Tuesday, 13 December 2016

A Sense of Wonder

Once upon a time there was just an ape with his bones. The ape took those bones in his dexterous hands and hit them against things. They made a noise and it was good. It also felt good to hit things too. And thus music was born.

A member of a Facebook group I run, which is called Electronic Music Philosophy, the other day made a very gracious post in which he praised the group's existence and appreciated the challenge to think about electronic music making which it poses. In the course of his post he made the suggestion that what the musician needed was not things but what he tentatively called "a sense of wonder". He went on to relate tales of his remote music making past in which he had recorded metronomes under plastic bowls, altering the sound with guitar pedals, or used a convector heater (which contained spring elements) as a primitive reverb tank. The way he related the tales I felt that, reading, it was almost like I was there observing his sonic experiments. The sense of wonder with its inherent questions such as "I wonder what will happen?" and "What will this sound like?" were palpable. I very much connected with his idea that what mattered was not the craftsmanship or price of the equipment you were using but this sense of wonder that he was imbued with. 

There were a few responses to this post and many of the comments expanded upon this point. The poster made the point that he later got rid of the convector heater reverb and replaced it with something digital which was much more convenient. But, subsequently, he found that what he gained in convenience he lost in texture. The convector heater hadn't really been a musical device at all, of course, and yet it provided a unique texture that something made for the purpose could not provide for all its utility and convenience. This set me thinking once more along lines aligned with this sense of wonder. It struck me that authenticity in music is much more important than convenience. Much electronic music today is entirely based around "convenience". Is this not, in the end, why people use computers and why Digital Audio Workstations were invented? But I sense in a lot of this a lack of authenticity, the authenticity that comes, I think, from someone following their perhaps naive musical ideas in a very innocent way. 

Sometimes I think we forget this. We get caught up in consumerist notions that music is about what you use. It can be but not in the sense that unless you have the latest cool or most highly regarded equipment then what you do musically is useless. This couldn't be further from the truth. A Moog bass sound or an Oberheim pad sound are unique and deeply satisfying but if the entirety of music consisted of just either then we would all be musically impoverished. Music's ultimate value is in its variety, in its being made up from all possible sounds, real and imagined. This includes the sounds made by convector heater reverbs. So what becomes prime currency in this context, as I've said before, is the idea and, as the commenter in the Facebook group suggested, this needs to be somewhat innocent, approached with a sense of wonder. It needs to be practiced with a sense of experimentalism as opposed to that knowing sense which is destructive of ideas.

One way to practice this electronically is to do sound manipulation. This is a kind of electronic music pretty much anyone, whether musical or not, can make. What you need to do this can be as simple as your phone, onto which its quite likely you can download a free recording app turning your phone into a sound recorder, and a computer onto which you could download free sound manipulation software. (Apps are also available and a tablet combines both devices in one.) And so, pretty much for free if you already have the hardware, you are able to pursue the idea of making music by recording and manipulating sounds. If you are doing this you are carrying on in a noble line of electronic music making that extends back many decades. Its also a way of making music that utilizes a completely different set of skills to that based on the playing of an instrument which is bequeathed us by the orchestral tradition. It is something that is an expressly electronic form of music making for you need electronic equipment to be able to do it. As I'm sure anyone who has done it could tell you, it is in many ways quite a relaxing and satisfying method of making music and one which is much more unpredictable than pawing a keyboard making conventional tunes. Often you end up with sound collages you could never have imagined from the sounds you first recorded. This method also has the benefit of making any sound you can record into something musical and so, I think, encourages the sense of wonder I'm focusing on here.

Such music is also a form based in ideas for its what you can imagine to do with the sounds you record that counts. Not every musician is the most imaginative and some seem to miss that ideas are important, thinking instead that because they have a large setup up or certain pieces of equipment that this substitutes for lack of creativity. Of course, that's not true. What counts in the end is always ideas and this, indeed, is what differentiates music one piece from another. I think of many musicians both past and present who are not by any means known for what they have or use but are known for variety of musical ideas they have or the experimentalism with which they pursue them. In short, I'm put in mind once more of the mission statement that Tony Rolando of Make Noise, the Eurorack synth company, brought to my attention when I interviewed him some weeks ago. He said that

"We see our instruments as a collaboration with musicians who create once in a lifetime performances that push boundaries and play the notes between the notes to discover the unfound sounds. We want our instruments to be an experience, one that will require us to change our trajectories and thereby impact the way we understand and imagine sound."

This sounds so much more than, and so different to, the consumerist mantra of the mere collection of highly prized musical things as if this alone makes any musical statement or impact. It sounds much more like my commenter's sense of wonder and seems, to me at least, to contain a sufficient innocence that allows musical surprises to happen in the first place. Musical surprises and wonders do not happen to people who either think they know it all or have it all. You need to stay a little innocent, naive and wondrous for that. So I don't think its coincidence that Make Noise manufacture the Phonogene as one of their modules. The original phonogene was a magnetic tape device that Pierre Schaeffer, the inventor of Musique Concrete, the original electronic way to manipulate sounds, used. Rolando has created a digital version for use in Eurorack modular synth systems. Rolando and Make Noise seem to have the sense of wonder too to my mind.

Of course, all of this has to fit in with other notions. A "sense of wonder" is fine from the creator's point of view. It can be an exciting and personally meaningful sonic journey for them. But what about any listeners? When your creation hits their ears you lose control of it. No musician controls how a listener hears it for no musician controls the network of relations that constitutes the way a listener hears and receives music. It may just be a kaleidoscope of weird sounds to them. This once again reminds me that music is a two-sided thing. It is to do with two roles, that of creator or maker and that of listener or hearer. Both roles are different and each of us can take up each one. Even as the same person we may be different people when taking up one of the roles or the other. I listen to things I would never make and make things that in others I might not listen to. I wonder if you are the same? This, I think, is because makers are not listeners. They are makers. And listeners are not making anything. They are listening to something instead. These roles are different and that should be noted. However, I think that both roles would be enhanced if they were carried out with a sense of wonder. This sense would give a necessary openness, the openness in which something gets a chance to make an impression. So often musical ideas, from the perspective of makers or hearers, are killed before they have a chance to develop simply because our minds are closed. Closed minds are conventional minds, ones not open to change or difference.

A few weeks ago again I interviewed Marc Doty, the synth demonstrator and educationalist. I knew at the time that we had some things in common and some not and in my interview with him I tried to ask questions that would highlight that. One difference between us was my enthusiastic interest in Eurorack synthesis and his lack of it. He said that any Eurorack system he could design would bore Eurorack enthusiasts to death. He is not interested in fancy functionality so much as in what he hears as an authentic analog tone. In some respects I regard Marc as an analog tone fetishist but he is also a fetishist for what I've referred to before as a "player's paradigm". Marc sees a necessary and deeply enjoyable connection between players and instruments in the making of music such that any form of electronic music which relies more on sequencing or machines is a turn off for him. 

Now one of the reasons I like Eurorack (and other modular formats such as Buchla and Serge) and its inherent possibilities so much is that I see it as embodying exactly the sense of wonder I've been talking about in this blog. Eurorack, as I envision it, is the freedom to build any synthesizer or sound manipulation or processing device that you can imagine. Its the most flexible way to make electronic pieces of music currently available and, overall, no one is controlling it. It is the wild west. (Software might object here. I'm open to discussing it but software has a big problem in that its often not very tactile.) You get to build whatever you want (or can afford) and use it both according to and contrary to its purposes. This is not electronic music obsessed with tone or that normalises one tone above all other tones. This is exploratory, "what will happen next?" electronic music making. I think its good to not be sure what will happen next. I certainly think its better than fetishizing one kind of tone even if that tone is memorable. We should no more get attached to sounds than we should to things. The sense of wonder is more important.

The exciting thing about sounds is their difference. For its only with difference that we can begin to distinguish and use sounds. Hearing sounds in all their particularity and difference is what the sense of wonder I've been repeatedly mentioning here is all about and so ways of making and using sound which maximize sound possibilities are more valuable to me. Yes, of course we all have sounds we like and like to use. I like the sound of Moog's Taurus bass pedals, for example. But thats just one sound within a world of sounds and its the world that gives each sound its own value. So we shouldn't belittle the other sounds. All sounds are equal in nature. Each sound is an opportunity to make something unique, momentary, revelatory, something that, as the Make Noise blurb intimates, might change our thinking about sound and its use. So I'm very much about sounds and making new ones and building new combinations of them.

Now I'm not going to sit here and tell you that every Eurorack enthusiast is like that. In any discipline you will find plenty of non-ideological copyists who just want to look cool or feel part of a cool group. Having money buys people a place at many a table. But that's my vision for it. I am quite prepared to say that a decent number of Eurorack users are just people with disposable cash who want a trendy hobby but who, when it comes to musical ideas, are lacking imagination. Money doesn't buy ideas you see. But its the same with people who buy hardware synths or plugins too. Having things does not equal having ideas or creating things of interest. Being interesting, I think, is the prime musical virtue but that too relies on having ideas and a sense of wonder. This is not the same as making some music that is "good" or likeable, by the way. Electronic music, in my view, is a music of ideas because it simply opens up so many possibilities for the manipulation and combination of sounds. It becomes frustrating when one just hears the same ones over and over. These ideas, in the end, require thought, experimentation and time. And a sense of wonder.

Perhaps that was what made the ape hit things with bones in the first place? 

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