I remain a cheerfully mediocre musician, but I’ve greatly enjoyed playing guitar, piano & synthesizer lately – and have noticed a few things.
1) A guitar or piano sound is like a tuxedo, whereas a synth sound is like an evening gown. Guitar noises borrow heavily from tradition and established styles, whereas every synth noise is obliged to explore new sonic territory. I ain’t saying this view is right or fair or universal, but my impulse is to be embarrassed as the thought of another keyboard player making exactly the same carefully designed synth noises. (I imagine a synth player being asked “Who are you playing?”)
2) I did some simple animation a few years ago and found that, despite my total lack of technical skill, drawing a line by hand gave the image a compelling sense of vitality that a straight computer-generated line did not have. While a hand-drawn corporate logo might seem amateurish, an animated image could gain meaning from the apparent sense that a human being was on the other side of it – particularly when part of the drawing came to life in successive frames.
That seems to be exactly the case with music as well. Machines can generate rich sounds, maintain complex rhythms, produce melodies it would be physically impossible to play – and the resulting music may be compelling for many reasons. But the meaning to be found in such new music shifts to wherever a human being is standing behind it: as composer, designer, programmer, producer, performer, vocalist – or even DeeJay. This may explain some of the cultural nuances of rap, hip-hop and electronic dance music, whereby sounds that seem homogeneous and empty to some listeners can offer tremendous meaning, power and musical variety to others.
3) The cliché is that “it’s all about the music”, but I’m reminded that a live performance of music consists of a great deal more than just people making sounds. One recent show I witnessed featured a musician skillfully manipulating a variety of unusual sound controllers – unfortunately, out of sight of the audience. Another concert involved a famous musician playing a different unusual electronic controller for every song, when a single keyboard could have been used to control the entire show.
In both cases, I found that the visual part of the show was vitally important (or would have been), even if nothing very exciting seemed to be happening on the stage.
4) The reason why also explains the current vogue for analogue synthesizers and other forms of seemingly backwards-looking technology.
My interest in electronic music is not simply in novel sounds, but in sounds emerging from machines through a complex series of visible, tangible, interactive components. In short, I want to see and hear a sound being generated *organically* from the most inorganic of parts. I want to witness the birth of life from lifeless materials.
We know technology frees us and traps us, empowers us and threatens us, expands our horizons and confines our behaviors. The advances that once heralded only greater achievement (and more free time) now rob us of our privacy (and our free time). This lost sense of promise may be captured in the popular fashion of “Steampunk”, whereby costumes and characters imagine a time before technology had broken away from the otherworldly adventures it might have made possible – when, for example, our space program was confined only by the scale of the universe itself and not by the scale of our ambitions to explore and understand it.
5) The most basic advice given to an actor is: “stop acting”. The performance is not in what is done deliberately, but what is deliberately done without deliberation.
My desire to see musicians produce music carries the same apparent contradiction.
The job of the performer is not to stand between the music and the audience, but to step out of the way.
That’s why I want to see and hear the bones and exposed organs of my synthesizers: to glimpse the path that leads from nothing to something.
I imagine the end of a triumphant song at the end of a triumphant performance – when the instruments have lowered and only a few voices carry the evening forward. Even the silence that follows the final note seems to be part of the magic, part of the composition, part of the landscape not yet fully crossed.
A great concert can bring meaning not simply to the familiar sounds generated, but to the silence which follows them. The meaning within the song is revealed to have been there all along, before the song began, and after its end.