Sunday, April 27, 2008

Thoughts on Electronic Music

I think this is the first time I've put up the same post on both blogs. But I couldn't figure out where it made more sense to put it. So.


(A very simple Moog synthesizer, without any of the mixing or recording apparatus. Carlos's studio from the '70s was much more involved than this.)

I have a project in mind.

As I have written elsewhere, I have a distinct soft spot for the recordings of Wendy Carlos. And also of Isao Tomita, who was active in similar fashion about the same time. Carlos's early "Switched-On" recordings of Bach on the Moog synthesizer, and Tomita's recordings of synthesized Debussy (and others) were one of my entry points into classical music--we might even call them the spoonful of sugar that caused me to linger over something that might otherwise have required too much concentration from my teen-age brain. It doesn't hurt, of course, that they were fiddling with really amazing source material; it's one of the reasons these recordings have stood the test of time.

But another reason is that they document a fascinating period of history. This was the point at which purely electronically-created sounds officially entered the mainstream. I love the idea of this, I love the steps required to make it happen, and I love the sounds themselves.

Mine are not the most versatile of tastes, I know. I listen to a broader range than some, but my music collection still consists of a handful of pockets, a few distinct genres that constitute my core enthusiasms. Within my favorite genre of organ music, I love all manner of sounds and all the mechanical stuff involved in making those sounds. My exploration of organ tone and pipe construction and voicing and the assembly of an ensemble over the years helped me to become more aware of musical tone and of the nature of sound generally. And I've come to be in love with sound itself. So how could I not love the Moog synthesizer and all the electronic permutations that have followed it? It's more versatile than just this, of course, but I think the synthesizer is ideally suited to organ music.

Somewhere along the line, the synthesizer has been co-opted by popular and dance music almost exclusively. There is a field of modern composed electronic music (though I've struggled to find much of a portal into that community), but like much of the rest of modern intellectual music it seems to have raced far ahead of public acceptance or understanding or appreciation. And no one seems to be using the synthesizer as Carlos and Tomita did 30 years ago, as a set of unique sounds and capabilities to be applied to the existing musical canon. I find this odd, since we have not deemed the repertoire itself to be irrelevant; we're still interested in triad-based Western tonal music from the last five hundred years, but nobody seems to be seriously interpreting this music electronically.

So there is the nub of my "project," an idea that has been bouncing around my head for a decade. There is a hole that needs filling.

In the 20 years since I was playing drums in a band in Minneapolis, the world of sound production and recording has undergone really radical, fundamental changes. So fundamental that it has taken me some time to even figure out what questions to ask. What used to be a matter of acoustic (or even early electronic) instruments played real-time and captured on magnetic tape in a dedicated recording studio by a team of professionals is now something an individual can accomplish quite easily in his bedroom on his laptop. All of it--the whole business. (I struggle to get my head around the details and implications of this.)

All this change seems actually to work in my favor, as much of the technology is specifically suited to someone who does not fluently read music (me) or is not highly accomplished on the instrument in question (me again). Working from a score, I should be able to assemble pieces a line at a time--or even a note at a time--and then edit and tweak the details so that I end up at the performance I desire. This is not an approach which celebrates the spark of spontaneous creativity, I know, which is a big part of at least some types of music. But my own tastes have always leaned toward the considered and deliberate. If I were more adept at reading music, I might find my purest appreciation by studying the score. So my carefully-assembled and -tweaked computer music might understandably not appeal to everyone. But I can think of a hundred pieces which might benefit from this perspective.

What remains to figure out is... well, everything (and this is where the rubber of my formulation of questions meets the road of my ignorance of the new paradigm). How to produce the actual sounds? What exact software--and how to decide on one program over another? If I use my computer to do the digital sound synthesis (a sensible step), how do I ensure compatibility between the actual synthesizing software and the sequencing and recording programs? These things can be gotten as a bundle, even having all elements as lobes of a single program; but that convenience / compatibility may force compromises in sound input material; and presumably we'll eventually be dealing with more than just a single source of sound material. And that leads to another question: at what point does one "record" the sounds produced? Is the tweaking to be done in the editing phase? Do I perfect a given line or phrase and put it in the can, assembling a piece from the best takes of the myriad parts? Or is most of the work to be done in the editing after the fact, programming the MIDI instructions so that the piece plays--generates in completed form--at the touch of a button? Does one tweak and tweak the MIDI file and then record the final product when there isn't any more tweaking to do?

I feel a bit like a cave man stumbling upon a Vespa scooter in the woods. There are plenty of people swimming with perfect comfort in these waters presently, people for whom my questions may not be entirely sensible (or who realize that my aspirations are misguided or ill-informed). It's like my in-laws who find the use of a cell phone intimidating and incomprehensible, even though it doesn't differ much from their cordless house phone. Everyone's knowledge and comfort zone has a boundary somewhere.

All this by way of introduction. It will take me a while to figure out the details, but I may put up continuing posts detailing my progress or lack thereof.

Thoughts or suggestions are welcome, natch.

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