by Craig Anderton
I just finished having dinner with some industry types after the first day of AES (Audio Engineering Society convention), and like many others, they seemed to be under the illusion that there is a huge, untapped market of people who want to play music. The only reason why they aren’t, the reasoning goes, is because technology hasn’t made it simple enough for them.
I have a real problem with this. My complaint concerns the attitude that music lies in the tools we use, not in our souls–that we can come up with technology that will allow “wannabe” musicians to no longer have to worry about messy details like practice, original thought, or passion. Because, of course, the software will supply everything that’s needed to make music.
And nuclear power will be too cheap to meter, we’ll all be zooming around with personal jetpacks instead of cars by the year 2000, and so many labor saving devices will be in place by 1985 that we’ll all be working 20 hour weeks. Add: “and technology will enable non-musicians to express themselves musically.”
I believe that music is something beautiful and important; it’s a means of communication and self-expression that creates a soundtrack for our lives. As Aldous Huxley said, “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.”
And I’d love to see more people be able to express themselves musically. I like the idea that in places like Brazil friends often stop by with instruments and jam instead of doing something like watch TV. But the idea that technology can make it possible to *create* music–forget it.
Sure, it’s nice for manufacturers to think that somehow, they will be able tap into the millions of people who would love to make music but lack either the time or dexterity to commit themselves to the process. But the fact of the matter is music does not come from algorithms, and making music will always be a discipline. Many people who want to hear music will find it a lot easier to bop into Tower records and buy a CD than sit down at the computer and mess with MIDI, no matter how easy it is to use; even if an *instrument* is easy to play, *music* will always be difficult to play.
Does this mean I’m down on the computer tools that allow me to make the music I want to make? No, not at all. I’ve really become accustomed to digital audio, sequencers, and all that good stuff. It has given me powers I never would have had otherwise. It has taught me much about arranging and harmony, and even enabled me to swap files with people on the other side of the country. I wouldn’t want to give up these techno toys.
And I’m not down on software like Band-In-A-Box or Music Mouse either. The former expands on the time-honored tradition of “music minus one” practicing, and the latter has more the personality of an instrument than a compositional algorithm. The problem comes when you think something can create music. If you don’t have something you want to say musically, no tool will say it for you. Technology can serve only as an amplifier or processor of what you create. When you practice music, you’re not just practicing technique; you’re shaping your soul. Music software that tries to fit everyone into proscribed limits will never allow the equivalent of a Jimi Hendrix who was brilliant because he broke so many rules, and did it so.
Jimi Hendrix was not signed because of a focus group saying they wanted that kind of music. He didn’t write his songs on a PowerMac. Hey, he had six pieces of metal on a plank of wood with 5 program changes, a distortion box, and a wa-wa. But his passion for music took total control of those tools. To trivialize music to the point where one thinks it can be neatly coded into a bunch of algorithms is unfortunate, and furthermore, betrays a fundamental inability to understand the differences that exist between art and technology.
In today’s depersonalized, market-researched, over-merged, corporate world, we need original statements. If companies really want to get the masses into making music, the best way to do that is to push for educational reform that puts arts and music back into the school curriculum.