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Aesthetics

TECHNOLOGY IS OPTION



Every cheap hood makes a bargain with the world
And ends up making payments on a sofa or a girl
-Joe Strummer

"...'it has a brilliantly firm beat and really fits into my tradition' (...) the Music Master praised the bird to an extraordinarily high degree, he even assured them [the Emperor and the court] that it was better than the real nightingale (...)
'Since, you see, my dear masters and mistresses, above all my dear Emperor! With the real nightingale one can never calculate what sound is going to come out, but with the artificial bird everything is determined! this is exactly how it will be with no surprises whatsoever! one can account for it, slit it open and show the human thinking, where the cylinders are situated, how they move, and how one thing follows from the other - !'
-Hans Christian Andersen, The Nightingale

. . . The modifications, the compromises, the approximations needed to digitize systems of non-linear differential equations were too suspect. Simulations break reality into chunks, as many as possible, but always too few. A computer model is just a set of arbitrary rules, chosen by programmers. A real world fluid, even a stripped down millimeter cell, has the undeniable potential for all the free, untrammelled motion of natural disorder. It has the potential for surprise.
-James Gleick, "Chaos"


"When I hear drum machines and synthesizers the images that come to mind are of patients in intensive care units attached by tubes to devises that regulate their heartbeats, force oxygen into their lungs, add nutrients to their blood and "manage" their pain. To me these represent the most joyless aspects of modern living, analogous to the way our habitats have evolved into sprawls of pavement constructed with the goal of making life better for our cars than for our children."
-Alex Ferris 2001



Each of us will have a different relationship to technology depending on our understanding of it. Metaphorically, it ought to be the cast and not the mold. Insofar as we are able to manipulate it, it is our tool, but when our use of it defines the choices we make we become its tool.

It is important that we maintain a healthy scepticism toward technology, that we look at it simultaneously from the perspectives of how it liberates and how it coerces: it always does both.

Certain applications of technology (viz. a mike or a pickup) will tend to expose the human presence generating the sound while other applications (replication devices like delays and samplers) will tend to veil that presence and others (those that generate sound) eliminate the need for human presence altogether. The passive applications serve to enlarge the ear, enable us to hear subtle aspects of sound that would otherwise escape our notice (the field recordings of Toshiya Tsunoda, for instance). Active applications seem to me to do the opposite, masking the original sonic event. Generative applications create sonic events in which the only human participation is abstract and managerial.

The most positive aspect of the active devises is that they allow people to make and organize sound of some complexity without the apprenticeship-style drudgery of learning to play (master? by their speech you will know them) an instrument or learn the ridiculous nomenclature that persists as the written language of music. This empowerment and the confidence gained from it are beneficial to the music as a whole as they draw creative and interested people into the process. The instrumental culture, makers and teachers, has largely failed to enable would-be musicians, often, through bad ergonomics (retained for reasons of tradition) and worse attitudes, discouraging people from playing (this is paralelled in the teaching of nomenclature and theory). Active devises have had a strong and positive effect on the musical community by undermining the technocracies of instrumentalists and theorists.

Typically, this positive aspect is also a negative one. The acceptance and embrace (fashion) of actively processed sound generally suggests technological (consumerist) fetishism to me. Its appeal is obvious. It empowers its users to generate an enormous variety of sound uncomplicated by the random spontaneity and unpredictability of human input and execution. The devices are incapable of error or invention (similar to the "inert ingredients" found in some products). To me they seem to produce a cloud of context while generating small human content. The paradigm seems to value product over process, control of resources over the rigor of discovery, and so strikes me (emotionally) as a metaphor of capitalism. To those who only listen to music, without participating in the making of it, this response may seem completely alien. Sound is sound. To musicians caught up in it, the soundworlds generated by the touching of buttons and turning of knobs understandably may seem deeply fascinating. The question that all-too-often comes unbidden to my mind on exposure to processed sounds is whether the musicians’ fascination is stimulated more by the sense of individual power they experience than the sounds themselves. Most of the active processes (sampling and delay most obviously) are based on replication, insuring that the new (temporally subsequent) sounds are, even at their most different, essentially the same as what preceded (generated) them.

All digital technology is clock based. Its time is rigidly divided into exactly equal segments. All of the replication based devises amplify this aspect –even if the speed knob is turned the proportions remain the same. The sense that the future (no matter how short its duration) is only the filtered past, burdened from the outset with an acceptance and even a desire for inevitability (change, but only within predetermined parameters) has a depressive affect on me. The excitement other musicians experience with their samplers, loops, and delays often fills me instead with gloom and hopelessness. I’ve always experienced music as a pathway (or group of pathways) inside the fabric of time, hearing, even in repetition, the accumulations of minute discrepancies and variations (the same way one might enjoy watching and listening to the surf). This (tantric) aspect is a large part of what makes it important to me. When looking at a painting (or any other object), or reading printed words, the flow of time is particular to ones own experience of it. With music there is a relativity between the internal and external passage of time (hours can feel like seconds, seconds like hours) and this, in many respects, is what it’s about. The autonomy of moments is continually reaffirmed -clock time passes rigidly while one experiences time as flexibility. The distinct contrast between the context (clock time) and the substance (flexible time) illustrates for me the innate complexity of being human as opposed to the innate simplicity of mechanism. The clock based replication devises tend to collapse that distinction: the more deeply one hears into processed sound, the more deeply one experiences sameness, rigidity, and inevitability. With unprocessed sound the experience is exactly the opposite. Because of this I find myself unable to listen as deeply to music that uses these devises as music that doesn’t.

(The conduction idea is exciting to me because it replaces the mechanical replications of samplers with the imprecise and uncontrolled -real time- repetitions of material by human musicians.)

Another aspect of replication (and this applies to all non-physically generated sound) is absence of direct human agency. The musician controls the sounds rather than making them. The metaphor of capitalism here is obvious. As I am uncomfortable in a world that values the power of control over the power of labor, I am uncomfortable with music that reflects that paradigm. The anger (and disgust) I feel at the economic exploitation of both working people and our shared environment by physically absent bosses and owners is echoed in my responses to music that exploits sounds from a managerial distance.

The runner, the bike racer, the jockey, and the nascar driver are all athletes attempting to win races. The shoes, the bike, the horse, and the car are all technology (instruments) they employ. The shoes are inert (a drum, a whistle), the bike is a passive mechanism (a piano, a saxophone), the horse is an active collaborator (another singer/drummer), and the car is an active mechanism (a computer/sampler/tone generator). In each case the athletes are deeply engaged in what they are doing. Which event excites us most depends on our responses to the relative levels of presence and engagement, the rawness of striving which is concrete or the rawness of speed which is an abstraction.

I do not want to create the impression that I am dismissive of the work others are doing with electronic media. Many, maybe most, of the innovative musicians of our time are engaged in this. In our deepest motivations we are seeking the same things - new soundworlds, new forms, new methodologies - and these motivations unite us in my mind more than they divide us. My choice of approach is just that - my choice - and I chose it because, for the essentially emotional reasons expressed above, it seems more fruitful (and thus more engaging) to me. My belief is that as exploratory musicians continue to engage with technology as a means of making music they will engage with it more deeply, on a less consumerist level, and take the little boxes apart, get inside them, make their own (similarly to what I have been doing with the older technology of instruments). The current fashion for long chains of effects seems to me a transitional phase which will eventually give way to more individual and creative approaches (like circuit bending as it outgrows toys and takes on larger targets to undermine). The most exciting aspect of jazz, particularly free jazz, to me was the sense of (mis)appropriation the musicians had in the uses of their instruments ("What tremors ran through Adolph Sax when Bean picked up his tenor axe."). This was also true in punk rock, delta blues, AMM, Penderecki-style new music, and more recently (in a different way) in plunderphonics. I feel this sense is largely missing in present day electronica, that the musicians haven't yet realized they're participating in a status-quo. There's a certain timidity implicit in using things straight out of boxes bought from large corporations (I might feel a little better about it if they were at least spraypainted -like a punk's guitar- or something).

It is not the "newness" of technology-based music that alienates me from it, but the sameness (often bland to me no matter how noisy) I hear in it. The increases of speed and memory have made the machines more efficient and flexible (and affordable to all), but basically they are the same devices (performing the same operations) developed by Moog, Buchla, Ussachevsky, and others when I was a kid and I feel like I've been listening to these sounds and processes all my life. In and of themselves they don't seem innovative to me anymore and for the most part people don't seem to be using them innovatively (beyond being the first kid on the block to own a particular version). The commercially available devices are also far more limited in what they do when compared to the original Moogs and Buchla Boxes, requiring far less understanding and (organic) involvement on the part of the performer. Ease of use is not necessarily a virtue, particularly when it eliminates the necessity of deep understanding.


Biographical incursion:
When I was coming up (early 70's) the "new" sound of music was fusion jazz and its enthusiasts made the same arguments for it one hears today for EAI music: that it's opening up new dimensions in sound; that it's the future; whatever. Aside from Bitches Brew, not much fusion means anything to anyone anymore, except as kitsch and/or nostalgia. The lesson I took from that was that was that the technology was in the end the least important aspect of music, that music wasn't nearly so much about sonic novelty as about depth of engagement.


So, to me, because of how I’ve spent my life, there’s nothing illusionary, nothing abstract, about sound. It’s as substantial to me as the steel I use in making a lot of it. We, humans, at least those of us with determinist programming, have a tendency to dismiss or undervalue things that exist dynamically, that aren’t static enough to be treated like property. I don’t seem to be able to make that distinction. What I hear, whether I actually listen to it or not, has the same degree of substance to me as what I eat, as the weather, as the blanket that keeps me warm while I sleep, all that. So, the same way I mistrust food with ingredients whose origins are rooted in the static, in inert compounds, I mistrust sounds that originate in algorithms, programs, sources that seem proscribed by human limitations, by the necessary rationalisations and efficiencies of pure engineering. To me the math, beautiful as it can be, is essentially description, limited to the confines of its vocabulary, so the kinds of sounds that originate from there don’t resonate in me with the same kind of depth. I feel something frozen in the heart of it that I don’t feel with the sounds of air and material objects. I’m not particularly knowlegable about it, but I trust my instincts way more than I trust the reassurances of corporate scientists, y’know? When I was a kid they were the ones reassuring us about the wonders of DDT and preservatives, the safe clean future of nuclear power, things like that, and now they’re the ones trying to reassure us about GMOs and synthetic sound.

I can smell heartbreak up there, Jack,
a heartbreak at the center of things,
and in which we don’t figure at all
-Kenneth Patchen

-Alex Ferris 2005




"I feel like I'm watching tellers count money at a bank. It's so boring."
-woman in the audience at an "experimental" music show.

The machine is the model of the intelligible. There is no mystery, nothing obscure in its drive-belts, cogs and gears; it can all be explained perfectly.
-Raoul Vanetgem

So, in a performance, I care a lot about the relation between gesture and sound –and that’s why I have a problem watching motionless people hunched over laptops while world war three pours out of the PA system.
-Chris Cutler

I use electric guitars to amplify, but not for effect . . . Anything that changes the natural sound of my instruments, I don’t use . . . I will not do music with computers and electronic gadgets because African music is natural sound.
-Fela Kuti

Think with your mind. Forget technology. Creativity is not device dependent.
-Bruce Mau

. . .the traditional notion of "neutrality" of technology can no longer be maintained.
. . . democratic unfreedom . . in the sense of man’s subjection to his production apparatus.
-Marcuse


 

 

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