Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Musical Frontiers

A couple of days ago a message popped up in my Twitter timeline, a suggestion for a blog. It went like this: "Are there any musical frontiers left?"

I thought about this question and rolled it around in my mind. It wasn't a question I immediately liked or one I had any immediate, instinctive thoughts about and that bothered me because, usually, I will have some mental starting point to go from that comes immediately to mind. But not so with this question. So I went to sleep and let it slide for a while. Thoughts will come when they may and there's no use forcing them. The next day I thought about it some more but, still, I wasn't really overflowing with thoughts on the subject and it became clear to me that if I was going to have an answer to this question it probably wasn't going to be on the terms it was asked. That, of course, is not necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps the answer to the question is to re-frame it and give, instead of a straight answer, a new angle of view from which to approach the subject. What follows is going to be my attempt to do this and my reasoning as to why I need to.

Another way to ask this same question is to ask if anything is really new. Clearly, at some points, the answer to this is yes. We do, for example, sometimes create new genres of music or new sounds. When human beings discovered electricity, for example, it opened a door to electronically amplified sound and, later, electronically engineered instruments. The electric guitar and the synthesizer are both 20th century developments. These instruments have opened up new musical frontiers. And yet, I assume, both of these instruments have their limitations. There is only so much you can do with them realistically. OK, maybe with a modular synthesizer with mixed modules (the more the better!) you maximise your potential for a wide and varied selection of sound creation. But music is not just sounds, its structure too. Even where that structure is a deliberate lack of it. My point here, though, is that technology is one thing that delivers musical possibility. Just as in former centuries manufacturing skill led to the creation of the instruments of the orchestra, giving birth to orchestra music, so the 20th century (and beyond) heralded music made by electronic means or even in new ways made possible by technology. Before the computer music had to be played. These days many people simply draw it and a machine renders it into a coherent whole.

So it seems clear there have been new forms of music, new tools to use and new ways to go about the whole process. Yet my question raises the prospect of this coming to an end. How do I feel about that? Personally, I must express ambivalence towards it. I have have no crystal ball and I cannot tell what someone might invent next. I'm much more of a reactive person here. When I make music I evaluate what resources I have and then I allow myself to be expressed through them. I am not trying to cross a musical frontier or break a boundary into some new musical uplands. My line of sight is not to where human music-making might go next. In fact, I don't see myself or music in such generalized, global terms at all. And this is why this question is somewhat annoying to me as a question. I don't like the way it is expressed and it grates somewhat on the person I am and the understandings I have about the world. These are not at all bad things! New insights, rubbing against opposing viewpoints and scenarios, is what should help the intelligent person to develop and grow themselves. But, even so, I want to answer the question a different way.

Music, in my understanding, is a matter of personal expression. Now I know that not everyone agrees with this. John Cage, for example, would vehemently disagree. But much as I have read, enjoyed and nodded along with much Cage has said, I just feel instinctively that when I make music it is a personal thing, a matter of personal expression. This is what I think and feel I am doing. I might even go as far as to say that my music is a personal statement or validation of self. For some, and I'd include myself, it is even a kind of therapy, a way to help ease our existence in the world. If this is even partly true, or true for you as a music maker, then I fail to see how this connects particularly with the idea of a generalized musical frontier. To go along with this type of understanding is to say that musical output is linked to individual people - as a necessity. So, in that case, even a desire to "cross musical frontiers" would be, at base, just the desire of a particular human being. It would be a personal mission. This in itself, of course, does not completely annihilate the idea of a generalized musical frontier and I've already agreed that our human history is one that includes opening up new kinds of music and new sounds. But, nevertheless, it does seem somewhat at odds with such an idea. It raises the question "What is your music about? What is it for?"

But concentrating on this idea of music as something inspired by and through particular human beings raises another possibility. This is that there might be music that wasn't made by human beings at all. Indeed, only yesterday I remember seeing a couple of references to some piece of music (which I now can't find!) that, so it seemed to suggest, had been entirely composed by a computer. And this seems to me to be a frontier: the human contemplation of music that humans did not make. But something else did. This raises lots of philosophical questions of course. I assume the computer that made the music did so without any feeling at all. It would not know what it felt like to make music and could have no feeling to put into the making of the music. This would be very different to the experience of many music makers. (As I sit here typing I hear a crow cawing outside, nature's music?) But it would still be music if appreciated as such by human listeners. Could one new frontier be, in a generalized sense, that in future music will be something technology generates for itself and we humans just listen to it? But if that were so it would also open up the possibility for humans to "jam" with machines, musically creative machines. In my random thinking I've gone and found a frontier! But is it a welcome one? I also seem to have offered a rider to my belief that music for some is personal. It need not be if an impersonal machine that doesn't even know it is making music can make it too.

But this raises an intriguing question: if machines could make their own music (totally undirected by any human impetus or prompting) then what music would they make? It would be silly and arrogant to think it might be anything like human music since we know that even humans make music in genres and sub-genres that are birthed from specific enculturated contexts. Indeed, I find it hard to theorize how we could even expect to understand machine music as music. Human music, for we must admit there could be non-human forms, is based on human experience of life. This primarily means our physical experience of the world which is limited to a narrow bandwidth of sound (generally taken as 20 Hz to 20 kHz). We know there are sounds that occur above and below these frequencies but they are not a part of our music because we cannot physically perceive them (but we can use them as modulation sources, for example, as an LFO in a synthesizer). This serves to set human music in context as human and to show that others forms would and could be possible. No doubt we will get entirely non-human music and it will be fascinating to hear (if we could hear!) what this sounds like should any of us live long enough to hear it. This would be genuinely new.

But yet I must come back to my own uneasiness with the original question. Although I have now found one possible new frontier I feel within myself that there is a more important point to make. When approaching the question in general we are aware of the broad scope of music, more than any one person has ever made themselves. And this, I think, is my point. For whilst the question of generalized human musical frontiers might be, for me, somewhat moot, when it comes to a personal application of the question it certainly is not. For any musician has only ever really scratched the surface of what they could achieve musically when compared with the whole of their species. There will be so many genres of music, styles of playing, instruments used, sound palettes worked with, that they have just never even tried. This is important because it means that any one musician, or group of musicians, will have what I perceive to be a vast array of possibilities to hand. Its as easy as setting a new course, entering a new musical landscape and saying "Let's see what I can make of this!" And that is tremendously exciting because not only does it mean you can put anxieties about new musical frontiers to one side but it also means that you don't need to worry about them because you personally are always going to have somewhere to go anyway. Have you tried making jazz music? Rock? Funk? Gabba? Electronic Body Music? Working with just percussion sounds? Just flute sounds? Just static noises? Just voices? How many different time signatures have you used? Etc. You can see the list will be endless and as large as your imagination.

I admit that these are the only musical frontiers that I am really interested in and this is because they are the only real ones that practically apply to any actual musician. It may be that in this experimental attitude to music, one I would actively promote, I create something that someone else regards as new. If so, then so be it. But I tend to think this will be achieved more by accident than deliberation. I tend to think you should worry about extending your own range and experience and let the rest take care of itself. It may be that you yourself operate within a fairly limited set of circumstances. Maybe you always use the same sounds or things and just reorganize them in different ways. Well don't!. Stop doing that. Think about new ways to use or apply old things. Determine that your next recording will use a completely different sound set. Even go so far as saying you want it to sound like something using sounds you have not yet made. Use only sounds that you made yourself so you know that each is unique. One thing I can agree with Cage on is that every new piece of music is an experiment, a personal experiment. And while this is so for you as a music maker then every day will be the breaking of a new personal boundary and the crossing of a new personal frontier.

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