Wednesday, 30 November 2016

The Music of Possibility: A Noise Manifesto

Today's blog starts with a question: what links French composer Edgard Varese, 80s sampling supergroup The Art of Noise, Industrial pioneers Throbbing Gristle, silence-loving indeterminist John Cage, German Industrialists Einstürzende Neubauten, the creator of Musique Concrete (Pierre Schaeffer), the name of a leading Eurorack manufacturer (Make Noise), the first all electronic score for a motion picture (Forbidden Planet), the more abstract entries into the canon of German Kosmische Musik, the harsh and unpredictable sounds of circuit bent instruments, the electronic jazz of Autechre, EBMers Nitzer Ebb, the glitch madness of Richard Devine, the Japanoise of Merzbow and Masonna, the IDM of Aphex Twin, the cut up, breakbeat craziness of Venetian Snares, a Berlin festival called Atonal.... and this list could go on forever!?

The answer is NOISE.

Actually, whilst the answer is noise it is more particularly the musical use and contextualization of noise, noise as a musically useful entity. But what even is noise? If it is members of German band Faust hitting a concrete mixer or Einstürzende Neubauten using electric drills or the weird shrieks of something that has been circuit bent this seems quite obvious but how might we define it? The temptation is to describe noise as unmusical sounds put to musical uses and I'm sure more than one reader was tempted to think that. But is it that simple? As a recent blog of mine showed, such a composer as John Cage, plus other pioneers such as Pierres Schaeffer and Henry, would hardly be likely to agree with this. Cage was so extreme (as some would judge it) as to believe that all sound was music (even including the sounds you might want to call noises) whilst Schaeffer's term Musique Concrete actually means real music, music made from real sounds, or noises as we might call them.

Now it can't really be argued against that many of those who pioneered working with noises (which is directly parallel to the rise of electronics in music) did so in order to be unconventional or counter to the prevailing movements in music of their times. (They might have described it as broadening our conception of music itself, however!) Some musicians simply plugged in their electronic instruments and tried to make normal music, of course. But a large number of those utilizing electronic equipment did not. They were wise to the fact that electronics meant new sounds and noises. A stand out example for me is the work of Louis and Bebe Barron who composed not the score for the film Forbidden Planet, it didn't have one, but what is described in the credits as "Electronic Tonalities". It was likely called this because the sound FX of the film and the "music" of the film cannot be distinguished at all. It is just one endless stream of strange, otherworldly tones. Or noises. The Barrons built their own circuits to make the score and many of them were destroyed in making the sounds they made meaning the score was literally unrepeatable. So outrageous in musical terms was their sound creation for the time that they were banned from being nominated for an Oscar. This was as recently as 1956, or 60 years ago.

An even earlier pioneer with things electronic was French composer, Edgard Varese. Varese emigrated to New York City in 1915 and, as a composer, was beset by the idea of making new sounds. In 1917 he wrote "I long for instruments obedient to my thought and whim, with their contribution of a whole new world of unsuspected sounds, which will lend themselves to the exigencies of my inner rhythm." He went on to compose two avantgarde percussion pieces in the 1920s, Hyperprism and Ionisation, the first of which reportedly created a riot and the second of which used two variable tone sirens but it is in 1930, during a round table discussion in Paris, that he gives his "Liberation of Sound" manifesto and it is worth quoting at length here.

"The raw material of music is sound. That is what the "reverent approach" has made people forget - even composers. Today when science is equipped to help the composer realize what was never before possible - all that Beethoven dreamed, all that Berlioz gropingly imagined possible - the composer continues to be obsessed by traditions which are nothing but the limitations of his predecessors. Composers like anyone else today are delighted to use the many gadgets continually put on the market for our daily comfort. But when they hear sounds that no violins, wind instruments, or percussion of the orchestra can produce, it does not occur to them to demand those sounds for science. Yet science is even now equipped to give them everything they may require.

And there are the advantages that I anticipate from such a machine: liberation from the arbitrary paralyzing tempered system; the possibility of obtaining any number of cycles or, if still desired, subdivisions of the octave, and consequently the formation of any desired scale; unsuspected range in low and high registers; new harmonic splendors obtainable from the use of subharmonic combinations now impossible; the possibility of obtaining any differential of timbre, of sound combinations, and new dynamics far beyond the present human-powered orchestra; a sense of sound projection in space by the emission of sound in any part or in many parts of the hall as may be required by the score; cross rhythms unrelated to each other, treated simultaneously, or to use the old word, contrapuntally, since the machine would be able to beat any number of desired notes, any subdivision of them, omission or fraction of them - all these in a given unit of measure of time which is humanly impossible to attain."

However, there are even earlier precursors to the coming age of electronic noise than this. Around the time of Varese's emigration the Italian Luigi Russolo was writing his now famous The Art of Noises booklet. This booklet, of course, directly inspired both the name and musical practice of the 80s supergroup, The Art of Noise, who utilized the most advanced and expensive sampling technology of their time, the Fairlight and the Synclavier, to turn noises into instruments. A perfect example is their first hit, Close To The Edit. The video to this track is also highly symbolic as four characters destroy a piano with electric saws, a chainsaw and other implements. It almost seems as if traditional music, and its instruments, is being replaced by a new electronic noise music based on any sound that can be made or imagined. A technological, noisy future awaits.

But back to The Art of Noises a moment for within it Russolo describes our emergence from a bucolic past into a noisy present and future.

"Ancient life was all silence. In the 19th century, with the invention of the machine, Noise was born. Today, Noise triumphs and reigns supreme over the sensibility of men. For many centuries life went by in silence, or at most in muted tones. The strongest noises which interrupted this silence were not intense or prolonged or varied. If we overlook such exceptional movements as earthquakes, hurricanes, storms, avalanches and waterfalls, nature is silent...

Every manifestation of our life is accompanied by noise. The noise, therefore, is familiar to our ear, and has the power to conjure up life itself. Sound, alien to our life, always musical and a thing unto itself, an occasional but unnecessary element, has become to our ears what an overfamiliar face is to our eyes. Noise, however, reaching us in a confused and irregular way from the irregular confusion of our life, never entirely reveals itself to us, and keeps innumerable surprises in reserve. We are therefore certain that by selecting, coordinating and dominating all noises we will enrich men with a new and unexpected sensual pleasure."

Luigi Russolo and friend playing hand cranked noise instruments called Intonarumori which produced rattling and scraping noises. These were all destroyed during World War 2.

This narrative we find mirrored in the mid to late 1970s in the UK and Europe when "Industrial" music was born. The first thing to note about it is that it was purposely artistic. Groups such as Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire in England were people of musical and artistic ideas. Where they differed was in the sounds they used to express these ideas and this gives them a direct link to the motivations of earlier composers like Russolo and Varese. For the Industrialists, including later ones into the early 1980s in continental Europe, especially Germany, it was the sound of a dark, industrial wasteland that was the sonic inspiration as they sought to probe and make use of sonic extremity. Noise and noises were the sonic materials that they worked with and, in a very serious and composerly way, they knitted together noisy compositions from an acute awareness of sound. It is sometimes common to regard this music as somehow a lesser kind of music because it uses instruments in non-traditional ways (for example, Cosey Fanni Tutti's playing of the guitar) but this is, of course, nothing more than the sniffy disparagement of more conservative minds.

But now we sit here at the end of 2016 and none of this seems very new. We have computers that can hold sample libraries full of terabytes of sounds if we want to. Literally any sound we can record or invent can be used musically. We have 50 years of commercial synthesis to call upon with all the amazing instruments and their timbral possibilities that go with it. Before that we passed through a brief age of music made with magnetic tape and radio equipment. Yet how adventurous are we now? The old divides are still apparent. We take on new habits and these habits become the new norms we must seek to subvert. Is there a sense that we have now done all that can be done sonically? Are the dreams of Russolo and Varese and others like Cage and Schaeffer complete? This is really a twofold question for I am asking if we have now found all the sounds there are to be found but also if we are using the totality of sound when we compose music.

A few things suggest not. One form of music which creates a harsh divide is the appropriately enough named Harsh Noise music. This even has regional forms such as Japanoise, which is harsh noise originating from Japan. This is, in as straight a form as could be maintained, the use of outright electronic noise regarded as music. It can be seen to be on the cutting edge in that so many are ready to denigrate it as either not artistic or as not music. I look forward to those who take either pathway here presenting their fully worked out definitions of both art and music for our appraisal. In a collection of electronic music lectures and documentaries I have collected together on You Tube there is one called People Who Do Noise. Its an 80 minute documentary but I wonder how many who watch it (and you should!) get to minute 80 because some of those minutes contain the harshest of noises. The comments underneath this video (which you should read) are a kind of street fight over what music is, if this is a valid form of it or if it is just, as one commenter thinks, "over pretentious, meaningless bullshit".

Of course, the accusation of pretentiousness has been heard before. In my last blog but one it was used of John Cage's very own noise experiment, 4'33". One thing that seems to link those who work with noise is their utter seriousness of interest in the noise that they make or make room for people to hear. It is often thought that those working with noise must be somehow the opposite, not at all serious or joking, because, so I assume, it seems that some cannot escape the conventionality of the view that real music is melody and harmony conventionally understood. This, of course, is not so and certainly not since the onset of electronics in music. As Varese said earlier, we can now have any scale we like. Or even none at all. From the very first electronic musical instruments, such as the Theremin (the instrument which, lest we forget, got Robert Moog interested in synthesis), electronic noise music and its exploration has been veering away from traditional ideas of music, as Varese pointed out it would have to. New possibilities mean new opportunities. It was thanks to these new possibilities that new phenomena emerged. We now associate space with weird sounds exactly because electronically generated sounds and scores seemed to better fit these mysterious places so alien to our experiences. 

And so it can be seen that noises powered by electronics come to express things that more traditional instruments and forms of music could not. They are an extension of our sonic expressivity. I personally believe that this is all to the good for human beings that always have within them the desire to break new ground, to explore. We are creatures cursed to experience a physical world and that physical world includes sound. So, to my mind, it is utterly human to want to know what can be done and to find out in the doing of it and, what's more, to use new possibilities in sound to better express the experiences of life that we have. To that end, music with electronics had to involve the bringing of noise within the fold of musical creativity and it has immeasurably enriched us all as a result. Of course, conservatism will still hold the mainstream and try to limit, curtail and push back on the noisy neighbors that seek to broaden and strengthen our artistic appreciations and impulses but the boundaries of acceptability must always be pushed if we are to advance. Who one hundred years ago would have imagined the musical possibilities of sound and noise we have today? We live in the world Luigi Russolo's Art of Noises dreamed of. 

I leave the last word to John Cage who, in 1937, prophetically uttered the following words in his lecture "The Future of Music: Credo":


Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating. The sound of a truck at 50 mph. Static between the (radio) stations. Rain. We want to capture and control these sounds, to use them, not as sounds effects, but as musical instruments. Every film studio has a library of sound effects recorded on film. With a film phonograph it is now possible to control the amplitude and frequency of any one of these sounds and to give to it rhythms within or beyond the reach of anyone's imagination. Given four film phonographs, we can compose and perform a quartet for explosive motor, wind, heartbeat and landslide. 


If this word, music, is sacred and reserved for eighteenth and nineteenth century instruments, we can substitute a more meaningful term: organization of sound.  


The question is, how much do we live up to the hopes and dreams of our musical forbears? How much of a music of exploration and possibility do we make?

For more like this you can consider joining my Facebook group Electronic Music Philosophy 

Monday, 28 November 2016

ANUS HORRIBILIS: 2016 in Review

And so we come to that time of year when when start to look back on what has gone before and we start to espy what might be ahead around the next corner. I do not think it will be very controversial to say that 2016 has been one of the worst years many of us have lived through. From the deaths of creative icons such as David Bowie or Prince (plus many others not named here) to political and social upheavals which threaten difficult times ahead for many, and a more selfish "me first" attitude in general, 2016 has seemed determined to punch many people in the face and rock them back on their heels. Of course, we don't know how this will all turn out in the end. Part of the human curse is to live neither in the past nor in the future but always in the present. Things are always happening around us the significance of which may end up eluding us. 

It was impossible during this year, even as isolated as I am from wider society in my self-enforced half-hibernation, to keep all of these horrors out and my music was greatly affected by it. I spent the first six months of the year making dissonant noise collages which were aesthetically displeasing - even to me who made them. Thereafter followed three months in which I found music largely impossible and beside the point. Of what import is art when you see the wider world becoming more self-obsessed, regressive and antediluvian by the day? In the last couple of months I desperately wanted to make more music just so I could prove to myself that it wasn't a skill I had lost. I was reaching out trying to do it but more often than not this was met by a frustrated lack of creative impetus. I somehow managed to produce 4 or 5 projects which were dark and minimalist, a reflection upon dark times personally and politically.

And so I come to my final album of the year: ANUS HORRIBILIS. This is a review of my music in 2016. It picks out not the best tracks of my year (best is always a subjective, contingent choice that bears a connection only to the moment it sprung from) but the most representative. It is ANUS Horribilis and not Annus. It is not a horrible year, though it certainly has been, but a horrible arse. Or two if you check out the cover of this compilation. This was, unfortunately, the only honest picture I could pick for the cover, much as I despise the two men depicted. 2016 has been a horrible arse of a year and these two men perfectly represent that as they shit out any old crap on their personal, narcissistic and self-aggrandizing journeys through life.

All this means that if you are looking for happy pop songs and cheery melodies you've come to the wrong place. But if you've ever listened to anything by me before then you should know this wasn't exactly the place to come for that anyway! I have been much influenced by some comments of Edgar Froese's that he made in a BBC documentary some years ago which I watched in the past year a couple of times. He was speaking about how, in the late 1960s, German bands could set out on their own musical journeys, ones that weren't just Germans making American Rock n Roll or British Beat music. His answer was simple and brilliant: be abstract. This is something I think I have been working towards anyway. But its one thing to be abstract and another to be interestingly so. And, for all my dabbling in chance operations in composing music and in attempting to produce music that I did not write but merely oversaw, I did still want to make something that I felt expressed something genuine. I have not yet asked myself how I square the circle of letting music be what it will whilst also wanting to produce sounds that are authentic to something I recognise as the world. Maybe that is an adventure that yet awaits me.

My year in review consists of 15 tracks and there now follows a short history of how they came to be and why they exist in this review.

1. Gestalt

Gestalt (German: form, shape, figure, likeness) is a sound college and a very formal piece of music. It exists simply to explore sound. It was made entirely by accident. It is all sound textures and audio surfaces. It has no significance beyond this and is literally a sound void. I now read it as, perhaps, prophetic of personal and political voids.

2. Halle Neun

Markthalle Neun is a place in Berlin once of my acquaintance. This piece functions as a piece of nostalgia for it and those I was there with. The past clings to us even as we speed away from it.

3. Dogs

Dogs was a piece I made at first just with the sounds of dogs barking and growling. It was a sound experimentation piece and a piece in which I tried to make music from everyday sounds. In the end I added the cheap beat to give it a further flavor. This is a piece in which I try to see music in things which might not be thought to be musical because we should see more than just surfaces in life.

4. Cycle

Cycle is a tragic piece in which the mood of the same things happening over and over again forever is captured. Think of this as The Myth of Sisyphus, The Musical. It was originally written for an album called Adrift so maybe that is indicative of the mood in which it was created.

5. Rhenium

Rhenium was written for an album called Elements and all the song titles were chosen at random from the Periodic Table. I always regard my music itself as somewhat elemental. It is never very grand or intensely layered. It is most often just simple sounds expressing simple ideas, emotions or desires minimalistically done. One thing I hope to do (I don't try, I wouldn't know how) is to sometimes create a little beauty amongst the darkness. This piece is a little bit of that.

6. scram

Scram is a pure chaotic noise piece. It represents confusion, chaos, whatever you think that means. But it not as harsh as many I did this year. Chaos need not be harsh to be chaotic. 

7. Schneider

Schneider is titled after Florian Schneider, a member of Kraftwerk from 1970-2008. Musically, it was one of my attempts to introduce more lively drums into a piece of music. When I first started out making music many years ago it was the drums that were often the problem because whilst its easy to do this straight it sounds very boring. So keeping things lively but different yet still interesting is always a challenge. The sound of this track is generally noisy and buzzy as I was very taken with overdriven or saturated sounds at the time. Life had a lot of distortions, as it still has now, and these became musically represented.

8. The Terror of Brute Minds

The title should be self-explanatory in this year of all years and is a direct political comment. We live in disturbing times and who knows what horrors yet await us? The piece itself is drony, unsure of itself, one minute hopeful and the next in fear. 

9. DC Offset

This piece was made using a cut up method in which a piece of audio was recorded and then re-ordered by chance means. This again is meant to represent ideas of chaos and randomness and even being arbitrarily assigned to places you might not want to be. The title relates to nothing because why should it?

10. Slaves to Convention

Another track that is a political/social commentary. Convention I have been educated to see as dangerous to human beings on many levels. It amounts to living life according to habit, unthinkingly. And that can never end well. Musically, this sets out uncertain but then gains a conventional beat over which the randomness plays.

11. It Doesn't Matter

This piece is the most recent one I have composed and is partly a throwing up of the hands in disgust and partly a refusal to be dragged down with the weight of what goes on around us. Two sounds are panned hard left and hard right indicating choices. Again abstractness is key here because I don't like my music to be too definite. I want it to suggest chaos, openness, emptiness, a void. I don't want it to tell you what to do, how to be or how to feel. Because that's your responsibility.

12. Endurance

As a statement this is simple: this is the one thing you need in life. Musically, this is a little more of the beauty in the darkness. We all need a bit of encouragement sometimes.

13. My Life is Eternal Night

This musically tries to represent an eternal night of the soul, the landscape in which it seems we now all wander.

14. VoxPopuli

Those brute minds are back again in this noise piece which represents the populist voice which has been so active this year. It ain't pretty.

15. Es Tut Mir Leid

Es Tut Mir Leid (German: I'm Sorry) is a bit self-pitying. I'm sorry because I exist. The piece itself is a bit at cross purposes with an offbeat running contrary to the main kick sound. Life feels as if its not in time with itself so why would I not feel sorry for myself?

So there is my brief rundown of my musical year in review and the 15 tracks that emerge from that year as the representatives of what I did in it. I would say I hope you enjoy it but, to be brutally honest, I don't think music is merely about enjoyment and this year is one its been hard to enjoy at the best of times.

You can hear ANUS HORRIBILIS at

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

First Thoughts On Non-Intentional Music

The former scientist and self-appointed culture arbiter, Richard Dawkins, in the recent past on his Twitter account remarked regarding 4'33" by John Cage that it was, and I quote, "pretentious". Quite what Dawkins, a man who used to abide by the rules of science until he found that popularity required less concern with things like evidence and prudence, meant in detail by this brief comment we will never know. He was merely dismissive and felt that this was enough to inform his acolytes of the correct disposition to have towards it. From the context of the tweet it seemed as if he was not too familiar with the piece either, as if he had only just been made aware of it before commenting. It seems that such off the cuff remarking now stands in place of considered comment and argument in the minds of scientists turned experts on all things.

For those who have more familiarity with the study of music, however, it is to be hoped that the piece 4'33" by John Cage is rather more well known, by reputation if not through an experience of it being performed. It is the prime example, in the work of Cage or of anybody else for that matter, of non-intentional music. Non-intentional music is somewhat of a hot potato amongst musical types and, I think, not always well understood. Many musicians seem to instinctively take against it for reasons they cannot find the words to express. This, in turn, leads to a sense of irrationalism on their part or, worse, the suggestion that their beliefs might simply be based in a conventionality that cannot be expressed nor that dare speak its name. In what follows I hope to use Cage and his paradigmatic composition as lenses to focus on non-intentionality in music and to bring forward some initial thoughts about it.

                                                 John Cage

Philosophical Background

Conventional understandings of music may be summarized in the following way: music is thought of as communicative, self-expressive and intentional. This, perhaps controversially, can be boiled down to a view of music as some kind of intended information or, essentially, knowledge. In contrast, the Cagian Turn that will be described in this blog is towards unintentional sound, interpenetration, chance and indeterminacy in music. This, as can be seen, is nothing to do with communication or expression and is expressly anti-intentional. If we see the conventional form of music as a way of communicating knowledge of some kind then Cage's conception of music may even be seen as swapping knowledge for wisdom of some kind instead. 

Cage himself was influenced by eastern spiritual thinking early in his musical career in the 1940s. Under the Indian teaching he came to find important, he found that music was regarded as something to calm the mind rather than as merely entertainment or as the communicative, expressive, intentional thing I mentioned above. In this view music takes on a more therapeutic guise. But more than this, in the tradition he learned of, music was to calm the mind in order to open it up to "divine influences". This need not be thought of religiously even if he received the idea in a spiritual context. Cage himself resolved that these influences were all the sounds of our environment, the sounds of nature, and nothing more "divine" than that. These influences can then be read as opening a person up to a loss of control, intention and determination since they are necessarily things co-existing with us in their own ways but not controlled by us. But we are getting ahead of ourselves now and there seems to be a wider philosophical context that we can bring to bear here.

The western mind, in recent centuries, might be taken as Descartes' image of the Cogito (from Cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am). "I", the thinking subject, is in this viewpoint taken as the centre of the universe and me understanding myself and the things around me is regarded as enlightenment. I, and those like me, use this knowledge to control and manipulate the world around us. Music, our subject in this blog, understood under this way of thinking cannot be anything other than an expression of this "I" and communication from and about it. It also stands to reason that this must be intentional since the Cogito is seen as the locus of rationality in a universe made rational by our ability, so it is claimed, to think, reason and see things clearly. So a music existing under this frame of mind must be rational, intentional and deliberative just as this worldview claims itself to be. 

This was not the thought world from which Cage's new appreciation of music sprang. In eastern philosophy things are not thought to be in need of manipulation by autonomous subjectivities. Instead, all things exist in harmony and the goal is balance. Hence the requirement for calmness and the letting go of control I mentioned previously. Music in this context becomes something different too, as we might expect, but it requires a philosophical and attitudinal change to appreciate this. Within this view personal likes and dislikes, which come from the ego, must be cast aside for they are literally the definition of a narrow mind. Instead, one must learn to see and hear things as just things. Based on the necessary philosophical change from west to east, the rational self of western conception must be de-emphasized in terms of ego. What I like or dislike becomes unimportant and is replaced by a simple interest in things. As Cage phrases this for musical relevance: "Sounds should be honored rather than enslaved". This makes music primarily not entertainment or communication but discovery, an opening of self to possibility. Music, sound, is thus opportunity, not least for change.

Put crudely, then, we can contrast a western controlling, manipulating vision based on information with an eastern one of co-existing in harmony with all around. Apply this to music and divergent paths become apparent.

If you want a practical example of how this differing vision works in musical practice we need look no further than John Cage's regular work with the dancer and choreographer, Merce Cunningham. Cage wrote much music to go alongside dances arranged by Cunningham during his career but NOT as a musical accompaniment. Both said that they wrote work, whether dances or music, that was not written for the other but that just took place side by side at the same time. Cage did not write music to interpret the dancing and Cunningham did not compose dances to fit any of Cage's music. They just symbiotically existed in the same place, at the same time. This, it can be seen, imitates a view of the world in which lots of things just happen to co-exist simultaneously, each with their own causes and with any relation between them open to whatever interpretation can be given to it. A natural harmony of multiple things just being as they are then takes place.

Cage expresses this kind of thing as his ideal when he states that his wish is that art, and his music, "imitate nature in her manner of operation". That is, he wants his music to work as nature does, to be naturalistic rather than conventional. To understand this in musical terms we need to ponder for a while just how nature does work. Under modern scientific thinking this is not as a deterministic, mechanical universe but more chaotically and indeterminately such as that universe envisaged by the theories of quantum mechanics which are probabilistic in nature and question ideas of causality and determinism. For example, the so-called Uncertainty Principle questions the position, trajectory and momentum of things. We do not need to delve into this any further but just need to note the relevance of these on-going scientific investigations to our understanding of music here.

But what follows from these philosophical ruminations? On the thinking that Cage takes up it stands to reason that here an art/life or music/life distinction vanishes. This is simply unnecessary if one now sees sounds not as communications or intentions but as simply things that exist in their own right. Sounds are just sounds and are a co-existing part of life. Thus, Cage expressed the desire that we just let sounds be themselves. So music need not be intentional sounds or sounds made with devices crafted with the intention of making music on them. So-called "noises" can be music or musically useful too. For if, taking this philosophy forward, "music is continuous" (since all sound is now music) then there can be no differentiation of sounds with some designated "musical" and others not. All are just components of a universal music of sound. Under a Cagian aesthetic the idea "musical sounds", as a distinction from other kinds of sounds, is annulled as nonsense. Life itself, the environment, is music. 4'33", to which I now turn, thus becomes the outworking of a theory of music and not simply a curiosity or a weird joke.


Upon its initial performance by the pianist David Tudor in 1952, John Cage's piece 4'33" was reported to have "infuriated and dismayed" the audience. Cage suggests someone even suggested they run him out of town. There was, so it is said, "uproar". We need to remember that this first performance was given at an avantgarde concert attended by cutting edge artists of the time. So it is not as if the audience were the most conservative of folks. But why was there uproar as Tudor performed Cage's instructions to the letter, going through the three movements, one of 30 seconds, another of 2'23" and a third of 1'40" (making 4'33")? Some observations of mine:

- They expected something but got, as they thought, nothing. (This is actually not true. The piece had been meticulously composed by Cage, as he said, "note by note" using timings and measurements. It was not easily or simply conceived.)

- They expected what I described above as the musical conventions. They regarded music as intention but saw and heard none.

- They expected to understand the musical proceedings but didn't and so confusion was created.

- They were, as Cage would later say, "blinded by themselves".

- They expected intentional sound but, instead, got unintended sounds. Thus, they were literally unable to hear the music.

At this point we need to be reminded of Cage's conception of music. This was that there is no difference between sounds in terms of musical usefulness but also, in another discovery he made, between sounds and silence. This latter discovery was informed by entering an anechoic chamber meant to silence all sound. Whilst he was in it he realized he could still hear both the high-pitched noise of his nervous system and the lower pitched sound of his blood flow. But he also realized that the "silence" (which wasn't silent) had enabled these new sounds to be heard. The silence, in fact, he realized was a giving up of intention for in the silence there was still sound. The silence was a turning from noises made to noises that were just there, from intentional to non-intentional sound. Silence, thus, in his conception, was literally a change of mind, a new way to see (or, rather, hear!). We need to note here that Cage equates music with sound. He says for example that "Music is continuous. It is only we who turn away." This is a recognition both of his discovery that nowhere is silent but also of how this same silence can open our ears to non-intentionality and the play of sounds as nature's music. 

There is somewhere else that mentions a similar thought. In his famous book The Art of Noises from 1916 Luigi Russolo writes about health promoting "poeticized silences" made up of an "infinity of noises, and that these noises have their own timbres, their own rhythms, and a scale that is very delicately enharmonic in its pitches". He calls them "the smile of certain countrysides" for he is talking about the country and the natural world. This phraseology itself suggests just such a natural, non-intentional music as Cage refers to, something which in today's language we might refer to as "ambient noise".

John Cage himself thought that 4'33" was the music of the listener "rather than the composer's". In 4'33" the composer opens a metaphorical (and sometimes possibly an actual) door to new possibilities. He offers an opportunity to change your mind, to live in harmony with all the sounds around you, to hear differently. Cage contrasted this himself with record collections which, in his view, might be thought of as "the end of music". If you are following the line of thinking here you may be able to ascertain why.


Some words about Cage's methodology may be in order here for context. Cage could not hear his music in his head. He did not follow a composerly method of hearing ideas and then trying to recreate them in sound nor did he even work experimentally with sounds until something clicked and he somehow fettled a piece from his sound sources. What's more, he signed off from traditional musical learning such as Solfege (which trains pitches), something he didn't want to learn as he saw it as a limitation on the possibilities of sound if they were reduced to training in tones. What you learn becomes the limits of your world, right? Meanwhile, in the mid 1930s, Arnold Schoenberg, the composer and music theorist, had been Cage's teacher for a year and told him that he had no sense for harmony and that this would eventually limit Cage like hitting a brick wall. Cage determined to bang his head against the wall forever if that became the case.

Cage's method was to compose pieces of music in order to hear what his music would sound like. He never heard this until or unless it was performed somewhere and, given the nature of his pieces, this would often be different on each occasion it was performed. So Cage wasn't composing with sounds as per the usual procedure. He wasn't constructing a building he had the plans for. He was constructing intellectually conceived ideas in which sounds and combinations of sounds might take place. Sensory experience was a result of his intellectual, composerly activity. He did not know what the result would be in anything except a general sense or in the sense that anyone can imagine how something might be. He didn't know what 4'33" would sound like on that day in 1952 when it was first performed. But he did compose and structure the conditions of its performance. The natural leeway built into many of Cage's works, both in terms of the instructions given for their performance and the equipment used (prepared pianos might not make consistent sounds, radios could splutter forth anything), only exacerbated the lack of foreknowledge he could have about how his compositions would sound. Cage's music was not about creating a physical copy of something in his head. It was something he arranged for without knowing what it would be.

But this leads us to a question: If I construct an intellectual musical experiment, a la Cage, to enable the hearing of sounds, am I then responsible for any and every sound that takes place within that experimental space that I conceived and designed in an intentional sense?

The answer, I think, has to be no. I think Cage would say no too since his compositions were expressly intended to explore and engage non-intentional sound. But if I am not responsible for every sound made in an intentional sense then we must accept that non-intentional sounds can play musical roles, at least, as a minimum, in such spaces. But once this door is opened it cannot be shut again for there is no reason to say that non-intentional sounds cannot be perceived or conceived as musical if a context is regarded as musical. So it is important to see that, even if one does not go as far as Cage in a philosophical sense, one has already admitted that non-intentional sounds have musical uses and can be musically perceived and conceived. We must admit that something like the self-generating modular synthesizer patch so common today can be musical even if the musician who arranged for it to take place is not personally making each sound happen. At a minimum, distance has been introduced between a composer and the composed in all its detail.


In speaking at a later point about 4'33" Cage mused that "...what they thought was silence... was full of accidental sounds". He described his musical purpose at one point as "I have felt and hoped to have led other people to feel that sounds of their environment constitute music which is more interesting than the music which they would hear if they went to a concert hall". The major intention of Cage was to introduce indeterminacy to music. This was far more radical a thing than chance operations in a piece's composition for the latter could leave a piece of music still very deterministic. Chance operations only distance the composer from their likes, dislikes, thoughts and memories as composing is taking place. But it is indeterminacy of outcome or performance that changes the game, not knowing what you will hear. Indeterminacy is somewhere defined as an inability to foresee the greater part of the result of a composition or performance which is made up of non-intentional sounds. That silence played so great a part in John Cage's composing was therefore deliberate because, as already discussed, silence was equivalent to the hearing of non-intentional sounds. 

This raises questions. Say one composes a piece using chance operations and that piece results in indeterminacy. In what sense can the music be said to be intentional? Surely one must, as a minimum, admit to levels or shades of intentional influence or even intent itself. One might want to speak of deferred intent. What is clear is that strategies can indeed by devised which threaten the intentional link some always seem to want to make. Improvisation is not one such strategy though for, by Cage's standards, it does not involve either chance or indeterminacy since an improvised performance involves performers constantly making educated, knowing choices, even if these are spontaneous. So it is not enough to improvise. One must take steps to design all the effects of personal likes and dislikes, memories and tastes out. This is just one reason why Cage's own pieces were so deliberatively designed.

There have been numerous performances of Cage's 4'33" and many have not been in accordance with Cage's clear aesthetic intentions in composing the piece. These were to encourage a change of mind from one way of hearing to another, to encourage the indeterminacy of non-intentional sounds, to focus attention. But in performances of the piece which have become pieces of theater or mimes or in which something distracting is done during the time period of the piece's performance this aesthetic intention is impugned. "Aha!" you may say. "So Cage did have intentions!" Well, indeed, yes he did. But these intentions did not extend towards the creation of intentional sounds so much as the creation of experimental (read: indeterminate) compositions. We must defer to this reality rather than steadfastly insisting that any intention at any stage of the composition or designing of a piece of music makes everything within the composition's space itself intentional. "Non-intentionality" in musical terms need not mean "to have no intentions whatsoever in any sense". This would be a reductio ad absurdum rendering music composition impossible. 

Cage quite clearly did have intentions - at the compositional level - since the purpose of his music was to have a purpose. He firmly believed that although 4'33" was written for any instrument, or combination of them, it did have a formal structure (which he had determined) and so was something which could potentially be violated. Regarding unfaithful performances of his pieces he said "I don't believe that a bad, thoughtless, undevoted performance of one of my works is a performance of it" (emphasis mine). So its as well here to remind people that Cage did not see his music as a con, a joke, a game, an elaborate hoax or as anything other than entirely serious musical compositions which explored composing non-intentionality at the level of performance using non-intentional sounds or silence (which are the same thing). This is demonstrated not least in that within 4'33" as composed intentional sounds are themselves expressly not permitted. Cage had intentions for his works but these should be distinguished from intentionality within them.

Cage conceived that 4'33" could be performed at any length (but whilst keeping the same title). Yet, in contradistinction to the conventional notions of musical etiquette and practice, it attempts to express nothing and communicate nothing. Intentional as a compositional experiment, the sounds within its time frame are in no way intentional. It was designed to be so. The conventional ideas of music are, thus, subverted and refuted. This could then be said to be anti-music in which not just an art form but a philosophical tradition is exposed. Cage lost friends because he wrote this piece, or so he said, and so someone somewhere must have thought that something was at stake in 4'33" and maybe you reading this do too. But I do ask readers to consider one more thing here, the difference between cause and intention. All sounds have causes but not all sounds are intentional. That there are non-intentional sounds themselves should be a non-controversial thought. It is only their musical appropriateness that may bring them into disrepute with some who see music as purely an intentional matter. But how they justify that theoretically seems hard work indeed should they wish to justify their beliefs and their musical designations.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Once More, With Feeling

Over the last 3 weeks or so I have had some fun expanding the reach of this blog by posting electronic music related blogs to Facebook (which has a much larger potential than Twitter for actually engaging people). It has certainly got me more readers but what interests me more than this is being involved in quality conversations. The reach of those blogs enabled me to set up an Electronic Music Philosophy page on Facebook where some interesting discussions of a more theoretical nature than "look at my setup" have already taken place. As you may know from past blogs, I'm very much a quality over quantity person if that is the choice.

Thanks to this group a video was posted of Adam Neely's. Neely is a guy who chats about music theory on You Tube. This was my first introduction to him and, while I found him a bit overblown and "in your face," I cannot deny that the video I watched (about Vaporwave) was largely informative. In speaking about his subject at hand he made what seemed to me to be a fascinating link between timbre and emotion in music. The vlog itself was largely about the draw of Vaporwave as a form of music and Neely made recourse to the phenomenology of music (how music makes you feel, how you experience it) in order to do this. His point was that a musician's primary tool to manipulate the emotional response of a listener was a timbral one, how a sound sounds and how a sound's sound can be affected timbrally. This, so Neely argued, had the power to affect how someone might hear a piece of music and emotionally react to it.

Unsurprisingly, this got me thinking. First of all, I thought about music from the perspective of what it feels like to listen to something, the experience of listening. I considered that this is something not often discussed. What is often discussed is the more trivial like/dislike that people give to music as it is presented to them or as they hear it. These subjects are linked but I doubt they are much discussed anywhere outside of academic circles. Following John Cage, who has educated what I think were probably my base instincts anyway, I've come to find the like/dislike judgment we all give to music of not much use and certainly no good as a musical guide. If one is to take music seriously as a whole (and as a world of sounds which just are what they are) then we need to get over our egos and snap judgments. They may be marginally useful for deciding which thing I want to hear right now that is compatible with my mood but, outside of that, they should be completely set to one side. If one is going to think about music seriously one needs to have more stamina and insight than this.

The second thing I thought of was a scene from one of the old Star Trek films. In this scene Spock, who had been dead and brought back to life, was once again training and educating himself to get back up to full fitness. During the scene, which you will see if you click the link, Spock is being tested by multiple computers simultaneously. He is passing with flying colours, answering every question and puzzle thrown at him with ease, but gets stumped when a computer abruptly asks him "How do you feel?" Spock says he does not understand the question. He even responds to his inquiring mother that it is "irrelevant". Setting aside the fact that this is a play on Spock's half Vulcan, half human nature, I pondered about this in relation to the musical question before me. I wonder, have you ever listened to music and asked "How do I feel?" Does this question make sense to you as one that might be asked and with useful things to find in the answer? If not, I find this amazing. I don't find this amazing because you have not asked it. I find it amazing because considering music can have such a potentially large effect on human emotions surely its a question we should be asking very much more than we do. Contra Spock, its far from irrelevant.

Music is often used expressly to fuel emotions. One thinks of many locker rooms where loud, supposedly motivational music will often blare out before games. Then there is something like the old Dionysian festivals in Greek history where the idea was to work oneself up into a frenzy using music in order to be on the level of the gods. One thinks of ballads which, if done skillfully, are meant to tug at the heart strings. Gospel music, of which I have some past history myself, is meant to be praise of a deity but also includes a strong motivational vibe in promoting peace, happiness and courage in a particular faith amongst its adherents. Singing, especially in groups, is said to be psychologically beneficial. At many concerts or festivals what people will describe first is how the experience made them feel. In many, many places and situations we see music being used to affect human emotions. And yet, when we're alone, do we ever ask how some piece of music is making us feel? Do we ever study music from the phenomenological aspect? Do we ever write or make music seeking to utilize this phenomenological aspect for ourselves?

I thought about this and considered that it might be a good idea to experiment with it. As I also make a weekly podcast and I quite often choose music I haven't heard before when doing this I thought it might make sense to use this to select some music that I could choose to listen to from this phenomenological perspective. I'd like to invite my readers to do this too since the podcast with the music I've chosen is to be number 26 which will be released around the same time this blog is available to read. I wanted to choose music I had not heard before and make it something outside of the norm. In fact, I expect it will be outside of most people's norm. I ended up choosing the music of eight composers whose music is not generally thought of as "popular music". I cannot speak for anyone else, but they are mostly pieces new to my ears. I'd like to challenge anyone who wants to listen to the podcast to do so. Ask yourself as you listen to each piece how you feel and what emotional response each piece triggers. Clearly, there will be no right or wrong answers, only honest or dishonest ones.

The pieces I have chosen are as follows:

The Last Dream of The Beast by Morton Subotnick

Nachtmusik by Karlheinz Stockhausen

Electric Counterpoint by Steve Reich

Branches by John Cage

Apocalypse de Jean by Pierre Henry

Etude aux Objets (parts 1-5) by Pierre Schaeffer

Theme from For A Few Dollars More and Man with A Harmonica by Ennio Morricone

A Rainbow in Curved Air by Terry Riley

The pieces have been fairly randomly chosen. Only two was I familiar with (Morricone's) due to my interest in Westerns. But even there they are interesting choices since I will need to listen through over 90 minutes of music to get to them. This is because context, too, affects an emotional response to something, something any DJ building a set (as I once was) knows very well. It will be noticed that these are all prominent composers from the latter half of the 20th century. Some are still alive and others are not. Pretty much every one of these composers is known for their use of sound and for their interest in composition. This is to say that they think about music rather than just making it and they are familiar with music at the atomic level, as it were, in that they all know very well it is made up of sounds, these sounds being individually and collectively important. I judge these people, then, to be familiar with the idea that music can stimulate feeling even if, as with Cage, they may be wary of this.

Many of the pieces have a connection with feeling in their creation it seems to me. Subotnick's piece utilizes "ghost electronics", modules created by Don Buchla which are making no sounds themselves but are affecting the timbre, pitch and amplitude of the instruments you can hear as you hear them. This, then, is massaging Subotnick's need to be involved in a music he cannot be said to be wholly responsible for. Stockhausen's piece was written during a seven day period in 1968 when he was going through some personal turmoil. He wrote 14 other pieces during this time too, a prolific spurt of creativity which produced Aus den Sieben Tagen, which Nachtmusik is taken from. Steve Reich's Electric Counterpoint, played in the version I've chosen by Pat Metheny, utilizes looping to create the counterpoint of the title. I think it will function in interesting ways when set after the two pieces before it. 

Then we come to, perhaps, the most problematic piece here, Cage's Branches. This is a relatively long piece of music made up of the sounds of cacti and other plants being plucked by toothpicks. The plants have contact microphones attached to them to amplify the sounds. This piece also contains considerable silences as Cage was apt to have. Cage, notably, repeated many times that he did not need music to communicate to him nor for it to have any message. He wanted sounds to just be themselves. I wonder if that is what a potential listener will feel listening to Branches and how the silences will make them react? 

Pierre Henry's Apocalypse de Jean is verses of the biblical Revelation set to music. This is interesting in itself as the book of Revelation is in the literary style "apocalyptic", a style which is meant to give hope to persecuted insiders such as the Christians it refers to, but to preach doom to its enemies. Pierre Schaeffer's Etude aux Objets was his last study of sounds within the musique concrete perspective. Musique Concrete was literally "real music" by which Schaeffer, and Henry who made such music with him throughout the 1950s, meant a music made from real sounds. This, I think, lends itself particularly to unpredictable emotional responses.

The two pieces by Morricone are from film scores and, thus, lend themselves to dramatic interpretation. Indeed, this is what director Sergio Leone literally did himself as it was Morricone's practice to write the music before filming had even started, something Leone encouraged. Leone would then interpret the music visually on screen. I finish with an influential track from Terry Riley which influenced Pete Townshend to name a song after Riley (Baba O'Riley) and another group of musicians to take the name of the piece as their own (Curved Air). This piece again utilizes looping (and directly influenced Steve Reich's piece earlier) and is improvisational in nature. Riley himself played all the instruments (hence the looping). This track is often claimed as "psychedelic" and so who knows what emotions it might release?

At this moment I'm aware that I've given readers information regarding the contents of the podcast. This information will, of course, colour your listening or potential for listening to the music. But I'm pointing this up right now because I want you to get past it. Listening to music is often regarded by people as a lazy, relaxing activity in which the listener is expected to do no work, they soak up the music by osmosis. But it need not be this. It can be an active listening, a hearing, in which we take notice of what we are listening to. I imagine all the composers I've chosen here both did that and would encourage it.

But back to listening and emotion. This subject takes place in the context of a discussion that really goes back as far as when human beings first started having connected thoughts. This discussion is about the nature of the human being and the supposed war inside each example of that species between reason and emotion or, as its sometimes put, logic and the passions. This opposition is, of course, both false and fake. Human beings are organisms and not discrete parts. Human beings are both thoroughly and thorough-goingly rational beings as well as being emotional ones. There is no means to switch off either faculty within us even though, with effort, we can attempt to ignore or counteract their impulses. How this applies to music is that there can often be a tendency to regard it intellectually, rationally, technically as a collection of notes, time signatures and formal styles but to ignore questions exactly like "How will this make a person feel?" This latter question, under pressure from a heavy scientism in much of society today, seems a little namby-pamby and unscientific. It is a question which appeals to emotion and not reason. However, in these hopefully more psychologically and emotionally aware times, we should beware the idea that the emotions should never be questioned or their impulses buried deep inside and hidden away. Our psychologists would be quick to point out all the possible disorders which could result from that. If we have only appreciated music rationally then we have only scratched the surface.

With this insight its with a wholeness of human being in mind that I raise up the subject of music's emotional power and influence in today's blog. I have no idea if any readers of mine will listen to the pieces of music I've chosen for my podcast and I certainly can't make anyone listen. But I hope some of you will and, should you, I hope you'll think about how the music makes you feel and muse on the importance and uses of this question. I also hope next time you make some music you ponder, maybe even only for a moment, how someone hearing the piece you are making might feel upon hearing it because, to be sure, they will certainly feel something. And that's important too. Its seems to me there is much research that could be done on the phenomenology of music as we ask questions about how it makes us feel and then study the responses to this. This is because the experience of listening to music is perhaps one of the most important things about it. If you made music with one ear open to its emotional effects then, it seems to me, it would be a completely different way to make music, one that might contain many creative possibilities you had never thought of before.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

This is A Gear Blog

This is a gear blog. Its going to discuss electronic music tools, devices and equipment. Do you ever ask yourselves questions like "What is my perfect synth?" or "What would my perfect setup be?". Have you ever sat down with a pen and paper or at a computer and attempted to design the perfect electronic music studio for yourself? Have you ever done the same thing but made your perfect list of gear instead? (I have.) Some of you must have because if I go on Facebook or the most popular synth forums online the vast majority of discussions are about gear and the longest threads are 9 or 10 year old threads of endlessly scrolling studio pictures. This leads me to think that at least the people who buy electronic music equipment and go online to talk about it are interested in "stuff".

                               Is the Roland JD:XA your ideal synth?

But an interest in things does not necessarily mean an interest in music. I have found this out over time. Look in these same Facebook groups and synth websites and you will see that music or musical ideas are discussed much less. Some groups even ban music or talk of it and reserve themselves as places for chat about equipment only. Many physical music magazines seem to be barely disguised adverts for endless equipment. Previous blogs I have written have led to conversations revealing that some people are simply synth collectors or budding museum curators. Others use synths as furniture or electronic ornaments. Yet others simply seem addicted to buying things. There is nothing wrong with any of this but it can get slightly confusing if you wander into such places and wonder why musical purposes for these electronic music tools are not being discussed.

                 Is the Elektron Analog RYTM your perfect drum machine?

But what about those questions I asked right at the top of this blog? What, for example, would the perfect synth for you be? (Seriously, ask yourself.) When I read gear forums I seem to see every synth that any manufacturer ever puts out is immediately torn to shreds by the commenters. Either this is missing or there is not one of those (when there definitely should be) or they could have made this device so much better if only they'd dropped this feature and added this other one. It seems fair to say that people discussing electronic music equipment are never satisfied. This is one reason I ask myself if anyone commenting on things like this actually has any idea about the devices that they themselves really want. This, though, involves stepping back from browsing the pages of your online retailer or electronic music gear forum and thinking about it seriously. 

Would you sell your soul for a Korg Arp Odyssey?

However, its hard to think about what kind of device or devices you might want to use if you don't know the context you want to use it in. So then you have to start asking yourself even MORE questions and doing even MORE thinking. It might be pertinent to ask what any device might be used with and so then you have ask yourself what sort of setup you want as a whole. It makes sense in this context to ask yourself what you want to do with these things in terms of musical output (unless you're one of the collectors or synth museum curators I mentioned) and so that comes into the equation. I wonder if anyone actually does this? It seems from my casual glances that many people simply ask themselves if they have money and if they like a given thing and then they cobble together random, not thought through setups with no guiding philosophy or idea active in the background. "This is nice, I can afford it, I'll buy it" is the only thought process taking place. I wonder how many of these people have things lying around they never use? I wonder how many are honest enough to admit it?

                             Teenage Engineering Pocket Operators

The commercial market that partly shapes what is available for music makers to buy responds to this. Cheap devices like Pocket Operators, Monotrons and Volcas exist because they can be "impulse purchases" for people with a spare relatively small amount of cash. We have all seen the pictures posted of desks festooned with a million small things. None of these things are overly special in terms of features and the sound is kind of compromised in comparison to more expensive and professional things but they are music making devices nevertheless. I think also of Apps on phones or tablets. Some people have taken special affection for such things and these small devices have their fanclubs just like many other things do. These devices are exactly the kinds of things Morton Subotnick meant when, decades ago, he imagined a future time when electronic devices would be available for any member of the general public to use to make music with. That time is our time. Right now.

                                 Korg Volca Beats, Bass and Keys

At this point in the blog I need to make it clear that I am an electronic musician and electronic music and ideas about how to make it are what I personally am interested in. Discussing the tools used to make it does not come naturally to me because it seems to me a bit like carpenters sitting discussing hammers and chisels instead of using hammers and chisels to make something. Of course, such discussions have their place and no one would want to ban discussions about hammers and chisels. Its just that hammers and chisels were created to be used for a primary task beyond the facts of their existence and the qualities that they possess. It could also be argued that discussing what you do with them is much more interesting than the things themselves. But that's just my opinion. With this in mind, the rest of this blog is now going to discuss gear as applied to its intended purpose: making electronic music. Should you be a collector, a curator of a synth museum or a synth buying addict you may want to get off the bus here. But you're welcome to stay for the rest of the ride.

If, like me, electronic music is your goal then the things you make it with are mere stepping stones to that goal rather than the goal itself. I'd actually go further and say that if electronic music is your goal then you cannot let yourself get sidetracked by gear fetishism. Gear fetishism is not musical or related to music. It is a fascination with the things in themselves as things. Its one reason why in the most gear fetishistic places (you know where they are) discussions about music or musical uses of things are scarce on the ground. Maybe the fetishists themselves realize this and maybe they don't. It doesn't really matter. As I said before, there's nothing wrong with this. People can choose what conversations they have and what activities they value. Its just my point here that talking about gear in itself is not musical. So if music is your aim then talking about gear is a means to an end not the end in itself. If you are talking about a synthesizer or a drum machine or an FX box it doesn't automatically follow that some musical purpose lies beyond your discussion of the thing. That case has to be made during the discussion by the participants.

I want to make the case in this blog that there is another way forward in the discussion of gear and electronic music besides the way I described earlier which is seemingly the ad hoc purchasing of random items because they seem desirable and you have the cash to buy them. I am, of course, assuming some measure of thought and purpose here in my prospective electronic musician. That is to say I am assuming they have a plan, an idea of what they want to be, where they want to go and how they want to get there. It would be all too easy to just imagine that the ideal electronic musician has one of everything they can afford but I believe this approach is driven more by unthinking commercialism and an uncontrolled ego than any sane musical purpose. I am not writing here for such people though. Rather, I am writing for those who want to think about what they should have and why, people who critique their requirements as electronic musicians and have the purpose of stretching their musical creativity in view. This, it seems clear, is far from everyone and the commercialists probably don't care about that at all. But people like myself do. My approach here is going to be very different from the grinning forum dweller who has nothing better to talk about than "gas" (gear acquisition syndrome).

      The Modal 008, one of the most expensive analog synths... in the world!

You see I really do believe that rather than playing the constantly silly acquisition game it would be more musically useful to think more musically and, from this perspective, think about what you need and what, perhaps, may be useful as a bonus. The fantasy electronic musician position where one has a huge studio like you've seen on You Tube full of every vintage modular and analog polysynth is not within everyone's reach nor is it necessarily desirable unless you plan to spend your future showing pictures of it to the other people who want to be like you. I make this argument primarily for the people who don't have very much gear and who despair sometimes because they don't have "the next big thing" that everyone says you should have. Commercial purposes dictate that you should have this thing. Musical ones, which rarely enter such discussions, might not. And how could they if many supposed musicians never even address the point? My point is that musical purposes should outweigh the commercial ones if music is your purpose. When thinking and talking about gear it should be musical criteria that are dominant not commercial or conversational ones. 

When looked at from a musical perspective I'm not necessarily that sure there is so much to say about gear online anyway. To really experience an instrument you must hear it yourself and/or play it yourself. Only then can you know if something suits your workflow or any purpose you might set it to. Someone else's view of how it sounds isn't much use to you because you aren't them and so don't share their tastes or motivations. This becomes more important the more expensive a thing is unless you are in the lucky position of being able to buy and sell things at will. I do see people like this in forums sometimes. They seem to buy things constantly and then sell most of them again 3 months later. Of course, the swapping of views is fair enough but, again, it shouldn't exactly be decisive if musical purposes are key for you. Its your own ears and your own foibles which only you know that have to be pleased and not some conversational right and wrong in a forum situation.

           Fantasy setup time! But how do you know this would work for you?

So I think that the fantasies of forum dwellers who will always think that people should have one of everything in huge, unmanageable rigs are actually siren voices for most people luring them onto the rocks of becoming a gear collector. I think these siren voices distract people from properly musical purposes and that upsets me because music is the point of these things. And music is not really a hundred snatched You Tube videos of you doing "just a quick jam". Yes, people can do what they like. But others can also look on and wish that things were different and imagine all the music that could be made if the people who spoke about things diverted their energies into creative purposes with the things. Imagine how much better music you might make if you weren't spending hours talking about what you or others had to make it with. Imagine actually working at your music in an attempt to make it better. Imagine that better music was not made with a better thing but with a better musician using whatever thing they had.

This latter point is key. For music is not just about (more) things. Its about what you (can) do with the things. Indeed, this might even be MORE important because you can make great music with synthesizers. But everyone has also heard rubbish music made with them too. And no instrument yet made comes with an "instant great music" button. Its still about the user putting things to musically interesting uses and that will not be learned or found by chatting about "stuff" nor by buying synthesizer A over synthesizer B. After you have settled on what equipment you can afford or have access to it will still be up to you to make something of it unless you intend to build your musical reputation off posting rig pics for the next 10 years. Its my view, however, that these forum fantasists miss the point. That point, in my humble opinion, is that it should not be the musical ideal of most to have one of everything with every possible musical instrument at their fingertips. Instead, it should be about leveraging and mustering any musical instincts or capabilities we have regardless of what gear we may manage to acquire. Remember, I did say that musical purposes were key for me. I am not in the least bit interested in dick waving on forums.

       Left alone for 2 years with only a Modulör 114 what could YOU achieve?

It is often said, so much it is pretty much a truism at this point, that limitations encourage creativity. This is one more reason to have modest intentions when it comes to the acquisition of electronic music equipment. And it seems to me that it would be better to develop as a musician with less than to focus on getting stuff but being a poorer musician for it. Pity the person who has one of everything but never does anything worth a listen with any of it. So this is why I personally have focused musically on various quite modest things, things like groove boxes or kaoss pads. Another aspect to consider here is that music should be fun and, I also think, simple. Music making should not be a huge, complicated enterprise or even something approaching a chore. I preach here the benefits of simplicity. Happy is the electronic musician with his or her compact little setup who intends to explore it to its outer limits and every moment of it is limitless fun. I like to believe that, ultimately, someone will derive much more pleasure from their musical development on any given device than they will from the acquisition of things.  What use is some ubersynth if it sits on a stand unused, one of ten ubersynths you've got but barely use?

Now of course its true that Trent Reznor, Vince Clarke, Hans Zimmer and Jean-Michel Jarre (and a few others) maintain synth shrines and I suppose its natural (or, at least, tempting) to want to be like them. They all make great music to be sure. But let me let you into a secret. People who don't have 5% of what they have make great music too. Great music is not restricted to very rich people with large synth collections. There is no link between expensive gear and great music. And there are lots of other famous musicians and composers who were not also collectors. Someone whose music and philosophy of music I have been influenced by is John Cage. Some say he was the greatest experimental musician of the 20th century. I don't know about that but I do know that in the mid 1970s he was writing pieces to be played on cacti and other plants. Yes, that's right: plants. Not a Moog. Not an Arp. Not a CS-80. Plants. More specifically, plants wearing contact microphones played with toothpicks. Here was a man for whom music was sound and the liberation of sounds and the letting of sounds be themselves. His appreciation of music was not in some fetishistic circus in which commercial products became venerated as idols. This blog asks you to consider being more like him.

If you did become more like him I think your music would get better. Your music would start to become more about ideas, which are limitless, than things, which are not. I think you would start to take more risks, stretch your horizons and have more fun. How much fun can you really have staring at your latest synth and telling strangers you own it anyway? Will it be as much fun as pushing radios on the floor and playing with water in a bath as Cage did during a 1960 performance of his piece "Water Walk" on US TV? I think that if you did become more like him your judgment would become more about what was musically useful and interesting than pleasing people in forums or boosting your ego with acquisitions. Of course, this depends on your motivations being musical ones and whether they are or not is strictly up to you.

Now at the top of this blog I did say that this was a gear blog but that was, I'm afraid, a bit of a deception. It has been a blog that discussed gear. But it only really had one purpose and that was to say that within electronic music, as with all music, the primary currency is not the thing but THE IDEA.