FRIEND OR FAUX? – ELECTRONIC MUSIC
Written by Ray Turner for the British Columbia Music Magazine in August 2006.
My grand-daughter requires about one-tenth of the time it takes me to learn anything new on a computer. She recently asked me to listen to a tune she had recorded from GarageBand (a Macintosh software program) into her iPod. It had a solid beat, smooth accompaniment and a tolerable melody, although it seemed I had heard it before. In fact, I thought I had heard it many, many times. I congratulated her, but not too heartily, because I got to wondering about the whole subject of electronic composing programs and virtual instruments.
There has been a steady proliferation of black boxes and keyboards that can mimic traditional instruments and the human voice. I have a couple myself. Sounds both new and old can be produced with magical ease. I remember when the band U2 introduced an electronic cello into their line-up. It sounded pretty much like the real thing but it hardly looked the same. The traditional hollow wooden body was replaced by a solid stick-like frame. It still had strings, as do most electronic fiddles and double basses, but its tones were simulated electronically. The majority of listeners would not identify any change in the sound.
Many synthesized instruments sound like the real thing. Many do not. Those we call keyboards are pretty good, some sound exactly like a real piano. We have become used to the sound of "electric piano." We assume the organ is not coming from a cathedral. Drums and other percussion instruments are generally convincing although lazy sequencing often gives a mechanical quality. Horns are getting better but most are terrible. I have yet to be duped by a fake saxophone. Or have I? There is something called an EWI (electronic wind instrument) which is blown, as well as fingered and can sound outstanding in the hands of someone like Michael Brecker. (Check out his In A Sentimental Mood.) It truly sounds like a new instrument, maybe related to the saxophone, but not intended to imitate it. There seems to be no limit to the variety of tones produced by the synthesizer. But I am not sure what merit there is in those hit recordings made from samples of barking dogs, or the doctored tapes that produce choruses of chattering hamsters.
So, there is a lot of work going into developing instruments that sound as far as possible like the real thing. My question is, why? Should not new instruments produce different and unusual sounds ? I know, some of them do. We recognize the electric guitar as a new-sounding instrument. It underwent a pretty smooth transition from the acoustic instrument. Les Paul made sure of that. And there are plenty of original sounds in my own little keyboard, for instance, Oo-Ahs, Goblins, Space Choir, Polysynth. No Barking Dogs, though. Pity.
Apart from not sounding quite like the original, processing and amplifying the electronic signals present new problems. In crowded venues with unpredictable reverberations, audience noise, including screams and whistles, the musicians have a hard time hearing themselves clearly. The sound travels not only from the instrument to the player's ear, he also hears it reflected from the walls and the audience plus second-hand, high volume speakers sound. On-stage monitor speakers and earphones help but getting the sound right for all concerned is tricky. Some players will go to extraordinary lengths to get it right. Electric violinist Dan Trueman has tackled this problem. After much experimenting, he now hears his instrument through twelve speakers in a spherical arrangement, called the Boulder, right next to him on stage in an attempt to reproduce the resonant characteristics of a real violin. And to hear what the heck he's playing.
It is not just in music that Simulations Of The Real Thing occur. On the walls in our homes there may be knotty pine panelling that is not wood at all. It's sheets of photographed knotty pine applied to panel board. There are plastic/marble counter-tops, imitation crystal chandeliers, fake logs in the fireplace; artificial flowers are everywhere. Do they look good? Sure. But they are not real. When you get close, they feel like plastic, or have a plastic smell about them. I wonder if the keys on a modern grand piano are still ivory and ebony as they used to be. Probably not, in the name of conservation. More and more people accept the fakery; they are unconcerned about its origins. The odds are they have never seen real knotty pine. They buy soapstone sculptures that have been extracted from molds; they might be wearing fake fur but have never seen real leopard skin. Faux is a very common word nowadays.
It is the same in music. There is so much sound coming at us from all directions, and fast: CDs, radio, television, iPods, cell phones, the Internet; we find it hard to discriminate between the Real, the Bad and the Ugly. This makes me think about my own playing. The truth is I am most comfortable when I am playing someone else's music. Where is my originality? Am I not repeating phrases, licks that other musicians invented?
When my grand-daughter plays with GarageBand she is using other people's music, re-cycling loops, rhythms, melody fragments. It is hardly a creative process; most of the work has already been done by real musicians, aided by black boxes. What should Grampa do? Tell her it is all rubbish, or tell her how clever she is? That's my problem.