Tuesday, August 3, 2010
Just press a button ????
It still shocks me when I mention the term "electronic music" and how some people often react, as if its not a form of real music, as if its some sort of gimmick or novelty music, often comparing it to "Washing Machine music" or making stupid R2D2 sounds with a condescending grin on their faces, as if that sums up all the electronic music ever created.
Yes!! a lot of it is utter rubbish but that can be said about all forms of music and Its not as if electronic music is some sort of a new fad, its roots can be traced back to the early 1900's with sound experimentalist like Ferruccio Busoni etc and it has also become so commonplace in modern day culture that you would imagine electronic music would have been accepted as a valid form of art by now ?
One comment that really makes my blood boil is "oh its not real music, unless its played on a real instrument". Well most electronic music is created by recording a performance played on a keyboard/synthesizer, except for maybe some methods of sampling or those who simply use pre programmed musical elements but in this article I want to focus on those who actually write and compose original pieces.
Lets look at acoustic instruments, they have been around for thousands years, in order to achieve their characteristic sound they are cleverly designed and crafted in a particular way, which was pretty much considered cutting edge technology back when they first appeared.
Just like guitars, clarinets and violins etc, the synthesizer was created as an instrument to have its own unique sound, the only difference was it uses electronic circuitry to create it, and the advantage of the synth is the user can change and manipulate the tones in infinite ways to create an infinite palate of sound. So if you strum or pick the strings of an acoustic guitar it will always sound like an acoustic guitar, you don't actually have to know how to play it to trigger its unique sound, so the same applies to the synthesizer, press one of the keys and it will produce a synth like tone, but tweak some of the dials and you can create many different synthesized sounds.
Unfortunately the synth was somewhat misunderstood in the early days which seems to have resonated right through to today, a lot of users felt it was meant to replace traditional instruments and spent a lot of time displaying how great it was at emulating acoustic instruments, which sadly wasn't the case at all and this use was never the intention of its inventors. Thankfully in the late 60's Walter Carlos released "Switched on Bach" which displayed the works of classical composer Johann Sebastian Bach performed entirely with moog synthesizers, which helped in some way to convince the world that synthesizers where a valid musical instrument.
From the late sixties onwards the synthesizer started to creep into popular culture, a few examples are the jazz scene branched off into the fusion era, mixing traditional jazz with electric guitars and electronic sounds. John Barry used some synths to great effect on His soundtrack to the James Bond movie "On Her Majesty's Secret Service". By 1974 Kraftwerk released "Autobahn" and the world went synth crazy, jean Michel Jarre's "Oxygene" was an original opus created entirely with synthesizers and it was a huge hit. Film maker John Carpenter scored his movies entirely with synthesizers which greatly added to the atmospheric feel of the films.
By the 1980's Synth Pop was an unstoppable force, but some were still not convinced that it was real music ?
One argument often brandished by the rock purist world is that all synths sound the same no matter who uses them, for example, "when Hendrix picked up a guitar it distinctively sounded like Hendrix", this maybe true but the same can be said with electronica artists, no one else plays synths or gets the same sound like Klaus Schulze or Vangelis, Kraftwerk, Orbital etc..
Then there is the infamous story of one synth pop act who were carrying their Fairlight into the BBC studio to perform on The Old Grey Whistle test, which was spat upon by a member of a popular metal act. So what's the problem if you compose music using electronic devices ? If you write a novel on an ipad rather than a traditional typewriter does this mean the piece of literature is sub standard ?
The composition of music seems to be valued by some by the fact that it was written and played on a guitar or acoustic piano etc and then performed live and recorded, take any of the classical composers before the 20th century many of these wrote music on paper and most of it was intended for an orchestra or choir etc, many of them never actually heard their pieces performed, because they didn't have the luxury of a choir or orchestra at their disposal and chances are they probably couldn't play all the pieces they wrote if all the instruments needed were handed to them, does this devalue their brilliance in any way ?
Electronic music producers these days can pretty much do it all on their own thanks to MIDI and audio based sequencers both software and hardware, basically the sequencer acts like a conductor with an orchestra, the composer, can input notes on a keyboard or notate if they can read and write music and depending on the software.
The sequencer can record each separate performance, then the composer can play it back in a loop which enables the composer to move on to the next element and so forth until all the basic elements are combined. So just like a classical or soundtrack composer may write a piece for a full orchestra, its obvious he/she cannot play all these parts alone, so the notation is handed to each player and the conductor signals them when to come in, the electronic musician/composer can do the same with a computer or hardware sequencer. The sequencer can be programmed to command each musical part when to come in, drop out, rise in volume change of chords etc.
This method of production is not just used by electronic music artists, pretty much most of the music you hear today whether its rock, pop, jazz etc, will probably have been created using a computer sequencer and also many other electronic treatments, so it would be pretty fair to call all music electronic these days.
So its not just a simple matter of pressing one button as some people will often say, just because you have state of the art technology at your finger tips it doesn't equate that you are guaranteed to write masterpieces every time you switch on the equipment, its all down to the talent skill and soul of the user, as yet no machine or computer can write music which can actually connect with humans on an emotional level.
Playing live, Now this is where electronic music becomes most criticized, traditionally live music consists of a drummer, bassist, keyboards, lead guitar singer etc.. I'm focusing on the solo artists in this case. Most electronic music will be performed live with the composer jamming with a sequencer which is comprised of prerecorded elements of the original work.
In recent years most electronic artist will use a laptop and maybe one midi controller keyboard, this is the most hassle free way of playing live, no one wants to take their home studio with them and most cannot afford to hire session musicians to play all the parts individually. This set up enables the artist to perform a live digital arrangement and the controller makes it easier for them to access Fx, mixer controls etc which they can manipulate on the fly or even play some keys if they have it connected to a soft synth or other. Another advantage is that it usually does away with the need for a sound engineer.
Setting up a live set usually involves a lot of preparation, every element of each track has to be recorded into the laptop and perfectly looped and then plenty of rehearsal is important in order to remember when to trigger each element, how to fade in or out etc.. Although it may look like the digital performer is checking emails or on facebook, it is actually taking a great level of concentration and skill and remember its their own music they are performing and not simply playing someone else's work or DJing, which brings me to another issue often encountered by the laptop performer. Say if the artist is performing a live rendition of a melodic down tempo track at a house/techno club, it won't be a surprise if some reveler will come up to the DJ box and ask if they could play something more upbeat : (
this blog is not about trying to convert people into actually liking electronic music but more about trying to dispel the myth that its just a matter of pressing a button to make music electronically. or its not intended to be a definitive history of electronic music. Unfortunately this blog will not be read by those with the rather out dated ignorant attitude, but I am happy that I can get my points across without being rudely interrupted.
Mick Chillage August 2010