"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Wired MAY 1997 - by David Pescovitz
THE FUTURE OF MUSIC
You've heard the hype. We asked the experts. Here's the real timetable.
From Pink Floyd, to Smashing Pumpkins, Bach to The Beatles, The Pipes Of Pan At Jajouka to Ornette Coleman, music is the world's most universal language. It's a voice for prayer, a medium to express joy and sorrow, a sign of the times. With the invention of the theremin in 1920, music developed a new vocabulary, one of electricity and voltage. Then came John Cage, who contended that any real breakthrough in the way we listen to music must be psychological, not technical. Then came Michael Jackson. Wired asked six experts about the way-out sounds of the future.
Generative music, the audio equivalent of a screensaver, enables a computer to compose music based on a set of user-defined rules. Eno comments that he employed this technique when creating his pioneering ambient works two decades ago. Packard notes that John Cage and Lejaren Hiller used a computer to generate more than eight hundred and eighty-five thousand random notes for their 1969 work, HPSCHD. The next step is software that allows you to choose the style of a musician so the computer can compose new hits similar to those by your favorite artists, even "something that sounds an awful lot like Wayne Newton and Metallica doing a Stones cover," jokes Curley. On the other hand, Baxter says, once advertising companies get the music generator, they'll be "free from the responsibilities of publishing and writer's royalties."
Where does appropriation end and stealing begin? When you don't ask for permission first, according to the courts. And they're not kidding, says Packer, who cites instances of legal action against composers of sample based commercial recordings. Curley thinks a total ban on sampling will be impossible both because the technology is becoming cheaper and because using a recognisable sample as the foundation for a song is a "proven formula for record sales." Robbins proposes an electronic watermarking strategy to identify the originator of a sampled piece of music, "coupled with a universal pay-by-usage" plan. According to Thaemlitz, "The best way to avoid trouble is to release only original compositions... or overprocess everything until it's unrecognisable."
Imagine that your favorite recording artist exists only in virtual reality or mediaspace. A computer-generated pop star named Kyoko Date has already made a splash in Japan. According to Eno, this concept is really no different from popular boy bands, like Garry Glitter, that were said to have been totally orchestrated by record companies. "The interesting thing about these processes is that they reflect a trend toward communally produced stars - people who are generated as the carefully monitored answer to our desires - like tabloid newspapers, like deities, like oracles," he says. Or like Milli Vanilli, notes Thaemlitz. Or like Alvin & The Chipmunks, adds Packer. In any case, Baxter notes, "by assembling pre-existing musical building blocks, as is sometimes done in rap and techno music, the human becomes the producer and the artist resides in the machine."
The twelve-note foundation of Western music yields only a limited number of melodies and chord progressions that sound "good" together - so what happens when all the permutations are used up? "Listen to commercial radio for a few days and you can make a pretty strong case that this is already a reality," says Curley. Mozart died in 1791, adds Thaemlitz. "It isn't new combinations of notes and chords that fuel popular music," Eno says. "It's the whole complex of notes and chords and beats and sonic landscape and performances and images and ways of inflecting and lyrics and so on." Baxter agrees, pointing out that "Pachelbel created what became a common chord progression in his Canon, but it didn't stop Percy Sledge from knockin' everyone out with When A Man Loves A Woman or The Everly Brother from capturing our hearts with Let It Be Me."
Jeffrey "Skunk" Baxter
musician and producer, formerly of The Doobie Brothers; defence analyst.
bass player for the Afghan Whigs; co-owner of Ultrasuede studio, Cincinnati, Ohio.
composer, producer, and author.
artistic director of Zakros InterArts; visiting lecturer at University of California at Berkeley.
C. Todd Robbins
music and interface designer contracting with Interval Research Corporation.
electronic musician; producer for Comatonse, Mille Plateaux, Caipirinha, and Instinct record labels.