Everything New Is Old Again

Unlike John Wray, I cannot swoon over Owen Pallett. So, the writer has discovered the phenomenon of the technology-based one-man band? Since this is a New York Times article on pop-culture, than it’s guaranteed to know vanishingly little about the subject.

Some history: in 1941, Sidney Bechet recorded “The Sheik of Araby,” playing all the parts and overdubbing. A veritable one-mand band! Then, way back in the 80s, there was a one-man band that I enjoyed known as “The The.” There’s Moby, Sufjan Stevens . . . I could go on.

The article puzzled and irritated me, and not just seeing poor lad Pallett complain about how working with Max/MSP is “incredibly hard.” Dude, shut up and do it. I’ve been working with Max since 1992, and it’s better to say that working with Max is incredibly easy, deciding what to do with Max is incredibly hard. But so is making music, composing.

This is really an article about technology, not music, and is a good starting point for me. I am a great believer in and fan of technology tools for making music. Instruments themselves are tools – the bassoon is an example of technology, so is the piano. There’s a tendency to think that something is better for being old, and there was certainly a long-standing resistance to synthesized sounds simply for being new (and also for being cheap commodities, available to anyone. I never abided by the idea that synthesizers were cold, they were only used coldly by poor musicians). Contemporary digital technology is spreading the means of production to the “untrained” masses, and I think that’s a good thing. Musicality doesn’t only belong to those who go to music school.

However, the bell curve is everywhere, and so only a very little bit of what gets produced digitally is really any good. The great advantages of digital means, I think, are not only confined to their low-cost/high-value, but to the way that working with Max or Logic encourages an entirely different way of thinking about creating music. It’s very important for even the most trained composers from thinking in terms of five horizontal lines and symbols placed in a coordinated pattern on them, and doing away with that medium and creating an environment that really only exists in terms of time and sound is the kind of step into the void that artists need to take. I am finishing a marvelous book, which I wish had been published 20 years ago, that’s the ideal first step primer for thinking and working this way, and I recommend it urgently to anyone who is even thinking about using ProTools or Garageband.


Author: gtra1n

I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.

4 thoughts on “Everything New Is Old Again”

  1. Owen may be the only person I’ve ever seen you address as “Dude.” That’s, like, a California thing, right?

  2. Dude, was it Leuning or Ussachevsky who lamented that one day musical tools would allow the plumber to come home at the end of his work day and create music and “it would sound like the music of a tired plumber” ?

    I love that quote, but I also agree with you that musicality and by extension the appreciation of music should not be the sole province of those who have degrees with Mus. in them.

  3. Oh man, you expect me to do research at this hour?!?! I suggest texting Cha Cha, since my wife is now a ‘guide’ and loves it . . . !

    Of course, Philip Glass spent many years as a plumber, so I’m not sure that, objectively, sounding like a tired one is problematic. But even Steve Reich pointed this out at a concert, which is that even though 90 of everything is crap, the ubiquity of these digital tools means that there’s not only lots of good music being mande that would not be heard in previous generations, but that also there will be approaches to music available that had not even been possible before. I think Max/MSP is the great example of that, it not only allows anyone to turn there computer into an instrument, but because it’s ‘keyboard optional,’ there are conceptual possibilities that would have previously been precluded.

  4. Wife says Vlad, with the authority of a ChaCha Guide. But it’s just a guess. Otto hadn’t the, you know, oomph…

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