Machines behind the music: Is high-tech high art?

EVERY time you hear the CBS ``Evening News'' theme, or a McDonald's commercial on TV, or Michael Jackson's ``Bad'' on the radio, you're hearing ``advanced musical technology'' - music that's partly computer-generated - in action. These new sounds are so commonplace now that the listening public doesn't really take notice anymore. Yet the new technology of synthesizers and computers is having a profound effect on the music industry today.

The changes have come so fast that even musicians like jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, who is on the cutting edge of the electronic trend, find it difficult to stay on top of them.

``It's hard for me to imagine someone who could spend more energy than I do trying to keep up,'' says Mr. Metheny.

``If I were to spend 12 hours a day, I couldn't do it, because there's just too much happening. One hundred years from now they're going to look back and say the years from 1976 to 1990 were the equivalent of the Industrial Revolution for musicians.''

Does Metheny feel any really great music will come out of the revolution?

``I don't think that the best music that's going to come from these instruments is going to happen until after the dust settles a little, because every musician has the same problem: You get something; you start to get used to it; and then you find out that there's something else that can do everything it can do twice as well. So you dump it and go to the next thing....''

While yesterday's popular music depended largely on the skills and creativity of composers and the talents and improvisational abilities of vocalists and instrumentalists, today people have the help of synthesizers, samplers, MIDI (musical instrument digital interface), and so on to create new sounds, combinations, and rhythms. Although some of these sounds, especially those produced from samples of acoustic instruments, closely approximate the ``real thing,'' others have an artificial-sounding timbre or resemble sound effects - sirens, thunder, cracking whips, and so on - more than actual musical tones.

Some observers feel that, no matter how accurate or inaccurate the sounds they produce as compared with acoustical music, synthesizers are just plain cold and inhuman.

``A person now doesn't have to spend eight years learning to play the trombone,'' says jazz educator Gene Aitken of the University of Northern Colorado. ``He can write to the factory for a trombone sample and sit down at the keyboard and interface it with a computer, and it'll sound maybe every bit as good as the instrument. But it won't be able to deal with the musical aspect - the interpretation, the ambiance - because whenever we, as instrumentalists, play, the instrument not only vibrates itself but also within the body, and we can't capture that electronically.''

Professor Aitken argues that even a device called the Human Clock, which can imitate the random changes made by a human drummer, misses an essential element. But veteran jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, who owns a synthesizer, thinks that a drum machine can do it just as well as a drummer.

``Oh man,'' says Mr. Gillespie, ``rhythm isn't cold! Rhythm is heat ... HEAT ... a FURNACE!'' And he adds, ``I have a drum machine that plays right on it. You can start the machine off and go to Kenya and come back, and, if the electricity is still on, that beat is still there where you left it. So that's great!''

But there are others who don't think there's anything great about the new music technology. Take saxophonist/arranger Frank Foster, for instance, leader of the Count Basie Orchestra. He feels the new technology is actually harmful to creative musicians.

``All the innovations will be transferred to the electronic,'' Mr. Foster predicts, ``and, rather than individual artists making great innovative contributions, the freaks that make these machines are going to get the credit!''

He believes burgeoning technology has far-reaching implications for society as a whole. ``I see the benefit that can be derived from certain types of computer activity, but do we have to get so preoccupied with it that we dehumanize the entire society?'' he asks. ``We're getting into the `one person do his or her thing' in this society. So man isn't working as part of a group; he's working alone.''

Some people predict that such exclusivity could signal the decline of jazz and other improvised music that depends on group effort. But to look at it from a more positive point of view, one could say that widespread use of synthesizers might bring about new kind of ``folk consciousness'' in music, one where you don't have to be Juilliard-trained to create and enjoy music.

According to Bruce MacDonald, director of development at Berklee College of Music in Boston, today music is seeing ``a burgeoning amateur experience and a shrinking professional experience.''

It's the shrinking that's producing the backlash against the new technology. Studio, jam session, and pit-orchestra musicians claim that they're losing jobs to machines. After all, a synthesized string section can replace a lot of violinists, and we've now reached the point where we can literally create an ``orchestra in a box.''

Nevertheless, the involvement of many amateurs in the music might be a bright sign. Instead of just listening to records or what's played on the radio, young people are buying synthesizers and creating their own music. Many of the instruments aren't all that expensive, and they're ``user friendly.'' Amateur synthesists argue that you don't have to be a crackerjack musician or a ``computerhead'' to create some kind of music with a synthesizer. You don't have to know how to read music, or even understand the basics of harmony to be able to write a song and fill it in with some kind of orchestration.

Detractors argue that synthesis, in the hands of amateurs - or even some professionals - is bringing about the demise of melody, especially in pop music, where the ``hook'' (a repeated phrase that grabs your attention) and the ``groove'' (a riveting rhythmic pulse) have, in many cases, replaced truly hummable tunes.

Nevertheless, there seems to be a resurgence of new singer/songwriters who rely heavily on melody, among them Suzanne Vega, Tracy Chapman, and Bruce Hornsby. And veterans like Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, and James Taylor are still producing - not to mention the many musical-comedy and country songwriters.

Again, with the rising interest in ``world music'' (or ``world beat'') and ``ethno-pop,'' synthesizers are a handy tool, since they are capable of producing the pure pitch, slides, and micro-tones often found in the music of other cultures.

Synthesizer pioneer Wendy Carlos (``Switched on Bach''), who has worked extensively with ethnic music, says, ``There is great music in Indonesia, Java/Bali, India, Tibet, the Middle East, and Africa. These countries have evolved systems that are quite different from ours and which, unfortunately, we couldn't use before; we could only approximate them in the coarsest way. Suddenly now, though, we can graft them on to our own current vocabulary.''

Ms. Carlos believes that one of the best things about the new technology is that musicians and composers now have more choices than ever before. Referring to acoustic music, she says, ``Clearly something that has taken generations to evolve has great depth. It's not going to vanish overnight. In fact, it's probably never going to vanish at all. But it is something that we've got to take a respite from. We've got to find other ways of hearing, so that, when we come back, we'll have fresh ears to retackle it, ways of approaching it that we never would conceive of if we stayed trapped in our own environment.''

Conclusions as to the long-term effects of technology on music as a creative art and as a business can be reached only after the fact, of course. Some of the problems connected with it now seem unavoidable, and hark back to the first days of recording, when performing musicians feared for their jobs.

Nevertheless, musicians do have more creative choices than ever before, since the advent of the new technology, and that trend is sure to keep developing and expanding.

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