Wednesday, February 25, 2015

analog vs digital, mechanical vs physical: juxtaposing Brian Eno's concerns about digital recording with John Philip Sousa's concerns about mechanical music, with a few detours

language warning (for the readers who may want/need that). Brian Eno seems to be ambivalent about digital because while digital allows for perfection that may kind of be the problem.  Now it's not that composite performances and composite takes didn't exist in the analog era.  There was plenty of studio stuntwork on albums by the Beatles or Jimi Hendrix that could scarcely be replicated live with the timbres that were used. 

Think of it more like this, a skill set in analog may be getting lost that has had its unique contribution to artistry. Cyd Charisse remarked in a 50th anniversary edition of Singin' in the Rain that nearly all the people who had the skills and aesthetic perspectives to make the kinds of Broadway musicals that became classics are retired or dead.

“So the question that everybody’s asking is, is it getting any better as a result of all this? But it’s such a hard temptation to resist. You’re recording a song and find a note that is really quite out of tune. In the past, you’d have said, it’s a great performance, so we’ll just live with it. What you do now is retune that note. So you’re always asking yourself, have we lost something of the tension of the performance, of the feeling of humanity and vulnerability and organic truth or whatever, by making these corrections? It does make you question the role of new technology in the studio. And, of course, there are all sorts of reactions against it. You have Jack White with his studio in Nashville, which is all analogue, he doesn’t have any digital equipment in there. And I’ve worked with bands who’ve said, we’re going back to tape. They’ve got in all the stuff, 24-track recorders, all the gear – but within half a day they’re saying, fuck, we can’t edit this stuff. They’re just not used to working that way.

Eno went on to say:
“There’s a very interesting exercise, I don’t know if you’ve ever tried it, not to use cmd-Z when you’re writing something. I write quite a lot on a Mac and like everybody I go back and change things. If you say to yourself, today I’m going to write exactly as if I was sitting in front of a piece of paper and writing – Jesus, it’s a whole different mind-set. Because you have to start thinking before you start writing. It’s really hard to go back to that. I’m not saying there is any advantage in going back to it, it’s just interesting to try it, to remind yourself of how completely you are now part of this new technology of writing.”

Actually, depending on the style of music there can be some significant advantages to writing with paper and pencil or pen.  But the advantages may accrue to someone who's writing, say, a fugue exposition with a subject and two countersubject who's trying to get at fully invertible counterpoint.  There's a physical process of committing lines to paper where you think about the spatial reasoning of the lines in a way that's not the same if you were doing all the work at a computer.  You could get at the same basic result, obviously, if your aim is counterpoint but if you're sitting on transit for an hour you won't necessarily have access to a computer, will you?  Or maybe you don't NEED the computer with you compared to being able to shove the paper and pencils in a backpack after you've done the work you want done.

Sometimes having that paper in front of you lets you see that if you want that second countersubject to make sense it has to fit in the space between the subject and the first countersubject.  Putting that to paper and then seeing what space you have lets you think through what you could sing in between those two lines. 

Which isn't to say that someone writing pop songs is going to benefit from writing things out with pencil and paper in the same way.

But if there's a series of rules and guidelines about how to compose counterpoint that restricts individual lines the beauty of polyphonic musical art is that it doesn't much matter which voices are performing that music.  I mean, yeah, it matters whether the people handling your music are the Tallis scholars or a local church choir that can't even read music if you've composed something like one of William Byrd's masses, but the point is that assuming a base line of musical literacy, the polyphony will take care of itself. 

But how differently we'd all think of "Eleanor Rigby" if it hadn't been accompanied by string quartet.
In short, the pop record has turned its fans into cognoscenti of precise timbres. One reads constantly how proud they are of being able to recognize a tune or album from the first split second of a single note. There are possibly classical music mavens so familiar with recordings of the Brahms symphonies that they can recognize which orchestra is playing from the first note; but what does that have to do with Brahms's intentions? Most instruments are neutral, and can be easily dissociated from the music they are associated with. We can hear a piano without being disappointed that it isn't Chopin or Horowitz or Bud Powell, we hear an oboe without thinking of Mozart or Strauss, even an accordion without necessarily thinking of polkas. But trap sets and electric guitars, at this stage of the game, are not neutral, and cannot be bent to any compositional use the composer imagines. They make musicians want and expect to hear a certain kind of energy and virtuosity, and no music that fails in that comparison will be well received.
The evolution of pop music in the last century has been toward being anchored to a very specific set of timbres.  I remember once seeing someone joke in an online forum that I couldn't very well play a Fender Telecaster if I wasn't going to play country songs on it.  Fine, Hank Williams Sr. wrote some pretty sweet songs but ... it's interesting that more than a century ago there was an American composer who worried about the future of music in which reliance on mechanical production became normative.

Thus, John Philip Sousa's concern in 1906 that if machines became the usual way of experiencing music ...
            Under such conditions the tide of amateurism cannot but recede, until there will be left only the mechanical device and the professional executant.  Singing will no longer be a fine accomplishment; vocal exercises, so important a factor in the curriculum of physical culture, will be out of vogue!
            Then what of the national throat?  Will it not weaken?  What of the national chest?  Will it not shrink?
            When a mother can turn on the phonograph with the same ease that she applies to the electric light, will she croon her baby to slumber with sweet lullabys, or will the infant be put to sleep by machinery?
            Children are naturally imitative, and if, in their infancy, they hear only phonographs, will they not sing, if they sing at all, in imitation and finally become simply human phonographs -- without soul or expression?  Congregational singing will suffer also, which, though crude at times, at least improves the respiration of many a weary sinner and softens the voices of those who live amid tumult and noise.
            The host of mechanical reproducing machines, in their mad desire to supply music for all occasions, are offering to supplant the illustrator in the class room, the dance orchestra, the home and public singers and players, and so on.  Evidently they believe no field too large for their incursions, no claim too extravagant.  But the further they can justify those claims, the more noxious the whole system becomes.
            Just so far as a spirit of emulation once inspired proud parent or aspiring daughter to send for the music teacher when the neighbor child across the way began to take lessons, the emulation is turning to the purchase of a rival piano player in each house, and the hope of developing the local musical personality is eliminated.

This lament seems to have overdone a few things, even Sousa was willing to admit he was an alarmist. 

Or ... was it alarmist?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Medical University of Vienna, Austria, scientists found that the more popular a musical style grew, the more generic it became—partly due to the glut of artists that flock to a burgeoning sound and the drop-off in innovation that tends to accompany demand.
... And not only are we hearing the same hits with greater frequency, but the hits themselves sound increasingly alike. As labels have gotten more adept at recognizing what’s selling, they’ve been quicker than ever to invest in copycats. People I spoke with in the music industry told me they worried that the reliance on data was leading to a “clustering” of styles and genres, promoting a dispiriting sameness in pop music.

Might there be a "solution" to this,  if it's even a problem?  One possibility is changing how we listen.  Or at least, in a corrective to audiophiles, producer Alan Parsons has said that all the great gear won't help you if you're not also aware of room acoustics.  It's not just as simple as what you're listening to but how you're listening to it.

Of course we could then cue up laments about the decline of music education, like just about anything Scott Timberg has at his blog Culture Crash.  Music education may be considered an answer but it would depend on who you asked and when.  In his books in the mid-20th century the German √©migr√© composer Paul Hindemith sniped that American musical education was actually part of the problem in American culture; all the American music teacher was basically doing was producing another generation of music teachers and American teachers of music tended to fill kids with delusions of the possibility that if they all worked hard they might be another Heifetz or van Cliburn.  What was needed instead of this sort of mentality would be the promotion of amateur music-making. 

So in a way Timberg's lament at the loss of the "creative class" might be missing earlier observations that all artistic activity could in some sense or another but the work of a leisure class, a leisurely activity.  Sousa's warning that the age of musical machines would create a rigid delineation of the caste of consumers and the caste of professional executants might have been kind of correct, after all.

Kind of ...

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