brettworks

thinking through music, sound and culture

Category: midi

Real/Fake Drumming On A Fake/Real Keyboard: Thinking About Virtual Musicianship

The photo is me–playing a percussion part on the keyboard. This is one of the stranger wonders of the digital turn in music over the past quarter century: triggering sounds with instruments or controllers that themselves have nothing to do with those sounds. I don’t mind playing drums on the keyboard though. In fact, I’ve become pretty adept at it–learning to play snares, kicks, tom toms and cymbals by switching among those plastic black and white keys. Sure, I could get a fancy controller with squishy rubber pads to drum on (and maybe I just will and report back to you on that), but squishy rubber pads are still not real drums now are they?

I took this photo while in the middle of working on a project precisely because I was so immersed in the moment, experimenting with different tom-tom patterns. Like a deep sea diver coming up for air, I suddenly gasped at the strangeness of me drumming away on a plastic MIDI keyboard and not really caring about it one way or another, so focused I was on the sounds and the patterns. How far I’ve come in my electronic music enculturation! Or should I say: How low I’ve fallen! Whichever it is, how did I get to this musical place and is it a good thing or a bad thing or a neutral thing that I’m here?

Having been a percussionist for a fairly long time now, I still filter any music I hear or make through whatever skills and sensibilities I have at acoustic instruments that I can strike. Here’s a simple example: When I listen to the drum/percussion part of a song, I imagine the physical moves required to play this rhythmic pattern on an instrument like a drum set. It makes little difference if the part I’m hearing is human- or machine-generated–either way I hear it as a physical possibility. In this sense, I resonate as if in sympathy to the pattern, trying to feel it as I might execute it.

This is as it should be: acquired music making skills shape how we listen to music. But there are limitations here too. Indeed, how hard it is to free ourselves of thinking through our existing musical skill sets to imagining worlds beyond them! This, of course, is one of the reasons why musicians practice all the time: to keep expanding the range of what is possible to do at an instrument (and therefore imagine at an instrument). Practice is one way to expand. But what my plastic MIDI keyboard points towards is ways of accessing putting together rhythms that have nothing to do with the experience of drumming.

I find this prospect both fascinating and dismal. Fascinating because just about anything is theoretically possible when patterns can be programmed instead of played. Dismal because I wonder if the Royal Order Of Musicianship is ultimately under long-term threat from the programmers. I’m kind of joking with all that haughty capitalization, of course, but I’m serious about some kind of oral tradition lineage ultimately being endangered. (Seriously: What are the stakes for our using electronic simulacra of acoustic musical instruments?)

What is ironic is that I’m negotiating this landscape of worry myself as I make music on my computer, thinking about how my musical skills are simultaneously atrophying in some ways while truly expanding in others. And I can feel the tension as I cling to older ways of making music. For example, I still build my patterns “by hand” as it were, playing them one note at a time on the keyboard, because it’s only in the process of playing that I feel like I can exercise my musical sensibility. I could draw the notes in or cut and paste them around, I suppose, but these processes don’t feel real enough for me. It’s easier to just play and see what I can come up with on the spot. Playing also encourages me improvise and build phrases that lean towards longer than shorter.

This, finally, is why I took the photo of my finger drumming on the keyboard. It’s just a lot more fun to play something than to turn a knob, or tweak, filter, or process a sound. And so that’s what I was doing in that musical moment: playing a pattern, one note at a time.

Jaron Lanier on Technology: Music and MIDI

Jaron Lanier, an American computer scientist, musician, and author, is pretty cool in my book.  In his recent manifesto, You Are Not A Gadget, he makes a strong case for probing how technology reduces us as the creative humans that we are, muting the “cultural anger” we need to come up with new tools that do justice to what makes us unique.  One of the most compelling discussions of the book concerns MIDI–which stands for musical instrument digital interface, the protocol for syncing together keyboards, drum machines, and sequencers that has been around since the mid-1980s.  Lanier cites the longevity and pervasiveness of MIDI as an example of a kind of technological “lock-in” which makes it quite hard for us to imagine other, better alternatives that may be possible.  Lanier reminds us that once upon a time, before the advent of MIDI, a musical note was a limitless field of possibility; in fact, when a musician plays an instrument or sings, no two notes are ever the same.  But MIDI reduced music and we bowed before this new limitation, using “crappy tools” to make music that in many ways was (and still is) much more limited than old-fashioned acoustic music.  And of course, today, computers have changed how people think about themselves.  For example, there is a generation of kids who know only the privilege of what Lanier calls “entropic access” to all of the world’s music immediately for available for download.  Snap your fingers and the music file is right there.  As easy as making a “friend” on Facebook.  Beautiful, but too easy.

Lanier is geting at some very important ideas here.  Just as people aren’t gadgets, music isn’t data, and he encourages us to think through the implications of our tools.

I highly recommend that you read this book.

If you’re interested, check out this YouTube video of Lanier playing a khaen, a bamboo mouth organ from Laos here:

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