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Blogger Book Club: Bach to the Future

By Marc Weidenbaum

Matthew’s previous post got me thinking about a lot of different things, starting with the possible illusion that remix-based music production is inherently simple to accomplish. While the effect of a turntable can be approximated with a mouse click, to equate the two is to miss the qualities inherent in vinyl manipulation (and other such means of working with recorded sound, from John Cage’s sliced tapes, to CD mixing, to real-time digital synthesis). A turntablist actively working with the vinyl is very different from someone using a “reverse-LP” effect, and just because someone can add that preset flavor to a track doesn’t mean they really can cook. (I’m a big fan of Paul’s Boutique, too — the 20th anniversary just came out. The Dust Brothers are an incredible team, and I prize my MP3s of the instrumental versions of those tracks; they’re eminently listenable to in their rap-less form.)

I agree that Lessig doesn’t focus on those implications. I think, in
the end, he’s really talking about “popular” culture in its myriad
forms, and most specifically popular culture (1) as a product and (2)
as an activity. When it comes to popular music as a product, my sense
is he isn’t — and probably needn’t be — concerned with the manner in
which it is produced, because that would fall into his “professional”
bucket, which is mediated by legal systems of creative attribution and
publishing agreements and so forth.

It’s popular culture as an activity that’s really where he’s doing his
thinking. (That is, popular culture as it’s consumed, and especially as
that consumption becomes a form of creativity — the “W” in “RW.”)
That’s the realm where digital literacy is key, both as an
interactive-creativity opportunity for a new generation (and old ones,
if they wanna play along), and as a necessity in education. I think the
closest he gets to this is in his discussion of that video literacy
program in Houston.

When it comes to less-popular music (I’m kind of avoiding the term
“art,” or at least I was trying to and have now failed), me, I’m not
particularly concerned that some percentage of kids who might have
picked up a violin will now fiddle, instead, in digital synthesis
software. I do get the concern — the atrophy of physical production of
music as computerized tools make realization of musical ideas a more
fluid and easily accessible opportunity. I’d be hard put to see the
result as anything but positive. But as for the atrophy part, I guess
I’m not expecting that to happen. I mean, I saw the Pixar movie Wall-E,
yeah, but I don’t think we’ll all be floating around on hovercraft
synthesizers, and shooting each other our casual remixes via Bluetooth
as we slowly lose the ability to walk or even move our previously
nimble fingers. (Sorry to overstate it. It was just kinda fun to run
with the image.)

When I fear the future, I look to the past for precedent. (Yeah, not
always with comforting results, but it’s a good reality check.) A
hundred-plus years after the rise of photography, painting is still in
full force. I have never walked into a gallery and seen a photo of a
tree and bemoaned the artist’s loss of necessity to have used a paint
brush to realize it — no more than I think any less of impressionist
painters who had the benefit of train tracks to get them to those
lovely natural seaside scenes they so loved to paint.

I also take pleasure in the reverse — transporting the past into the
present: imagining what my cultural heroes of the distant past would do
today. Would Bartók appropriate folk songs as raw field recordings
(and be something of a rival to Steve Reich and Scott Johnson)? Would
Tallis compose motets for near-infinite voices, and work with producers
Manfred Eicher or Brian Eno? Would Bach have a day job at Google, and
spend his time working on advanced algorithms that perpetrate wild
varieties of melodic and rhythmic transformations?

In each case, I think the answer is yes. But those individuals today
just as likely might, despite the tools available to us that they
didn’t have, take comfort in the more traditional materials,
techniques, and technologies. Again, the art gallery is a good reality
check. Today, handcrafted art is everywhere. Galleries are full of soft
sculptures, and drawing is taken seriously as an art unto itself (a
peer to painting, rather than a step in the process) as it’s never been
before — in part as a reaction to the rise in digital technology, but
also because despite the availability of 3D modeling and Photoshop and
so forth, yarn and pencil are the tools these artists have found speak
to them.


  1. The pre-recorded-music parlor music experience remains our best analogy. The evolution of printed sheet music did not create a world of amateurs who crowded professional musicians out, but instead extended the love of classical music into a wider audience. Eventually, too, this same sheet music permitted the documentation of popular culture in a way not previously experienced.
    The new technology similarly will not “replace” professionals with remixing amateurs, but instead will permit a broader dissemination of music. My own interest is in a kind of sharing culture of music comprised entirely of technologically-liberated sharers–a kind of
    music/film mail art or tape exchange movement at a higher fidelity. Yet nothing in this kind of sharing excludes those who wish to charge for superior product–instead it may arguably be creating fans rather than destroying music.
    The new technology may create a lot of loops-based pre-set software music, but it also will create new appreciation for the subtleties of hitherto “inaccessible” forms. Once one can manipulate one’s own wave files, then one can see what electro-acoustic compositions seek to impart. Once one can sequence a jazz piece, one sees what a miracle an analog jazz band can be.
    Molly adds: I always believed this myself, in theory. And then, last week I overheard a couple women in my clay class talking about how they can’t look at coffee cups with the same indifference any more.

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