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NorthWest CyberArtists

Einar's articles from the NWCA Newsletter.

April 1994

Important Note: These articles are history and all references to upcoming meetings and contact addresses and phone numbers and other things that change with time should be ignored. I decided to leave them in for readability.

The more things change the more they stay the same.

Bob wrote a great essay in last month's newsletter about the dangers of letting computers and technology take the human aspect out of art. He made several great comments about technology and its use in modern electronic music. One question he asked was "What is it about electronic music that robs its soul?" This is a subject which I regularly ramble on about to my wife, Juli, so she has helped me collect some of my own views on the subject. These are just a series of observations in no particular order. If you have more comments of your own - E-mail me or I'll see ya at the meeting!

First of all, Bob's article left me with one huge question: What is "electronic" music? Is it anything that you play from a keyboard? Is it anything that is quantized? Is it computer generated? Is it recording a live band to hard disk and then editing it on screen to make the recording "perfect"? Is it MIDI files? Is it sampled drum loops?

When I was in High School, electronic music was much easier to define. Tangerine Dream had a distinguishable electronic sound. They used good old analog synthesizers with no presets. In my mind electronic bands still have synthesizers the size of upright pianos! and no drum machines or MIDI! This hardly seems accurate these days.

In last month's Keyboard Magazine, Trent Reznor was quoted as saying "When I think of a drum I think of a button on a drum machine." Maybe that defines where electronic music is today. We're seeing the new interfaces replace entire methods of creation. It's like thinking of typing a letter and picturing the Word screen on a computer, not a typewriter.That's a good example of changing technology. What Trent Reznor can do these days with one finger consistently and easily used to involve a labor intensive amount of knob twiddling and key pressing at just the right time.

Technology changes the way we do things, but in the arts, the quality of the content remains the same. What causes the perceived lack of soul in electronic music has more to do with the artist than the technology. For example, although I use word processors and possess the technology to write great novels, it is unlikely that I could write the great modern novel just because I had the ability to check my spelling and grammar electronically. The soul of the artwork must come from within the artist.

So it is with electronic music.

A lot of us have sequencers and some MIDI gear, but I can only think of one in our midst who excels in using it to make great art (to my own ear). [Note 12/15/95: Now I've heard more than just one in this category!] As hard as I try, I'll never sound like him, because I don't have the same musical training or the same artistic vision. And that's great! Everything that he does is thus unexpected by me and the resulting music is very enjoyable and very human - because he is actually able to play his own music. (There's a lot of my own music that I have never played and wouldn't know how if I tried!) Consequently, some of us who can't play for beans use sequencers to slug out our musical concepts and then manipulate them into something we want to call art. And everyone seems to approach this differently.

Some electronic musicians want their product to sound "human" but even if they fail, I don't think it's a failure. Art is subjective, and perhaps a piece of music is made interesting by being sort of a cyborg - neither completely mechanical nor completely natural.

Tom Vigal wrote an article in this newsletter about serendipity - happy accidents. I find that working with computers and so many finicky keyboards and older modules forces the odd "happy accident" which does not occur as often for me in a "real band" situation. Sometimes it's an odd sound that I stumble across, sometimes a whole riff is created by some weird mis-cue or cross channeling on the sequencer.

You know, I don't find that I am replacing human musicians by using MIDI. What I find is that I am creating music at 2:00 am in my own home all by myself because that's the only time I have to do it. In my situation the real alternative to recording everything by myself is to do nothing at all!

Regarding drum programming: There is no way that a hacker like me who can't play drums is going to fool a real drummer into thinking that he's listening to another real drummer in a song of mine. If my drums sound too "natural" I worry that a listener will try to analyze the drum parts to see if he could play them. I therefore sometimes try to make my sequenced stuff sound as sequenced as possible. It's part of the effect. On the other hand, I have noticed that big name "electronic musicians" use humans in the studio and live for both the human sound and the human look - I'm thinking of Howard Jones, Herbie Hancock and Thomas Dolby-and that works for them.

A lot of us do get obsessed with needing the latest equipment, as Bob said last month, but on behalf of a lot of electronic musicians out there I need to say that I am mostly obsessed with music. And I still write songs on and for acoustic guitar sometimes. There is this strange belief that new technologies will always replace older ones. People thought radio would die when television came out, and now people think multi-media is going to replace so many existing forms of entertainment. I believe it won't because the art has not yet come to make the technology interesting enough, all the other forms of entertainment will still exist, and for some weird reason most new technologies attempt to closely resemble previous technologies. Interactive TV will be far more interesting when it isn't TV at all.

We still use the Post Office even though we have Email and faxes. We still like talk to people face to face, even though the telephone could save the trip. And I still would rather play guitar than push buttons on a sequencer.

What I think is really funny about all of this MIDI/ electronic music/ art stuff, is that the concept of working alone and playing all the parts by yourself is not old. I bet a lot of us used to do cassette to cassette dubs in the mid seventies adding a new part with every generation just to work out a song. I still use a four track. I have lots of tapes of songs that I recorded with guitar, bass, vocals, and some simple keyboard lines. But no MIDI was involved. The main thing was making music..

Of course now you can write hits with less effort, fix bad notes, record digitally, quantize, shift pitches...

Which brings me to the Shameless Plug of the Month:

I am releasing my very first cassette, which I will bring to the next meeting. I have included one full hour of my various approaches to electronic music, from strictly quantized and very harsh pieces to one fairly analog song Juli and I did in the middle of the night on the PortaStudio ten years ago -- no extra charge for the hiss. If you're interested, see me at the meeting.

See ya,

Enough! Back to!

Einar Ask /