dictates have led them to some outwardly unimpressive code in a box. 

The above was just a few examples of developments in instrument design and usage from the present. As I write all three of the instrument types I named are current products and Autechre are going strong having toured and released a 5 part, over 4 hour long album in 2016. So I have been talking about the contemporary electronic music scene here. But, of course, this isn't the whole story. Yet its notable in an electronic music world that is more recently noted in headlines for its "return to analog" or even just to hardware that software platforms are still going strong. And I suspect there is a hidden multitude of software users out there. In 2009 Native Instruments launched their product Maschine, a groove-based software platform that destroyed the old hardware platform of the Akai MPC for a while. Akai have had to painfully reinvent the MPC as a result but now we find it has re-emerged as what is essentially a DAW in a stand alone box. It can be argued that the invention of Maschine was also a factor in Ableton's creation of Push, a pad controller for its Live software. All the power of Live or Maschine is in the box, as the modern parlance has it. The controllers are saps to the human need for a feeling of direct control over the machine. The same can be said for the recent development of so-called MPE controllers such as the Roli Seaboard or the Linnstrument. They are ways for modern players to catch up with the expressive potential of digital synthesis in the box.

Now although you may have been deceived into thinking by the previous five paragraphs that I'm here to big up software synthesis in this blog, you'd be wrong. I take no sides in any hardware/software battle  and much less in any analog/digital debate. I think those debates are pretty much pointless just as many people do. I think that electronic music is about sounds and any device that can produce sounds is alright by me. I am platform agnostic. This means that my original thought which presaged the debate that was had was heuristic and exploratory in intent. It was meant to tease out the issues and find out what was at stake. I think that people who make electronic music should think about this because it helps them to define where they want to go and what might be useful in doing that. Fortunately, the electronic music community is full of lots of thoughtful people who do exactly this in both physical and coded domains. There are Facebook groups for designers of hardware and software instruments and seemingly growing communities of electronic music makers who want to try their own hand at creating things custom built by them, for them. This is all to the good. 

But within that same community I divine that some lingering prejudices do remain. One, of course, is to value presence over absence, to value tactile physicality. This, I think, is why some come to the defence of hardware over software at any mention of the latter. Immediately, comments appear about the tactile nature of hardware, the fact that a certain user "just doesn't feel right" using a mouse and how its not the same or as much fun. I hear this. But I also note this isn't really a musical criterion. Its an ergonomic one and that doesn't mean its unimportant. It just means its not a musical criterion. Its nothing to do with sound or sonic possibility. Its to do with you as a person. I personally dislike touchscreens and I am profoundly annoyed by the recent moves to push this technology and make synthesis dependent on touching a screen. But if I heard music that had been created by others whilst touching screens it would be irrelevant to me. The touchscreen is not a musical issue in this respect but an ergonomic one for the person who uses a touch device or touch-enabled synthesizer. Some people in my debate mentioned how they disliked DJs on laptops but as a DJ who used a laptop and used CD players before that I can report that over 20 years of active research leads me to the conclusion that such people are the odd ones out because I never recall anyone mentioning it to me at a party or disco. I do recall lots of people laughing, dancing, smiling and generally having a sweaty and enjoyable time. As a listener you just experience sound. If you listen to analyze where it came from and critique it on the fly you're a very strange bird indeed. Especially at a disco.

In the course of the debate that my original comment initiated there were some insightful points and relevant comments. I had never meant to suggest that software synthesizers were the be all and end all. Such a statement would have been as dumb as saying the opposite. When talking about sound any and all sources are in play for they, together, constitute the whole of the possibilities. But we live in a finite world and so this necessitates choices. Some users of modular synthesizers, specifically Eurorack, wanted to argue that their modulars could go head to head with soft synths in the power, flexibility, functions and features stakes and hold their own. This might very well be true if you have a setup of Richard Devine proportions but how much did that cost and how much space is it taking up? There can be no doubt here that in software one can pack in features and functions (and expandability) in no space at all since its simply code. To replicate that physically would require a large wallet and a large space... and it wouldn't then be portable. (Richard Devine's live rig is much smaller than his studio setup.) You can now buy software that emulates Eurorack modular in any case and the only limitation is your CPU. In other places I have criticized a software like Softube Modular but now I find, in this context, that actually you can have modular synthesis but its in your computer and you don't need to worry about power rails blowing or rack rash.. or your wallet so much. Want another LFO? Just click and you've got one.

Softube Modular, which is an emulation of the Eurorack hardware format and some actual Eurorack manufacturers have licensed models of their modules.

So what do synthesists want? Well if the discussion that I started is any guide, and it may or may not be, they want functionality but not at any cost. They also want a certain sound quality... which shouldn't be confused with sound quality as an absolute. Some seem to want a kind of sound as opposed to "the best sound", whatever we decide that might be. (I think thats why people want Minimoogs, for their sound. In terms of mere functionality they are less appealing.) In my discussion some said digital plugins had the best sound possible whereas others said hardware couldn't be beaten for sound. Synthesists also seemed to want "musicality" which sounds very like an amorphous, subjectively-judged quality to me. Those who spoke most about musicality were those trying to make some point against software which, so it seemed, they thought was not as musical as something they could touch. 

Some synthesists conceded that, in terms of the most possibility for the least effort, software was clearly the king. There are numerous platforms (Reaktor and Max/MSP being just two) in which you can essentially design entire synth rigs to your own specifications. No hardware setup can match that since you are always stuck to the limitations of the hardware devices as they've been designed by others. But at the same time many noted that the limitations of a physical world are not bad. They are good. It is not necessarily the creative ideal that you have every function and feature at your fingertips for then you will simply achieve overload which is creatively destructive and you become a synth collector rather than a synth user. 

Some synthesists, and I have my suspicions that this might actually be a silent majority, wanted the convenience of a format in which you can save things, including the most complex of software patches. And your modular machine from the future can't do that. The same people wanted to live in a land that was not bound by physical limitation in the same way that a person with hardware is. These same synthesists wanted a device which could do additive, spectral, granular, formant and virtual analog synthesis types and have the ability to morph between the types on the fly. We are very much in the software realm here. 

In the end synthesists want a lot of different things and they aren't always the same. But this is good since, when it comes to sound, variety is strength and is the factor which makes music as a whole as interesting as it is. The cold, dull world would be the one in which all music was the same.

If you want to read the full unexpurgated discussion that inspires this blog, with comments supporting all sides, you'll need to join Electronic Music Philosophy. 

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Nazi-punchers of the World Unite

Much furore has been generated since an anonymous person in a hoody interrupted a TV interview that white supremacist, Richard Spencer, was giving on the occasion of Trump's inauguration. It was one small punch for a man, one giant punch for Mankind. But since then liberals have debated the rights and wrongs of punching Nazis and those with sympathies for Mr Spencer have accused the left of abrogating the rule of law and of being domestic terrorists advocating violence. They have, from my point of view, done this utterly disingenuously which is the way they usually do anything. But, you might be surprised to learn, I don't berate them for this. This is because there is one thing that those on the right get absolutely correct. They realize they are in a war and they are prepared to do whatever it takes to win it. 

One small punch for a man. One giant punch for Mankind.

I have mused on the Nazi punching for very nearly a couple of weeks now. First of all, like many, I find it funny. Who wouldn't land a blow for their beliefs, or against ones they regard as disreputable, if they could? You can be sure that many on the right would love to hurt someone on the left. Some even do. White domestic terrorists of the right wing persuasion are amongst America's most dangerous citizens. But let's be honest enough to say the reverse is true as well. Even whole religions have revenge narratives. The Book of Revelation, the last book of the Christian Bible, is a 22 chapter revenge narrative where all God's enemies are given a proper punching. Many Republicans, I'm sure, love it. But I'm sure many feminists, too, dream of the day that they can ram the patriarchy back down its own throat. These narratives are seen as being about justice but justice is often not much in vogue today. People seeking social justice are referred to as SJWs (social justice warriors) in a very deprecating way.

I look at this whole scene in a very historical way and I think that's the way we should look at it. A lot of people are called Nazis or fascists today. Some suggest Trump is. Others say Bannon definitely is and, certainly, reading quotes accredited to him it seems as if he wants to destroy civil society as we know it. Personally, I think that Trump doesn't really believe much at all. He is not a person of political conviction. He just believes in the aggrandizement of Donald Trump. He wants to build as many golden hotels with TRUMP on the top in 10 foot high letters as possible. He could care less about political ideology. This is not so for all the people on his staff, not least Bannon. The historical angle becomes useful when comparing these people to known and actual Nazis. As in the actual historical Nazis. We just went past the 84th anniversary of Hitler's rise to become Chancellor of Germany. It had taken him almost ten years to get there from his failed Beer Hall Putsch in Munich in 1923. 

What we see in an historical analysis of Hitler's rise is that he used fear and intimidation to achieve it along with a vigorous politically-motivated narrative. It was, in the parlance of today, very much "Germany First". That is to say that he wrapped his ideology in a flag and this is something a lot of fascists do. But its important to note that this is never what the actual agenda is. Behind the slogan are always lots of ugly truths just waiting to be discovered. Or put into action. Germany First meant death to Jews, people of various frowned upon sexualities and various differing creeds. It meant death or imprisonment for many simply for vocally disagreeing with it. For Germany to be first, it seems, others had to be exterminated. We know that there are those within the Trump administration who are very much more ideologically motivated than Donald Trump and they surely see a slam dunk when all the branches of government are being ruled by the same party at the present time. This is a time to put ideological ideas into action. Trump wants an Attorney General who was too racist to be made a judge and an education secretary who doesn't believe in public education. These are just two examples.

But its not this I'm primarily concerned with here. What I am concerned with is the other side, those who OPPOSE Trump. This side is more interesting because the very relevant question at this time is "What are they going to do about it?" In their rhetoric the Trump administration is Nazi, white supremacist and racist. This is not an exhaustive list. One can easily add corporatist to the list and probably misogynist too. How does one oppose such people? Does one oppose such people by being mealy-mouthed? Maybe one opposes such people by signing petitions? Maybe you oppose them by posting memes or being sarcastic about them or complaining about them in discussions with your friends? Maybe you oppose them by going on marches and holding up banners? Hey, maybe you oppose them by punching them!

But I wonder if the liberals have any balls. I wonder if they have any lines in the sand. I wonder this because, if they don't, I see them living in a right wing fascist state for a long time. Liberals are known for things like tolerance, understanding and freedom. But if you tolerate a white supremacist for too long, understand them and give them freedom then you may find that your fellow citizens of color are given the shitty end of the stick of life - as well as lots of other fringe elements in society too. Toleration, understanding and freedom are not absolute goods. They function only within boundaries. Absolute amounts of any of them become self-refuting. So I wonder where the liberal boundary lines are? But in wondering about the lines I wonder how real the lines are because a line that is not policed and vigorously defended is not a line at all. That means you have to put your neck on the line. Are there liberals prepared to put their neck on the line? There have, historically, been such people. Without the loss of millions of allied lives the world might today be run politically by the axis powers. Without people of color prepared to stand up to injustice and not bow the knee America today might still be racially segregated. If the Union hadn't fought maybe the Confederacy would be in power today. To the extent we have a knowledge of the past we know that political freedoms are not given. They are won and paid for in sacrifice and in blood.

In short, politics is a matter of confrontation. Those who want to conquer love pacifists for they care not for their morals. They only care to win. But do liberals care to win and what will they sacrifice to secure the win? Token gestures here and there are all well and good. We may note the Women's March recently and protest marches in various places about Trump. But that hasn't stopped Trump forging ahead with his plan with new Executive Orders seemingly every day. I foresee a time when some may have to choose between a peaceful family life for themselves or influencing the direction their country goes in. And please be in no doubt: it will take this. Political power is only achieved because no one stops it when someone takes a liberty. Ten people taking action is seen as extremism. Ten million people taking the same action is seen as a popular uprising. Numbers count here. I have long said to myself over many years that if you can put millions of pairs of feet on the street for whatever cause then you will get immediate action. But people have to be prepared to get off their behinds and take that action themselves. It is a strict numbers game. And you may have to count the cost. This is why I say liberals have a choice: peaceful family life or political freedom and justice for all. Be in no doubt: fascists are happy with apathy.

Richard Spencer, I think, deserves a punch. He is not a reasonable man. He is not open to debate to convince him that his white supremacist views are incompatible with more liberal points of view. He is a hate preacher who wants to disadvantage other sections of society based on a belief and based on something those he despises could not change anyway: their skin color. I have said repeatedly over the last ten days that if no one had opposed Hitler with violence (Hitler himself used violence to intimidate his opponents and help him achieve power in the first place) then we might all be talking German today. The analogy holds because Hitler started off as a vocal nobody but, left largely unchecked, his rise led to tens of millions of deaths. Who doesn't think that that should have been opposed vociferously and physically as soon as possible in the light of our historical knowledge today? Any right-minded person would. So if we see people with the same kind of ugly and discriminatory thinking today what should we do?

If you could go back in time would you kill Hitler? What about if you knew what some current person with political power would become? In the end you have to fight for what you believe in or cooperate by your silence in whatever agenda rules the day.

Make your choice but know this: there are no lines in the sand if you aren't prepared to defend them.

PS Some may say that violence begets violence and I don't necessarily disagree with that. However, the equation remains the same: where is the line and what are you prepared to do to defend it? Whilst actual, physical opponents exist some measure of response will always be about how much, and in what way, you are prepared to push back. Doing nothing is not a solution.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Electronic Music Maker Mottos

Recently I asked the members of Electronic Music Philosophy a question. The question was the following one: You are asked to write a motto for every electronic music maker to remember at all times. What motto do you give them? 

The question was, of course, a trick one. It was a trick question because, conceivably, every answer given could be right and every answer given could be questioned. There was no possible answer on which everyone would agree or to which everyone would have had to assent. It was, then, merely an excuse for a discussion. Or a blog. But then the question was set in the context of a Facebook group set up to encourage thought and discussion about electronic music. So its purpose was served. And I was very happy to find that I got quite a selection of answers. Some of these were jokey and not serious. These people are not yet aware that I never joke when I'm talking about electronic music but good humour dictates that I let their answers stand. Perhaps if they are reading this now they have become aware. It may be that as I now discuss some of the answers that were given I make a fool of myself by taking as serious something that wasn't. However, for the purposes of this blog I need to and so I will have to hope that the discussion overall is judged worthwhile at the end. Of course, before starting to argue against all the people in the group I'd like to thank them for taking the trouble at all. And now I'm going to tell you why your mottos were all wrong.

There were some mottos that suggested that what was required was industry or effort. Examples of this would be "just keep patchin ooooon," "Always do more than the machines" and "Get back to work". But I question whether electronic music is about work or effort. Of course, many will say that it is. They will point out that its only when you work that the synapses can start to fire and ideas take shape. By working you start to put your habits to work and enable what you are thinking to take effect. But yet it remains the case that you can just have an idea and bring it to life relatively simply. I myself use a kind of inspirational idea of music in practice. It remains a mystery to me why what I do that I like for an extended period thereafter is "good" and why other things I've done are "bad". But I know it has nothing to do with effort for often I have barely made any but the results are fine. Other times (a few!) I've made lots and it isn't. I cannot distinguish between my good pieces and bad ones on the basis of some kind of effort to results ratio. I doubt anyone can.

Perhaps the polar opposite of the "hard work" mentality in the answers given was the one which praised thinking. Examples here are "Get quiet and think," Do not forget to listen," "Start by silence" and "study music". Of course, you might expect that I have more sympathy with such answers but not simply so. Now I am never going to write in this blog that you shouldn't think in general terms but I am going to ask what you should be thinking about. If this thinking is a mere stroking of your musical egos then I am more firmly against it. Thinking is your opportunity to not do what you always do or what you want to do or what you might like as a result. Thinking is your chance to design an idea or a technique or a strategy for something you haven't done before and don't necessarily know the outcome to. So I'm more against the kind of thinking which studies conventions or enshrines ways of working that either the musical body as a whole or you yourself have canonized and more in favour of using thinking to think of new ways for you to do things. If you are going to think, don't waste it.

One idea which cropped up in the answers I was definitely against. This was the idea that you should do something you will like. No person who reads and is stimulated by reading John Cage can go along with this. Examples here are "Make the music you want to hear" and "Make music you love and others will love it too". The second idea there I simply don't believe not least because very many people make very private music. This is not least in that the internal sense of the music they make is very attuned to a particular person, the one who made it. It may not have been made to be widely liked for, in that, it loses the sense of being the music of a single soul that created it. Music is not simply communication nor is it simply made to amuse or entertain others. And, to be honest, I'm not sure if it should even be made "to be loved" at all in the first place. I also absolutely don't think we should be making what we want to hear. In fact, I think the opposite. I think that is a lot of the problem with why many hit a roadblock when making music. They want to make something they would like. On the contrary, I say that you should surprise yourself. You should make something you might not like and then challenge yourself to change so that you can come to like it. Music making is not ego stroking. It is consciousness expanding.

Some responses I got I especially liked. These are because they were both thoughtful and enigmatic in themselves. They challenged me and made me think about them. This is exactly the kind of answer I was hoping for. So "the more you think about music, the less you feel it" intrigued me because it suggested that something not necessarily cognitive, feeling, perhaps intuition, was important. And I couldn't agree more here. Thinking is one thing and has its uses, as mentioned above, but there are other human things which are no less important. Feeling or mood or intuition are some of these things. And this is nothing to do with knowledge or logic. It is allowing yourself to be guided, giving up micro-control. In a world when so much of music and so many music discussions are dominated by ideas of professionalism or what is the "right" way to do things I want to be that guy who constantly says there is no right way. Following a feeling or just doing something at random are equally as valid. There is no optimum place to put your speakers. There is no ideal way to use compression. There are just people who do things and sonic results. Stop getting bogged down in the idea music is about knowledge and just feel. Then have the confidence to go where your feelings take you. You cannot go wrong because there is no wrong.

Some of this attitude was mirrored in a number of answers, I'm happy to say. A number of people talked about breaking rules which is both good and bad in my view. Its good that they want to break them and advise others to do the same but its bad that they ever thought there were any rules to begin with. Of course, most people when getting into some interest start off very straight and play according to what the rules of their particular game appear to be. I remember the first music I made. It was a carbon copy of things I liked informed by reading articles in Sound on Sound magazine about what the right way to do things was (or the right way in 1985 when I started buying it). But the resulting music was a very bad, unfeeling, join the dots, kind of copy of the things I liked, things I had merely tried to imitate. In layman's terms, it was utter crap. I thought about this for years and had a couple of periods of doing nothing at all, trying to figure out why it was so dull and stilted. And then it hit me that I was trying to conform to someone else's ideas. Or even a whole industry's. I stopped buying Sound on Sound or, indeed, paying attention to what others thought was right. I started trying to do what I felt and disregarded any rules. Indeed, I tried to forget anyone else had any. That's when I started to get somewhere. So yes, Ian Haygreen, your answer "Everything's permissible. Including the kitchen sink" is absolutely correct! 

I didn't answer my own question when I made it. I wanted to see what everyone else said and then use a blog to set mine out. So I didn't answer because to do so would have stolen my thunder here. The answer I would give, which is equally as wrong and as challengeable as everyone else's, is "Be interesting and explore something". I say this because, first, it is meant to be a motto which is a kind of guiding thought or direction in which to head and I think we all need those. Without them we are simply inert. But I also think that because I think music should be about something. This can be an idea, an experiment, a feeling, a mood, or anything that can be explored musically, that is, in sound. So my motto is giving impetus and direction. But its also giving a purpose and a standard, its saying that you should aim for something, try to do what you are capable of and not stay in a comfort zone. "Be interesting and explore something" is about taking a risk and perhaps even getting into trouble. 

Because electronic music shouldn't be safe, right?

Friday, 6 January 2017

Electronic Music Genius?

There was controversy and debate, some of it a little feisty, in my Facebook group, Electronic Music Philosophy, last night when one member, Gavin McCabe, brought up the notion of "genius" in electronic music and, specifically, the question of if there are any geniuses in the world of electronic music to date. Electronic music in general is a music given birth to in the 20th Century and was naturally dependent on the discovery and human exploitation of electricity and its deployment domestically in human towns and cities. But once that was done artistically-minded people interested in sound began to utilize it. However, it was not until the developments of the 1960s, by which time many leading industrial countries had one or more "radiophonic" studios equipped to explore and exploit electronic sound possibilities, that the first commercially commissioned purely electronic recordings made for entertainment and enjoyment by record companies started to be made. Sometimes thought to be the first here is Silver Apples of The Moon by Morton Subotnick. This recording was commissioned in 1967 by Nonesuch/Elektra Records meaning that the official period of commercial electronic music is 50 years in this year of 2017. This is a nice round figure over which to assess the question of genius within electronic music and to ask if it exists at all and, if so, in whom.

One thing I immediately noticed upon the asking of the original question in the Facebook group, as responses started to stack up, was that some people seemed to simply name people they liked. In any discussion of this nature you will always get people taking sides and cheerleading for their favorites. Our world has become a very partisan place and it seems to me that its often the nature of the case that people run to the barricades to support their favorites without necessarily knowing why or having any sort of reasonable or rhetorical case for supporting their choice. But if these people had had to make a case for why when they chose their genius then maybe there would have been less suggestions. Nevertheless, if we are to talk about "genius" at all then it must be the case that we can name the criteria of genius and thus apply them to any suggested candidates in a meaningful way. "I think X is a genius because I like them" is never going to fly. This same strategy, it seems to me, is also a way to undercut those who say that genius doesn't exist. Well, again, it can exist if we want to take various qualities or achievements, draw them up as criteria and call the resulting thing "genius".

This strategy is to side step the arguments (of which there seemed to be quite a few) that "genius doesn't exist". Others argued that even if we could name something "genius" then it wasn't "one dimensional" and it didn't allow or mandate ranking. Now aside from the fact that musicians have been ranked on a weekly basis in various charts from the 1950s onwards (and not always based on sales), no one is necessarily suggesting a "ranking of the geniuses" anyway. As already stated, it must surely be an entirely legitimate activity to survey the history of a field and pull out the most notable figures. We can call these people geniuses or we can call them something else as suits our taste. The fact remains that such a process, I think, can be done and might even have some worth for the understanding of the field of electronic music as a whole. I am very fortunate in that this group I started, which now has over 400 members, contains some very thoughtful and knowledgeable people. Utilizing their knowledge and intelligence a question about genius in electronic music could have numerous heuristic uses. One such use could be creating a network of influences and connections so that we could better see how electronic music has been invented and how it has metamorphosized and developed during its history. This could be very useful, instructive and suggestive of further electronic music in the future.

And so if we are going to ask this question at all then we need to fill out the notion of genius with some ideas. I am going to take a stab at this in an electronic music context. I think that, firstly, a genius must demonstrate influence beyond their own work. So having "a successful career" as a self-contained artist is not enough here. What you do and have done must manifestly affect how others think about the discipline. I think they should be a person who is running ahead of the pack of their peers rather than following or making no impact. So here people known to be experimentalists, people having one idea after another and inventing new ways and techniques to do things come to the fore. Extending that idea, I think that a genius, as I'm trying to define it here, must be doing something that others aren't doing so that, in some way, they extend and expand the artistic field of expression or ideas of what even counts as the art form of electronic music. This might also be called, in that horrible phrase, thinking outside the box.  Added to this could be the idea of those who operate with such forward thinking notions that there is not currently the equipment available for these people to express themselves as they envisage. And so they create their own equipment or have it commissioned to be made. There are other criteria that we could probably think of to begin to construct a disciplinary matrix of genius to measure electronic music practitioners against. Perhaps you can think of others too but this is my preliminary attempt.

So who gets captured in my genius net thinking this way? Well Kraftwerk do. Kraftwerk affected how others thought about electronic music and, all to their credit, different kinds of people too, both urban black American musicians who would go on to make Electro and Techno and white English guys who wanted to be pop stars like OMD. They also had equipment commissioned to be made as what they wanted to do didn't exist at the time. It stands to reason, then, that they were having ideas that others weren't. So my genius matrix is suggesting very strongly that there was some genius in Kraftwerk. But that same matrix also seems to knock out many of the names that were added to a semi-serious poll I started to name the geniuses of electronic music in the same Facebook group. Trent Reznor, for example, is a very famous electronic music. His career is successful and he has even won awards such as an Oscar and Grammys. His studio is an aladdin's cave of equipment. I would even count myself a fan. But is his work influencing others, changing how people think about the discipline and helping to birth new forms of electronic music? Compared to Kraftwerk the answer must be no and my matrix of criteria helps us to see that. Thus we can judge, critique and compare people.


Embedded within Gavin McCabe's original question was the notion of a "scenius" as opposed to a genius, a term used by Brian Eno who has a better case than most for having the term "genius" applied to himself. This takes the focus of innovative and extraordinary contribution and locates it not at the personal level, which a number of people would be against for political reasons, and instead locates it at the community level. The idea here is that all the things we might want to praise and take note of in a personal connection actually occur in communities. No one person originates ex nihilo. Rather, it is the case that people are nodes on a network and they progress together. One individual may have an idea but it is the fertility of the respective time and place in which ideas grow. So Detroit in the early 80s which birthed Techno or Berlin in the late 60s which birthed various forms of Kosmische and eventually Berlin School or Bristol, England, in the late 80s and early 90s which gave us various forms of urban beat music through the collective of artists called The Wild Bunch who would become Massive Attack, producer Nellee Hooper and performer Tricky as well. Early Portishead were also influenced by this scene. You will be able to think of lots of other communities like this too.

                                             Brian Eno in 1973

I have a lot of time for this idea for it has a lot to recommend it. But in the end I don't see the need to make one choice or the other. The business of mapping the connections between electronic music practitioners can involve noting the most vital and creative scenes but also the main players within them. Another marker of a genius as opposed to a scenius could also be people who move beyond their immediate circumstances into others but with the same level of influence and activity. A good example here is Brian Eno himself who has worked and recorded in numerous different scenarios with equal success from working with German krautrockers in the mid 70s such as Harmonia (which contained Cluster members Roedelius and Moebius as well as ex-Kraftwerk and Neu! guitarist, Michael Rother) to working with true genius David Bowie and even cod rockers, U2. And that is without mentioning his own work, influenced by others as I'm sure he would be the first to admit, in the world of ambient music. So what I am saying is that we can note the individual contributions of a figure like Eno but also note the places he has been and the people he came into contact with. We don't need to choose between genius and scenius because we can map both in an effort to understand the whole.

In the end, an interest in mapping either phenomena is based on wanting a wider field of understanding for the discipline of electronic music with which you are involved. This is both important and necessary in order to understand the context in which electronic music is taking place and the places it has been before. Electronic music, as I have previously noted, is supremely a music of both possibility and ideas for when you turn the electricity on and direct it through many various devices things become possible that formerly were not and, depending on your setup and desired outcomes, not necessarily with any great stability or predictability. Human beings, as one of their notable traits, are copyists. Indeed, we learn all the languages we speak by imitation of the sounds we hear others making and, through our intelligence, we learn to manipulate these things for our own purposes and advantages. And so learning from one another comes naturally to us. This, I think, demonstrates that all progress and learning is communitarian in origin - it relies on others - but, at the same time, it doesn't deny the possibility of the especially gifted or notable individual. I'm happy to agree that the quite short history of electronic music, commercial or not, has contained both fertile sceniuses and possibly one or two geniuses as well. But who they are and which made the most difference will be a matter of a hundred Internet arguments. Or maybe even more than that.

But there is nothing wrong with that. Progress comes through interaction with others. That's why I started a Facebook group called "Electronic Music Philosophy" at all.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Whose Afraid of The Art of Noises?

One of the foremost music producers of the 1980s was the British musician and producer, Trevor Horn. Horn, known for his utter fastidiousness and attention to detail, first came to prominence with The Buggles, briefly joined Yes and then settled into a role producing the most sumptuous, crafted pop of the decade. ABC's The Lexicon of Love, The Pet Shops Boys's Introspective and Yes's 90125 are all examples of his work as are Relax by Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Duel by Propaganda and Slave To The Rhythm by Grace Jones. Between 1983 and 1985 Horn could do no wrong. He was named Producer of the Year in two of those three years and, besides much of the stuff I've mentioned here, he also managed to sign and be involved with a band called The Art of Noise. How much he was involved with them is now a matter of dispute as the team Horn had put together, Anne Dudley, programmer J.J. Jeczalik and Gary Langan, would acrimoniously split with him and the pretentious journalist, Paul Morley, who, on his own admission, had forced his way into the collective as he liked the name so much. 

The Art of Noise did have some high points. Wikipedia describes them as an "avant-garde" group. Their name was taken from a pamphlet written in 1913 by an Italian futurist painter called Luigi Russolo, "The Art of Noises". (Jeczalik had insisted The Art of Noise dropped the "s".) Perhaps their best album (because most original) is their first, Whose Afraid of The Art of Noise? which contains their well known tracks Beat Box, Close (To The Edit) and Moments in Love. Their sound had first appeared in the Yes album 90125 as the core workers in the group had been the team Horn had put together to help him with his production work. It was based around use of sounds or noises and facilitated by the Fairlight computer which enabled sounds to be input and then manipulated to musical purposes. Horn and The Art of Noise weren't the only ones doing this at that time though. Peter Gabriel and Jean-Michel Jarre were amongst others enthusiastically embracing this technology. The 1980s was really when the sampling revolution took hold as devices were invented which made the tape manipulations of earlier decades of the 20th century obsolete.

Quite what Luigi Russolo would have made of this himself we will never know but we can read his futurist manifesto on the future of music and make an educated guess. As stated above, Russolo himself was a painter and the immediate temptation is to imagine that he thought of sound much as he thought of paints, things to be mixed and used on a canvas in innumerable combinations to create textures and mixtures as yet unthought of. This seems to be the way he is thinking when he writes in The Art of Noises that "We must break at all costs from this restrictive circle of pure sounds (by which he meant the conventional orchestra) and conquer the infinite variety of noise-sounds." This thought in itself gives away at least one motivating factor in Russolo's writing on this subject: he conceives of music in terms of its constituent parts, as sounds. I think this is a very important thing to note and probably more so then the actual text of The Art of Noises, although there is much in it that is noteworthy too. Music is made up of sounds. It is to me a revolutionary thought and something that I think needs to be thought about and meditated on again and again by all musicians. 

But what of the content of The Art of Noises itself? Well, the pamphlet is in the literary form of a letter addressed to an acquaintance of Russolo's and only takes about 25 minutes to read. Its not long but a concise argument for how music should proceed in the future and what it should focus on. In even such a brief treatise Russolo manages to criticize a music he sees as standing still based on orchestral sounds a number of times and seems very animated that musical art should not mark time but move forward. This lazy fixation with conventional sounds Russolo links back to The Greeks "with their musical theory mathematically determined by Pythagoras, according to which only some consonant intervals were admitted." This, according to Russolo, has "limited the domain of music until now and made almost impossible the harmony they were unaware of." What strikes me about this description is Russolo's recognition that any definition of canonical sounds or sound-making devices (such as the instruments of the orchestra) leaves out a whole world of sounds. Why should they not find musical uses too? Russolo perceives of a greater harmony than any traditional orchestra is capable of.

This strikes a suitably disharmonic chord with me for in this manifesto for noisy music from over a century ago I see still today glimmers of what a truly avant-garde, forward-thinking and exploratory, experimental music should be: a study of sound. Russolo already here talks about "the timbre that characterizes and distinguishes" sounds and much of the treatise is about bringing this to the fore and using it musically. And it is not a matter of taste either for as he says:

"Some will object that noise is necessarily unpleasant to the ear. The objection is futile, and I don't intend to refute it, to enumerate all the delicate noises that give pleasant sensation. To convince you of the surprising variety of noises, I will mention thunder, wind, cascades, rivers, streams, leaves, a horse trotting away, the starts and jumps of a carriage on the pavement, the white solemn breathing of a city at night, all the noises made by feline and domestic animals and all those a man's mouth can make without talking or singing."

This is, of course, but a short catalogue of many other possibilities. Russolo's point is that noises previously thought of as "unmusical" are not simply "unpleasant" and much less undesirable. His point is that some noises are pleasant in any case, if not currently connected with musical purposes, and that the musical uses of sounds stretch further than a tiny number of canonized instruments and the sounds they can make. This latter point was the thing The Art of Noise took up in their work utilizing the possibilities of the Fairlight to integrate these so-called non-musical sounds into their productions. Such sampling is today a commonplace occurrence and can be done on numerous devices or any home computer device with suitable software installed. But it is not the case that Russolo sees the future of music as the reproduction of noises in the environment for he goes further than reproduction. Indeed, he explicitly warns that "the art of noises must not be limited to a mere imitative reproduction". This opens the door to the creation of noises - new sounds!

It is hard to read this as anything new when you are reading it in 2016. There are numerous devices available now which can make "new sounds" at the push of a button. If you have the Absynth software synthesizer you will know it has a button at the bottom of its interface labeled "Mutate". Push it and one of the synth's presets will be mutated by an amount of random mutation that you have set by moving two sliders. You could push this button forever getting an endless supply of variations on the sound you started with. Or you could switch to another sound as starting point and get another limitless set. But for Russolo such a device would have been a far off dream. But what he had that a piece of fancy technology today does not have is an imagination and some ideas. I find this passage from The Art of Noises particularly inspiring:

"Noise accompanies every manifestation of our life. Noise is familiar to us. Noise has the power to bring us back to life. On the other hand, sound, foreign to life, always a musical, outside thing, an occasional element, has come to strike our ears no more than an overly familiar face does our eye. Noise, gushing confusely and irregularly out of life, is never totally revealed to us and it keeps in store for us innumerable surprises for our benefit. We feel certain that in selecting and coordinating all noises we will enrich men with a voluptuousness they did not expect."

This paragraph is fairly dripping with the idea that in a music of noises is a vitality that will not be denied. I thought of this paragraph when reading a question that was recently posed in my Facebook group, Electronic Music Philosophy. There someone recently asked about avant-garde music and what the other members of the group thought it was. I think that what Luigi Russolo talks about is, a music focused on noises and sound. A music that wants to explore timbre, that is avant-garde. It may be that such a music is not recognized by some even as music. And there's nothing at all wrong with that. Such a music should not feel comfortable with the popular praises or the disguises of mainstream thinking and ideas. It should aim to serve as a stumbling block for those who cannot see past their conventions. Even today in 2016 with our synths with "mutate" buttons a music of noises is yet to fully build on the impact that people such as Russolo himself made.

And so we come to the conclusion of The Art of Noises and its worth quoting many of Russolo's main points in his own words:

1. "We must enlarge and enrich more and more the domain of musical sounds... This need and tendency can be totally realized only through the joining and substituting of noises to and for musical sounds."

2. "We must replace the limited variety of timbres of orchestral instruments by the infinite variety of timbres of noises obtained through special mechanisms."

3. "The musician's sensibility, once he is rid of facile, traditional rhythms, will find in the domain of noises the means of development and renewal, an easy task, since each noise offers us the union of the most diverse rhythms as well as its dominant one."

4. "Each noise possesses among its irregular vibrations a predominant basic pitch. This will make it easy to obtain, while building instruments meant to product this very sound, a very wide variety of pitches, half-pitches and quarter-pitches. The variety of pitches will not deprive each noise of its characteristic timbre but, rather, increase its range."

6. "This new orchestra will produce the most complex and newest sonic emotions, not through a succession of imitative noises reproducing life, but rather through a fantastic association of those varied sounds."

7. "The variety of noises is infinite... We will not have to imitate these noises but rather to combine them according to our artistic fantasy." 

8. "We invite all the truly gifted and bold young musicians to analyze all noises so as to understand their different composing rhythms, their main and their secondary pitches. Comparing these noise sounds to other sounds they will realize how the latter are more varied than the former. Thus the comprehension, the taste, and the passion for noises will be developed. Our expanded sensibility will gain futurist ears as it already has futurist eyes. In a few years, the engines of our industrial cities will be skillfully tuned so that every factory is turned into an intoxicating orchestra of noises."

Recently when looking through a Facebook group focused on modular synths I came across a person who had asked a question of the group. He was new to modular synthesis but had noticed in his researches that, to paraphrase, "not much music of the song variety" seemed to be made with this equipment. He had presented his question as one looking to move forward in his own music making in equipment terms and yet it seemed that his thinking about music had not similarly been given the necessary kick from behind to accompany this. Perhaps this was an example of a phenomenon I have covered before - the fixation on equipment. If so, it would be a perfect example of how fixation with things takes over and stunts the growth of ideas which is vital to a forward-thinking musical outlook. Here was a man who wanted to get hold of new equipment, modern technology the likes of which many electronic pioneers would have begged for, but he wanted to restrict it to fairly basic ideas of what music even was. It did not even occur to him that with new equipment he could explore new ideas or maybe even forget the things he thought and go off down some dark, musical alley and find himself a new set of ideas.

Such a person was Luigi Russolo, the futurist painter with an interest in future music. His manifesto for enriching, expanding and learning from a new palette of sounds is still relevant to music makers today. This is the area in which I think avant-garde composers and music makers should be focusing on, particularly in the electronic arena with which I am primarily concerned. It is pitched at a level far below concerns with melody or counterpoint or harmony. It is focused on sounds and noises themselves in all their difference and similarity, in all their possibilities for combination, comparison and juxtaposition. To make such music will be risky. It will be to be seen as maybe even being unmusical. But, especially with all the tools now at our disposal, it is a task that we electronic music makers would be irresponsible to ignore. 

The art of noises is still the future.

Monday, 19 December 2016

Making Electronic Music

Today's blog intends to be quite practical. My subject is composing electronic music but, immediately, I find myself in the middle of a quandary. Composing is quite an old word, first no doubt applied to orchestra style music, which means to write music. But my pre-reflective thoughts on how electronic music is made make me doubt if its an appropriate one. Is electronic music in our day and age "composed"? Is it even written? These are quite classical notions about how one goes about creating pieces of music and are an example of how past, conventional notions get carried forward without being quite appropriate. The sense is of something done with aforethought and yet, it seems to me, for many, including myself, this is not how they make electronic music at all.

Jean-Michel Jarre has an array of gear of all types yet strikes you as "a composer" of electronic music in a quite traditional way.

Of course, I am sure that there are those who, to all intents and purposes, imagine that they are doing classical composing. Such people will work note by note, probably writing out a score in traditional musical notation, for the purposes of expressly producing a musical score. This, after all, is what composing music is if you think like this. This is traditional music with an electronic sound palette. People doing this probably use traditional musical keyboards. But I cannot imagine that this involves many people. How does one score an acid bassline or an abstract, atonal sound collage? Working the classical way, then, tends to suggest limited styles of music. But there are plenty of non-classical, citizen electronic musicians in cities across the globe who know nothing about the musical theory this might require. Such people would not know their A flat minor from their G sharp major. Nor would they care to know since the consequences of any difference would never have arisen in any music they have ever made on an electronic device.

So immediately something I've highlighted in previous blogs comes to the fore. This is that whatever modern electronic music is it is something taken out of the hands of professionals schooled in an old fashioned discipline. Require someone playing with samples on some app on an iPad to learn musical notation or take lessons in harmony and counterpoint and you will be greeted by a blank stare of bewilderment. This will likely not only be because they have little grasp of what is being asked of them but also because it will be totally inappropriate to what it is they are doing. There are lots of words we could use to describe most electronic music these days (which I like to refer to as citizen electronics). Instinctive, etherial and temporary are just some of these. I venture to suggest that much music made with electronics today is merely "music of the moment," as it were. Developments in both media and culture have created a landscape in which music makers have been encouraged to make their collection of sounds, post it somewhere, and then move on.

Of course, I don't just put this down to "media and culture". People generally seem to have become more momentary. A lot of music these days isn't even formal pieces of music at all. Its You Tube jams (or their equivalent elsewhere). In some ways this is analogous to what I imagine in former times must have been sing-a-longs or piano playing in the front room at home. The thing is that these days we have sound and video recorders in our hands, bags or pockets and so every moment has the potential to be captured. So much electronic music today isn't "a song I have composed". Instead, its "three minutes of me twiddling knobs or moving my fingers across a screen not to be taken too seriously". The fact that others post numerous tracks or videos like this encourages others to do the same. A culture is built up.

Some people sniff at this. (I've had replies to previous blogs where apparently trained musicians have bemoaned the fact that today many music makers know nothing about music theory.) They see it as a degrading direction for music to take. They see old skills and an appropriate seriousness being whittled away by a very modern, soundbite-obsessed triviality made up of music for people with 30 second attention spans. What cannot be doubted is that electronic music devices, the culture they are used in and the opportunities new technologies have brought, democratizing and de-professionalizing music making in the process, have changed what music is and how it is seen today. Witness the almost daily requests for "free music" these days as one consequence of this. There is now so much "music" in the world that in many places it is almost a worthless commodity.

Such consequences are not my topic for today though and so we must merely note this and move on, asking how this citizen's electronic music is made instead. One immediate way that comes to mind is looping. Looping has been greatly facilitated and encouraged by new technologies, both hardware and software, and these have helped not just pure electronics players but people such as guitarists as well. But looping, particularly of the electronics kind such as we find in a software like Ableton Live, does tend to produce certain types of songs and it encourages you to think of a musical work as merely the building and layering of loops or phrases (obviously). A method, a habit, is encouraged. Other softwares, encouraged by Ableton's success no doubt, have similar phrase looping or block-building capabilities. Of course, the idea of a musical phrase is itself not new but people are lazy, habit-forming. It is very easy to "go with the flow". In a world where there were few musicians about this wouldn't be a problem. But what about a highly technological world in which millions of people are making music the same way and all posting it to the Internet? Differentiating yourself, creating a unique musical identity, becomes an issue.

Creating loops and clips in Ableton Live.

Another way I think much electronic music is made today is somewhat by instinct or "by feelz" to use the vernacular of our time. What's more, saying it is "made", a rather vulgar but more appropriate description than "written" or "composed" perhaps, is probably the best we can do. Electronic music today can be swiping your fingers across touchscreens on computer programs (or hardware devices like kaossilators). It can be generating static or high-pitched squeals from electronic circuits that are either hacked or re-purposed lab equipment. It can be be wiring and re-wiring very scientific looking things that don't, at first glance, seem very musical at all. Its hard to say that music is composed or written this way. Such devices do not sit easily within such a description. Instead, its seems its much more the case the music made in such ways is about some connection between the user of the equipment and the equipment used. Its about creating a moment or a feeling, capturing something that only existed there and then. This is the opposite of sitting down intending to write some objective thing. This, indeed, is subjectivism.

There can be no doubt that today a citizen's electronic music has been established. This was something that, a few decades ago, the electronic composer Morton Subotnick foresaw, although it is doubtful he saw it happening so soon. Today almost anyone with only a few units of their local currency can buy some device or program and make a passable attempt at a piece of electronic music. To some, this is progress pure and simple. But it changes things. In former times music making was based on skill and training in quite a formal way. Even those not professionalized as musicians or composers had need to train themselves to do what they did in non-formal contexts. But today anyone can walk into a store or log into an online shop and purchase devices that come with little training or musical learning required. I think that many of the people who do this don't get any musical training or do any musical learning either once they have what they wanted. What is happening here is not an extension of some professional discipline at all. It is as simple as someone's untutored musical expression.

Would you describe making music on the Korg Kaossilator Pro as "composing" or "writing"?

Sometimes this results in new things or adaptations of old ones. "Finger drumming" on electronic pads would be a case in point here. Specifically technological developments would be things like turntablism or the playing of touch surfaces. There are improvisational and "once only" elements to these things. They are live performances captured rather than the rote playing of something purposefully and studiously written or composed. What's more, when one engineers in random elements or even takes the detailed direction of the music out of the performer's hands with complex or random sequencers, such as is possible on modular systems, for example, then distance starts to open up between the music maker and the music made. It then becomes legitimate to ask if we are even composers anymore or more like conductors deciding a broad direction or a feel but not responsible personally for every decision and every sound. It used to be quite simple. A composer wrote a score and a musician read the score and replicated it on their instrument. Today someone might switch on a thing, set up various parameters, let it run for a length of time, and then switch it off again, having captured the sounds it made in between. Its not the same thing. But both could sound equally musical.

Compositional tool or sonic playtime?

I'll be honest that I'm more than a little interested in how people who are these modern citizen electronic musicians go about making their own music. I'm interested in the processes they use. Partly, of course, this will be to do with what equipment they are using and this too will have been guided by the advertising strategies of gear sellers and the cultural choices of the groups they've been influenced by. But, regardless of that, there will still be personal choices to make about how to use what they have acquired. For me it has all been a very instinctual thing. I could, at one point, have gone down the formal route and learnt about chords and scales. But I veered off in a different direction. When I came back to making my own music I had become a person who just very much wanted to express feelings or ideas with sounds. Electronics enabled me to do that because it required little effort (!) apart from feeling a certain way and something to express that through. Electronic music offers a large and varied sound palette and requires little of the music maker to get started. Its easy access.

To some this will be illegitimate. To them music is not worthy of the name unless some skill or knowledge is involved and to achieve something worthwhile is difficult. But even in a blog two days ago I quoted Brian Eno describing himself as "a non-musician". Eno was pointing out that music is about more than a formally adjudicated competence in some instrument or theory. Eno himself described his musical skill as a kind of "ingenuity". I think this ingenuity is what has been brought to the fore in this wave of citizen electronics as people make use of their touch devices, synthesizers, noise-making boxes, modular systems, computer programs, midi controllers and much else to give musical expression to things. Of course, having things does not equal having any musical sense or musicality. As more people make electronic music so more of it will be poor, unskillful and, in many ways, worthless. However, none of this negates our critical faculties or our ability to pick and choose. It may mean though, as we have seen, that there is so much music about it becomes hard to know where to find the good in amongst all the bad. 

Electronics has changed the world of music. What was once the domain of trained musicians and formal composers is now an area where any person with a phone and an app can join in. It is a democracy of opportunity. There will be a sense in which formal music needs to catch up with this development. However, the opposite is also true and all these new people with music making possibilities in their hands will need to catch up with music. For its not the case that all that went before in music is now worthless, swept away by citizen musicians as if they were sweeping away some worthless elite. The task now, as I see it, is for a mutual exploration of the new musical terrain that electronics open up. Who has yet mapped all the possibilities of a modular synthesizer, for example? Or who has catalogued all the possibilities of electronically generated and manipulated timbre? Some will be content with triviality and entertainment in the moment, of course. But for others new frontiers await.

PS If anyone wants to say how they make their electronic music, and what they conceive of themselves as doing - composing, writing, making, performing, etc - I'd be glad if people left their own comments either below the blog here or where you see this blog posted. Thank you.

If you liked this discussion and want more please feel free to join my growing Facebook group Electronic Music Philosophy.