Saturday, September 29, 2018

HT Bryan Townshend, Pitchfork feature on Auto-Tune and a short survey of old school choral music

Bryan Townshend has linked to some of my blogging lately and I think I've linked to some of his blogging in the past but in case I've been forgetful, here's some blogging he did yesterday that links to discussions of the emergence of Auto-Tune.


Right from the start, it always felt like a gimmick, something forever on the brink of falling from public favor. But Auto-Tune proved to be the fad that just wouldn’t fade. Its use is now more entrenched than ever. Despite all the premature expectations of its imminent demise, Auto-Tune’s potential as a creative tool turned out to be wider and wilder than anybody could ever have dreamt back when “Believe” topped the charts in 23 countries.

What follows is the story of the life of Auto-Tune—its unexpected staying power, its global penetration, its freakily persistent power to thrill listeners. Few innovations in sound-production have been simultaneously so reviled and so revolutionary. Epoch-defining or epoch-defacing, Auto-Tune is indisputably the sound of the 21st century so far. Its imprint is the date-stamp that detractors claim will make recordings from this era sound dated. But it seems far more likely to become a trigger for fond nostalgia: how we’ll remember these strange times we’re living through.

The crucial shift with Auto-Tune came when artists started to use it as a real-time process, rather than as a fix-it-it-in-the-mix application after the event. Singing or rapping in the booth, listening to their own Auto-Tuned voice through headphones, they learned how to push the effect. Some engineers will record the vocal so that there is a “raw” version to be fixed up later, but—increasingly in rap—there is no uncooked original to work from. The true voice, the definitive performance, is Auto-Tuned right from the start.

Rap of the 2010s is where that process has played out most glaringly and compellingly: MCs like Future, Chief Keef, and Quavo are almost literally cyborgs, inseparable from the vocal prosthetics that serve as their bionic superpowers. But we can also hear the long-term influence of Auto-Tune on singing styles on Top 40 radio. Vocalists have learned to bend with the effect, exploiting the supersmooth sheen it lends to long sustained notes, and intuitively singing slightly flat because that triggers over-correction in Auto-Tune pleasingly. In a feedback loop, there are even examples of singers, like YouTube mini-sensation Emma Robinson, who’ve learned to imitate Auto-Tune and generate the “artifacts” that the plug-in produces when used in deliberately unsubtle ways entirely naturally from their own vocal tracts.


Chances are that any vocal you hear on the radio today is a complex artifact that’s been subjected to an overlapping array of processes. Think of it as similar to the hair on a pop star’s head, which has probably been dyed, then cut and layered, then plastered with grooming products, and possibly had extensions woven into it. The result might have a natural feel to it, even a stylized disorder, but it is an intensely cultivated and sculpted assemblage. The same goes for the singing we hear on records. But because at some deep level we still respond to the voice in terms of intimacy and honesty—as an outpouring of the naked self—we don’t really like to think of it as being doctored and denatured as a neon green wig.

Much of this anti-Auto-Tune sentiment presented the idea that the technology is a dehumanizing deception foisted upon the public. Attempting to deflect this angle of attack, Hildebrand once offered an analogy with a generally accepted form of everyday artifice, asking, “My wife wears makeup, does that make her evil?” Perhaps because of Cher’s involvement in Auto-Tune’s debut on the world pop stage, critics have often connected pitch-correction and cosmetic surgery, comparing the effect to Botox, face peels, collagen injections, and the rest. [emphasis added] In the video for “Believe,” Cher actually looks how Auto-Tune sounds. The combination of three levels of enhancement—surgery, makeup, and that old trick of bright lights that flatten the skin surface into a blank dazzle—means that her face and her voice seem to be made out of the same immaterial substance. If the “Believe” promo was produced today, a fourth level of falsification would be routinely applied: digital post production procedures like motion-retouching or colorizing that operate at the level of pixels rather than pores, fundamentally altering the integrity of the image.

The article does not quite get at how much of the criticism of Auto-Tune emerges from a white cultural center ... it does go there, but it doesn't necessarily unpack why there's a Western-centric critique of Auto-Tune and related technology in the production of vocal music. 

There's something mentioned that's worth quoting:

When it was first embraced by Western audiences in the ’80s, African music tended to be associated with qualities like rootsy, earthy, authentic, natural—in other words, values fundamentally at odds with Auto-Tune. Actually, this was a mistaken—and dare I say, rockist—projection. Most early forms of Afro-pop, such as highlife or juju, were slick, the work of highly professional bands not averse to a little bit of razzle dazzle. There was nothing particular rural about this sound, which was to a large degree associated with an urbane, sophisticated, cosmopolitan audience. Nor was it particularly “pure” in the way that Western world music enthusiasts seemed to crave: It always eagerly incorporated ideas from black America, the Caribbean, and the outside world, from King Sunny Adé’s Shadows-style twangy guitar, to the synths and drum machines in ’80s Ethiopian electro-funk.

To put this in a potentially controversial way, if the "right" or "conservative" reaction to black music was to dismiss it as so primitive as to not even really be music there's a "left" or "liberal" (far more accurately, perhaps) commitment in music criticism to the primitivism as "authentic" or "real" or "raw".   What I'm not sure white liberal (and generally male) journalists and critics and academics may always realize is that this is just as absurdly racist an approach as the more officially regarded-as-racist stance of reactionaries or conservatives who dismiss black music as too crude to count as real music (I'm reading Edward A. Berlin's biography of Scott Joplin and his survey of ragtime right now so I'm swimming in discussion of these kinds of white reactionary tropes as well as discussion of vehement denunciation of an innovative African American style by black clergy, since it is historically important to bear in mind that opposition to innovations in African American music didn't always come from white centers of power). 

That's another topic that's going to have to be a separate post ... some time later. 

But I do think that there's a very limited sense in which complaints about how the use of Auto-Tune could suggest a lack of musical skill from Western art music traditionalists can be understood if you understand just how gigantic the vocal literature of Western music has been in the last thousand years and just how far out, technically and theoretically complex the fusion of melodic lines, "harmonic" results and textual interactions can be.

Since part of my musical background was singing Tenor II and Baritone in choirs, as well as singing songs in a would-be prog rock band my experience has been you either can hit the notes or you can't.  So whether it was covering "Tom Sawyer" or singing the tenor part in Messiaen's O Sacrum Convivum (which, if you want to hear it, here's a demonstration). I never got to sing Nuits by Xenakis but here's another example of how far out unaccompanied choral singing can get from what might be considered the "norm".

A lot of folks are more likely to think of something like this when they think of unaccompanied choral singing, the Kyrie from William Byrd's gorgeous Mass for Five Voices

or the opening Kyrie from J. S. Bach's Mass in B minor

or ... Orlando Gibbons' "O Clap Your Hands".  Although the performance pitch is not the same as the scored pitch.

Sang the Gibbons in college and it was a blast.

Didn't get to sing Rachmaninoff All Night Vigil but here's an example from it.

This is not to say that contemporary chorales spun out in pop songs using Auto-Tune don't have musical interest or value, it's to say that for those who are part of choral traditions that have done surreal things with the human voice going back fifty to five hundred years it can seem needless to rely so much on mediating technologies when voices can do so much already ... although that's precisely the point at which academic traditions and customs tied to church and university (which is basically still connected to churches or synagogues in the Western tradition) come up.  It's not a given to me that a new corporate-governed system is actually too fundamentally different than a church or university centered system. 

The complexity of the musical textures can come up or get arrived at in newer and different ways but I don't wantto dive into the Adornian duality of linear-dynamic vs spatial-rhythmic in this post. 

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