On Free Music

The curse of modern music is rhythmic regularity, mechanical regularity due to the digital sequencer and drum machine. This perfect regularity kills expression. This can be useful as a contrast for natural organic rhythms and emotions, but even in such circumstances the cold emotionlessness of regular rhythm would always appear bright, jarring, unnatural compared to an organic performance.

Regular rhythms are felt by all of us and all things, and intercepted by others. In music we use this to synchronise with each other and the emotions of the musician, the composer and the performer. Thus the rhythm forms a base track, like a spinal thread from which the other emotions grow and branch. All organic rhythms are imperfect in terms of exact and accurate timing because biology could never evolve a perfect structure of this form. Evolution demands variety to exist. Evolution demands, if you believe in perfection, imperfection.

Removing the key element of rhythm and replacing it with electronic timing forces all other emotions to strive towards this metallic track, and always be inferior. The only alternative in such a situation is to create digital attachments, new electronic parts that match, but this process can only go so far. A wholly electronic track would be completely emotionally removed from biological rhythms, and the connection between music artist and audience is broken. In such circumstances the creator and the audience alike now become consumers, aspirants to the digital perfection, worshippers of the electronic god.

At this point the creator is no longer a master, but a slave to the machine. This is evident in reality; the club disc-jockeys who manipulate the timing of tracks, blending one into another are not creators, but like rocks in the river of sound, manipulators. The same is true of early electronic musicians such as Tangerine Dream, who manipulate live regular rhythms rather that create. It is the manipulation of this existing digital stream that creates the emotional flow, rather than the composition.

The true art of music is in its creation because art is about human to human communication. Art is not machine to human communication. A machine can tell us nothing about what it is to be human (although it could tell us about what it is like to be a machine! A valueless concept! A rock that informs us about being a rock is not an artist). However, each individual has their own definition of what art is, so perhaps those who consider everything art can consider all art good and then end this argument in an aesthetic bliss!

Art must ultimately be a form of human to human communication through a communication medium, and that medium should be as direct as possible. Pressing the START button on a rhythm machine is creating art only as much as the act of pressing, and then only when that act is known by the listeners. The sound that comes out of the machine is not remotely art! If the machine happened to turn on by itself, would random chance, would fate then be an artist? No! So, in this case it is the act that is the art, not the music. As so it is with electronic music generally.

Manipulating a flow of electronic music then makes the manipulation, not the music, the art. This is also evident; bands since Tangerine Dream focus on the live performance element, and produce large volumes of music because the music content is not the art as much its modulation by the operators. The manipulation is the only emotional content, and so the music is weak, and difficult to discern emotionally.

In terms of sonic quality, music is very mechanical now, and so emotionless and therefore artistically weak; it convey less and less deeply. Even voices are becoming purely electronic. One day perhaps, the music of the early twenty-first century will be seen as twee and emotionally vacant as Victorian poetry, which because of its rhyming structures suffered the exact problems that digital music suffers from today. Victorians of the time didn't think so, however!

The true artist much be empowered to create and express emotionally. The power of classical music comes from the very fact that each player is a human, expressing their own feeling. This is a key revelation. In pop music, the emotional expression comes from the players and the producer, but less people overall than in an orchestra (less people isn't always worse, of course, often the most expressive music is a solo performance).

There is hope. Since the late 20th century, music has become digital. In some ways this quantises emotion and so can be a constraining factor, even now in a "32-bit 96khz" world people talk about the superiority of analogue recording, of course this is true, yet in a simple digital recording of a symphony, the emotion is evident and need not be a constraining factor. Even in a pure digital sequencer, we can move it, we can change it to make it evocative. This has always been the job of the musician, to give some soul to a mechanical instrument.

Digital tools can be used, or developed, to represent emotions, and given evocative voices.

The biggest enemy of expression is fixed temporal regularity, fixed volume, and fixed repetition. No emotion repeats. Such laziness must be avoided.

The root of art is emotion and its birth. It is time to seek and develop new ways to create music in the way that visual art is created; with the concept first, and the music to grow from it like a drama, or temporal sculpture.

Copyright © 3 January 2017 by Mark Sheeky