Quote of the Week: On and Beyond New Tools

Over at createdigitalmusic.com, the website’s founder, Peter Kirn, dives deep into the changes in music-performance technology. The piece is appropriately titled “The End of Laptop Hegemony in Live Computer Music.” Here’s just one chunk of the article, the fourth of four reasons “Why everything will change”:

Reason #4: Build it, and they will come. The hardware is going to be out there: cheap, flexible, numerous in quantity and variety. People will use it and do stuff. But whereas laptop musicians today sometimes seem like armies of look-alike MacBook users, I don’t think this brave, new world is going to look the same way. The Mac laptop (and to lesser extent, its PC brethren) became popular with good reason. But now, as digital performance techniques become more widespread and the artists make greater demands on their gear, maybe variety is exactly what’s needed. I think you may soon see everything from strange hardware boxes to iPads to slates and tablets and handheld gadgets and more showing up onstage. Musical invention, when it’s healthy, doesn’t lead to one or two designs. It leads to absurd, insane chaos. Take even the piano, an emblem of standardization and mass instrumental consumption. The piano has spawned endless mutations, sizes, manufacturers, sounds, and so on. Or the guitar: the icon of the 20th century mass music culture was at its best when people were abusing it and feeding it through boxes that destroyed its sound and breaking every rule of how you’re supposed to play it. And that’s about as conventional as instruments get. The musical applications that start to get most interesting: * Boxes with physical controls ”“ think stomp pedals, faders, knobs, the like ”“ but programmable computer brains * Intelligent, cheap synths, effects, and the like that can be easily reprogrammed * The return of the hardware sequencer (as evidenced by the minicommand), now with the intelligence and flexibility and customizability of software * Tablet computers, from the iPad to new devices that also handle inputs like the stylus, that ”“ far from being just a controller ”“ take the role of the computer, an all-in-one digital brain for a performance. Via hardware support, they could still connect to high-quality audio outputs, headphone monitoring, and external MIDI keyboards or physical drum pads. They could become interactive canvases that would make Xenakis proud. * Computers that can double as physical instruments, music stands, amps (like the Orange) or other musical devices. Trivia note: in 1977, Xenakis implemented his UPIC graphical system on a Hewlett Packard computer. In 2010, HP will introduce the Slate. I have no idea if the Slate will be any good, but all of this has happened in roughly the span of my lifetime. Sometimes, technology takes time.

While the article as a whole is required reading, that section in particular singles out key issues — among them the rise of touch-screen interfaces, the compact period of time in which computer music has come of age, and the return of non-computer electronic-music hardware.

What elevates the piece, though, is the graph that immediately follows that fourth “reason,” one in which Kirn notes the confines in which he his making his comments:

I realize I’m making an argument about musical practice based on technology, and that that argument isn’t entirely complete ”“ but that’s what blogs can be for. I just want to introduce the idea first. I actually have some ideas about technologies that could enable the sort of performance changes I’m talking about, and ways they could be more musically useful (which is what really matters). But I’ll keep that for another day.

What he’s saying, in effect, is that he’s writing about technology, not genre; equipment, not aesthetics; gadgetry, not art (except to the extent that many of these tools are works of art unto themselves). What people do with the material and immaterial tools he’s describing is a parallel topic. The adoption of these new tools is noteworthy; we are in a period of intense and rapid technological change, and musicians and other artists are at the forefront of adopting technology, showing us where we are headed. But the rise of these machines is just part of the story.

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