The Wire MAY 1996 - by Rob Young


In March, London's South Bank Centre hosted the multimedia hyper-fest Now You See It. The main event was a Hypersymposium, a forum of vanguard musician-theorists brought together in order to ponder the imponderable: what will music sound like in the future?

In March this year, millennium-watchers, sonic geographers and telematic nomads (and perhaps even a few genuine punters) converged on the South Bank in London for Now You See It, a three-day Hyper-event organised by art producers Cultural Industry. The culmination of this series of concerts, contemporary dance and demonstrations of music from Tod Machover, Robert Fripp and Brian Eno, whose Koan "generative music" software was on display in the foyer, came on the final day, when a formidable panel of musician-theorists, chaired by journalist and Mixing It presenter Robert Sandall, assembled on a platform with an open brief to kick ideas around and field questions from members of the public on the notional subject of The Future Of Music.

In another discussion earlier in the afternoon, veteran electronic composer Rolf Gelhaar (a former collaborator with Stockhausen) asserted the Pythagorean notion that music exists as a system of correspondences regardless of the sound it makes. Despite a kind of echo in Brian Eno's comment about the sound of music being unimportant, Gelhaar's statement hung over the second symposium like a cloud, exposing a serious rift between supporters of academic composition and those represented on stage, whose work can be seen as conduits for the most hermetic cultural theories to penetrate the high street megastores and the domain of popular media.

What follows is a digest of those one and a half hours of debate. Many of the 'questions' from the floor turned out to be lengthy tirades or staked claims on the title deeds to the future, so we've tuned them out of this edited/remixed transcript. We're left with snapshots, soundbites from a volatile present: embryonic thoughts, reactions, strategies, clues to a future that remains persistently silent.


Peter Gabriel: When people try and imagine the future they always underestimate the role that the past is going to play. That's the first point.

The second point is that the way we respond to music is still very under-studied. If you look at the animal kingdom and see how they use different harmonies as different signals, and how different vibrations function in the world around us, there are clues that we could learn and feed back into the way we design music. Apparently there are instruments in the South Sea Islands which are made of human skeleton, and supposedly some of the vibrations, according to the different length of vertebrae, when reproduced and played back can get some resonance happening in the skeleton that will affect vertebrae at that point and presumably at acupuncture points. So there are all sorts of ways that the body responds that we haven't really registered.

[The brain's] principal function is to make some sort of sense out of nonsense, or order out of chaos, and the way that works is also going to be another clue.

I think the world around us can also give some indications for compositions. For instance: a garden which had sounds that would grow at the same rate that flowers and trees grow, and move through the air like insects. In a sense, music is something generated by us, for us, and the more we can understand about that process, the better we will be at delivering the results that work. If we can understand how we function in the world as it is, we can get a lot of clues for composition.


Brian Eno: I've been working with music systems for quite a long time, trying to invent ways of building things that would make music for me. This is because I always want to do something other than what I've just learnt how to do. So I would like to have a system that could do what I just did. A lot of [my] records that are called Ambient records are in fact the result of inventing a system which I then allowed to make music for me. These systems often involved tape loops and things like that, numerical systems. But of course, when I made a record all I did was recorded some of the output of that, and then released it as a record. What I always wanted to do was actually sell the system to people, so that what they bought was the machine that made the music. This thing that's now being generated in the lobby, this Koan system, is exactly that. I can program in sets of conditions, certain rules, and these rules cover all sorts of aspects of the music, and the computer will then improvise the music for me, within the parameters that I've set.

Music is not actually that interesting in itself. What I think all of us here are interested in is what happens when music hits its culture, what it does to people, what new types of thought it allows...


David Toop: [Sound extract: The Whitehead Brothers' Your Love Is A 187] You may be wondering why I've chosen a two-year-old piece of gangsta schmaltz to play you as the future: I'll come to that in a second.

(Text extract: 'Karaoke Goes Online', Newsweek: Like many Japanese, Yosuke and Cheiko Ueda have long considered karaoke an integral part of their social life. That used to mean they had to brave drunken crowds in bars or rent a soundproof booth to sing along to the tracks of their favourite songs. Not any longer. Thanks to the world's first on-line karaoke machine, the Uedas can now croon in the comfort of their own living room. They're among the tens of thousands of proud new owners of X55, a VCR-like box with an attached microphone that plugs into a television set and a phone jack. Sinatra-wannabes can order a song from one of eighteen host stations by remote control; within thirty-five seconds the lyrics are dancing across their TV screens. 'Karaoke has been a part of our life,' says Cheiko. 'With this, it's also become a part of our home.' ...The X55 could be a key to generating multimedia mania in Japan. In a country where PC penetration is still low, and few people know what to make of the Internet, karaoke machines provide the perfect introduction to on-line, on-demand services.)

In the future what may be important is the carrier of music; music itself may remain utterly traditional. The Whitehead Brothers' Your Love Is A 187 seems to me a perfect example of that: it's a very hybrid form of music, it brings together HipHop innovation with soul traditionalism-in fact the artists are the sons of a very famous '70s soul and disco songwriter; you have the nostalgia mixed with futurism, and it actually samples a track which samples a track from the past. So you have this very complicated layer of references. But the other striking thing about the track is that it's intensely media-conscious: it's aimed at radio, it's influenced by cinema and cinematic references, so it's aimed at video, but it's also aimed at driving around town in a jeep with custom speakers blasting the whole neighbourhood. That concentration on the different media, the different situations in which music can be heard, may be increasingly characteristic of future music. What music sounds like in the future, we have absolutely no idea at all.

Brian Eno: What's interesting about music is not the music, actually. I don't care what it's like, I don't care about the sounds, I don't really care about how they're made. What I care about is where this fits in the conversation with culture. Something like [Your Love Is A 187] fits in a very complicated way, because of all of its references and callbacks to other ideas and other cultural theories... Everybody can make music, because there's a whole technology that makes it dead easy. So what becomes interesting about the future of music is what cultural baggage you fit into that, or what the frame is that you put that music in.


DJ Spooky: [Text extract: A dialogue between Antonin Artaud and Zora Neale Hurston. Artaud: The universe is a rigged theatre. Hurston: Well, it just grew.] Zora Neale Hurston has this phrase, just grew, to describe dances and motifs of songs that slowly, yet somehow magically grow, become popular, switch through genres; motifs become mutated and borrowed in people's memories, become linked to these motifs, and so on and so on, as the Vidal Sassoon commercial says. Just to ground you guys a little bit, I'll play a track by a figure who's very popular with European/American/Canadian cyber-theory: Marshall McLuhan's record. It's very rare, [but I'm] an archivist, last time I counted I had about fifteen-thousand records, which is nothing compared to my hero, Afrika Bambaataa, who I heard has about half a million records. So we can consider this a posthumous dialogue between Antonin Artaud, Zora Neale Hurston, Kraftwerk and Afrika Bambaataa, co-ordinated by Marshall McLuhan. If you could play the tape please - with bass, a lot of bass.

[Sound extract: very cut-up, cartoon/circus pastiche music overlaid with drifting voices including McLuhan himself] Marshall McLuhan was probably one of the few theorists that actually got it. There's this sense of radical sound, bricolage, collage; muzak meets jackhammers, urban destruction zones; you name it. But there's a sense of someone who's trying to deal with the extreme density of electromodernity.


DJ Spooky: I'll give you a brief etymology of two of my favourite words: phonograph, which means phonetics of graphology (phono/graph): the needle inscribing sound on a piece of wax or vinyl that can therefore be amplified and then sent out - distributed, if you will, through a system of sound speakers. The next word is persona, which means that through which sound enters: per-sona. In African-American culture, the linkage of sound and the distribution of sound has always been considered the construction of alternate personalities. So perhaps there's a sense of schizophrenia involved in this, or a deep sense of fragmentation, of dealing with a structure of extreme structural racism, and still trying to be creative in the face of complete absurdity.

David Toop: Can I add a word? Discotheque. I like the idea of DJs as librarians [as opposed to shamans].

Brian Eno: There used to be two distinct cultural jobs. One of was them was called artist, and the other was called curator, and they used to be separate. But in the last twenty years or so they've completely merged and they now overlap completely... Artists like [Howie B and Spooky] are curating artists of a certain kind. It's a new kind of job that has become possible, technically, in last few years, but in fact existed conceptually for quite a long time before. There are people like Cage who were working with the idea that you could reshuffle other existing pieces of culture. But painters have been doing it for a long time. Music has caught up with what painting has been doing.


Robin Rimbaud: With microtechnology it's quite easy to buy a four-track machine for three or four hundred pounds and record at home: there's quite a lot of records that are mastered on these very ordinary cassette tapes. I think of a parallel with the camcorder, and the way that video has introduced a new medium into art - video art. Much of what I've seen is pretty appalling, but look at something like the Pixelvision camera, a tiny Fisher Price camera which existed for a short period of time - I'm not sure why it went out of action; probably because they realised everybody would become a fantastic film maker - but this films on ordinary audio cassettes, and in this kind of silver tone: it looks fantastic. There's an American artist, Sadie Bennin, whose whole career has depended upon this one little camera. In a reflective way, in music, you can use, as I do, this tiny little scanner device, tune through frequencies, through the radio. That's not exactly inspiring to start with - the radio - but if you're taking what exists anyway and reorganising the sounds, much as a disc jockey does (I hate to use the word disc jockey because it sounds like Paul Gambaccini or something), you're reappropriating the ideas in some sense.

Brian Eno: What's interesting is this idea of people using as their materials things that are not neutral. More and more, artists are working with materials that we know are already culturally charged. That's different from, say, squeezing out cadmium red from the tube: what you're doing is squeezing out Cezanne from the tube. You're squeezing out something that already has loads of cultural resonances in it.


Howie B: For me, it's all a case of handshaking. It's got to be everybody being more social. I think that's what music's about: being social, people in the same room communicating. I think that's what's got to happen. Technology's there, you either use it or not: it doesn't matter. It's just got to be more social.

David Toop: One of the interesting areas of development now is the way in which people who are almost outside of technology or technological developments, and are not actually interested in them, can actually interact with people who are engrossed in them. I was in Pakistan last week interviewing Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and I found it very inspiring the way he's now working with producer Michael Brook; it seems to me they have a very equal partnership. You have someone who's working with the basic human material of the voice - probably one of the great virtuosi of the voice in the present time, equivalent to a John Coltrane, say - yet he fits seamlessly onto this new way of working which assembles loops in hard disk software, and so on and so forth, and you get the feeling that there's no compromise whatsoever. The power of his voice and all his rhythmic and harmonic abilities, his expressive power, is still retained. In the past it's been very difficult for these two extremes to meet on fruitful ground. Now people can use the simplest technology and the most complex technology and, as Howie says, handshake.

Peter Gabriel: We [Real World, Gabriel's Wiltshire-based studio and label] have a week where a lot of musicians from all sorts of backgrounds commune and keep our cafe open twenty-four hours - that's rule number one. A lot of liaisons have formed there; people can function together in different ways, and explore ways to communicate better. There is this old argument that we hear a lot with technology, that it's dehumanising; isolating equipment. And I think that's the first wave, that well designed tools should work in reverse, that they are empowering, superhumanising, so that they encourage more handshakes, physical handshakes as well as on-line.


DJ Spooky: When you're out at night DJing, 5 or 6am, there's a sense of repetition that the melody becomes subordinate to. That's what draws people's attention into the mix. You grab their attention, somehow trigger these memory constructs, and the mix carries them further. That's the way it goes. But I think melody becomes so intertwined into it that the notion of repetition subsumes melody. So the traditional notion of the song and the break have been completely absorbed by the DJ medium of extreme repetition, and also the notion of the song, whatever that is at this point, with the mix. I don't even say song anymore, I just say the mix. The notion of a song that has a discrete singer and a catchy phrase, when you're in the digital night all these things really don't apply any more, these old compositional rules of melody, harmony, counterpoint...

Norbert Weiner, the guy that invented the theory of cybernetics ('cyber', derived from the Greek, which means steersman, or the captain of a ship, the person who guides a vessel through waters), his whole thing was control systems theory: how people interact with information. Now, I think we're seeing more and more that music has become a form of information, or perhaps it always was, but there was never the sense of being able to deploy it with the same kind of immediacy that amplification allows for. And also distribution: you can have mix tapes downloadable on the World Wide Web, all sorts of stuff. But there's a sense of complete immersion in this: the idea of self is going. Melody, I have a feeling, is associated with this Western European construct of modernist thought: the self as hero: the narrative is guided by this all-viewing, all-seeing omniscient character that can move through the sustaining mythologies of the novel. All of these things at this point moot questions. It's all in the mix.

Brian Eno: Old ideas never disappear, new ones just get added.

With contemporary music more and more of the job of composing is passed to the listener. I don't mean in trivial ways, like you get a mouse and click some stupid choice or other; I mean in the sense of you being given a more complex field of material, which you then navigate through yourself. One of the most interesting musical experiences I ever had was hearing a Philip Glass piece performed at the Royal College of Art in 1970 or something. This was when he was using real rock'n'roll instruments and they were very loud; he had four electric organs, two electric saxes and a couple of other things... It was loud and completely repetitive, but the most interesting thing was that you were constantly hearing melodies. Now, I know those melodies were being played, but I was finding them there. What's happening is that the job of finding narrative, finding melody, and finding sense in the music is being passed over to the audience. They are being given a mix, and then being told, OK, go and find your way around. And the difference between the middle of the road and... the other stuff, the edge of the road, the grass verge... the difference is how much you're being led through the music. Everything we call MOR is music that very specifically takes you on a particular narrative and melodic journey and puts all its focus of attention there. This doesn't seem to me very interesting at the moment either.

David Toop: You hear a lot of melody in contemporary music, but it's fragmented. So that narrative development you're talking about, which is part of the baggage of the Great Western Thing, is abandoned, but melody is still there. In a lot of drum 'n' bass records, you're hearing melody, but it's completely cut off from what preceded it and what follows it. If I listen to some of Robin's music, the Scanner stuff, where he's sampling atmospheres picked up on the scanner from people's mobile phones, you start to hear very peculiar melodies in those atmospheres, and so l think your sense of melody develops. There's no such thing as a static idea of melody.

Peter Gabriel: What is a melody? It's a sequence of varying frequencies, so in a sense you may find different ways of perceiving and delivering melody, but I think it's inescapable. It's also something that for as long as we've been capable of making noises has given us a great deal of pleasure as a species, and I don't see that dying out.


DJ Spooky: All right, in terms of urban youth culture at this point, you get to this notion of sound becoming deep linguistic structure, it becomes representative of the environment, the sound becomes the environment: you're moving in your jeep, you want bass. The bass is immersive, the bass speaks to you, the bass is there. It's not a little tinny treble. Homeboys on the block, if someone's kicking a weak argument, they're like, 'Yo man, you're kickin' treble'. So... is bass melody, or is melody bass? Or maybe these things become completely abstracted and we're walking a very fine fault line between abstraction and cacophony at this point. Me being an urban New Yorker who's used to police sirens, emergencies, the street is chaos, it's extreme, your sense of time in the urban landscape is extremely accelerated, you're walking down the street and everything's moving; it's a distributed network of everything you can imagine... Music, visual and sound, these are all related things, and I tend to see everything as unified field. You can't divorce sound from social hierarchy, you can't divorce sound from anything else. It's all linked.


Brian Eno: What people find in their music is what they think they ought to find in their lives. So I think people are drawn to music that presents them with a way of dealing with the world, that they enjoy. And the most significant presentation that music has made in the last few years is to become a kind of absorbent sponge that says, 'We can take anything that's going on, anything at all, no matter how unhip it seems, how unmusical, and we can bind it into a package that we can work with and enjoy.' This is a very strong cultural message, I think, because it is absolutely the opposite of the message that the fine arts have always presented. The fine arts are by definition exclusive. You go into a gallery and there's white walls and doors that shut it off from the street, and there's a little lamp on each picture... There's a whole aesthetic of cutting things off. And in the concert hall as well: this place [the Purcell Room] is a good example of where you see people come on who are dressed in a special way which lets you know that they are doing something that you understand and know about. And you mustn't cough while they're doing it. This kind of exclusiveness that belongs to the traditional European high arts is also a picture of how society works.

I think one of the difficulties is that for all of us, music - the structure of the way in which we choose to make music - internalises some ideas about society and about how people relate to one another. I think everybody who's involved in 'rock music' has that kind of feeling: that this is not only a statement about sound, but it's a statement about organisation and how people relate to one another. And it's very hard, from that background, to go and look at an orchestra, which is a very classically ranked, hierarchical system of the kind that only still exists in the army and the church. The way an orchestra is organised, with section principals and sub-principals, and the rank-and-file, and they all get paid different amounts, it's like a big synthesizer, except that they're people.

I'm not talking about it on a sound level, I'm saying that for me the barrier is not what it does sonically, it's what it represents socially as a set of values about how people work together.

Howie B: I've still got a problem with the word 'composer', and 'artist', and all this vibe, because it just involves separation. None of us have talked about the listeners: what people want to hear, what music do they want, what do people want from music; what is it that they take from music; what do they use music for? They don't sit at home and analyse it the way we're analysing it now. They sit at home and listen to it, and get a vibe on it. That's what we should be talking about.


DJ Spooky: Experience can be distributed, recorded, fragmented, edited, completely manipulated. That's where you get to a point where all of these things, these notions of culture become distributable. Sound becomes distributable, memory becomes distributable. These are questions that any artist, any composer, anyone who's creative at this point in the game, has to see on the horizon. That's sort of the future: it's dealing with the overwhelming shadow of the extreme density of these phantasms of electronic, or even pre-electronic memory. There's a sense of openness at this point; that to me is the future. Someone asked me last night, 'What do you see is the future?' And the only word I could think of was, flow. There's a sense of extreme flux... There's the sense that all of this stuff is flowing, and there's no sense, or even no meaning, in this historical conservatism that becomes restraining on the flow. All of these things are just rushing. There's a sense of extreme acceleration of time, there's so much being produced musically, all over the world the Internet is spreading, satellites are spreading, you can tune into Pakistan... [Howie stamps his feet at the word 'Internet'...] Sorry, but all these things imply culture blurring.

Peter Gabriel: Those who have the tools to rip off others are going to do it more often.

I think it's the responsibility of anyone trying to do anything creative to work with the things that excite them the most. There is the responsibility that if you take from other cultures then you have to put something back and make agreements with individuals from whom you're taking. But I think the exchanges are going both ways, and that I think is when it works best for everyone, if the feeling is two ways.

I think too there's a bit of subterfuge. With Real World and WOMAD we try very hard to promote music from all around the world. Trying to get it on Radio 1 for the most part is a joke, but we've got some success aiming music at films, for instance, where what is different and powerful about the music, what keeps it off a lot of radio over here, may actually serve the film maker very well. So looking at it in a way of trying to get it better known and better promoted, I think those alternative rules have to be exploited. Hopefully, the Internet will allow people to get direct to the creative producers all round the world without any filtering commercial mechanisms in between. I think the on-line guides are going to be critical.


DJ Spooky: One of my favourite science fiction writers, Neal Stephenson, wrote this book The Diamond Age. The characters in his book are defined by phyles: your social association group or something. That's what it's beginning to feel like: your sense of reality is defined by the groups you associate with, and even the time zones they associate with. The uniforms of youth culture, you know: I'd say my uniform is now maybe Shaggy from Scooby Doo, 1978; Scanners is sort of Clockwork Orange at the milk bar... So we're reprocessing these memories.

Brian Eno: Now there is a group of people who are happy, and in fact thrilled about being uncertain and confused, and who don't feel the need to invoke final causes or absolute reasons about things. I think that is the big philosophical shift, and what makes the '90s different.