Sunday, February 19, 2012

Electronics in Art and Popular Music

            Trying to choose just one aspect of electronic music is difficult for me. When I was 20 years old I decided that I would pursue the life of a pop musician, I had taken piano lessons for a long time and therefore I decided that my instrument would be keyboards. My first was a Korg Z1 then I moved to an MS2000, Yamaha DX27, and Rhodes Piano and Roland Hammond organ emulator. I learned to use recording and synthesis software (Sonar and plug-ins, usually Kontakt but also EastWest platforms, Vocaloid and Reason). I mention all of this because with the advent of music recording in the home, I think there is a tendency on the part of younger people to think that electronic music has only to do with their generation.  It was very interesting to me, to read about the long developments in the art world on the part of Stockhausen and Babbitt which contributed greatly to the development of electronic music studios where a great deal of groundbreaking research had been done.
          I suppose if I have to define “electronic” music, it would be music in which some kind of electronic synthesis was involved. It would be easy to define compositions for tape as electronic pieces because there is a mechanical device being used for music which operates on electricity. But electricity is the workhorse in this relationship and not the focus. In other words, electricity provides the means for an analogue sound to be transmitted, but the sound being produced is not electronic, it is simply a reproduction of a non-electronic origin. For this reason, I have to lump all samplers into the same category, therefore; the Melotron is not a focus for consideration because it was a tape machine that could be played like a piano. So, it appears as though I am left with the Theremin, the Odes Martinot, and the synthesizers of Buchla, Robert Moog as well as those of RCA.
          Almost everyone who does Hip-Hop, Slowcore, Trip-Hop, Funk, House, Techno, Jungle and every other genre of popular electronic music owns a T-shirt that says “moog.” This is a lasting testament to the legacy of Bob Moog. It is interesting that the company which bears his name is still producing analog synthesizers, except the new models are complete  with modern digital interfaces that make it simple to sync up to a computer (about 7 years ago, retrofitting an old moog with a new midi patch was all the rage, it seems like the company got the hint). What is truly interesting is that very rarely are stand-alone keyboards and synthesizers being used any more. For the most part, computers have become so powerful that the software emulators are almost every bit as versatile and pristine as the old models but in a very manageable form. Now, electronic musicians can access the sound of an old moog or vintage Korg by simply routing a plug-in to their sequencer of choice. This was unthinkable only 10 years ago (perhaps even 5 years ago) but now is common place. This is probably a byproduct of computers reaching upwards of 2 TB of hard-drive space, with 4-8 GB of RAM and multiple CPU. With all of this in mind, I find it miraculous that composers such as Stockhausen and Babbitt were able to do the kind of work they did on those old machines. I also feel a little saddened that Varese did not live to see an age that I truly think he would have enjoyed. 

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