Is Music on the Right Track?

How would I know? But here are some crystal-ball thoughts for the future of music/technology, ahead of the “Is Music on the Right Track?” panel discussion (which I’m contributing to) hosted by IPENZ and the New Zealand Music Commission, and focussing on the “future challenges to music, for both industry and consumers, driven by technology”.

  1. The musician-engineer is becoming a standard presence in the musical landscape. This is the musician who designs and builds the tools needed to make the music they want to hear. A recent example: the development of Live, which reputedly started life as a prototype built in the widely used Max environment. The outcome? Loops for all. Ableton has transformed the landscape of electronica, but it still adheres to the musical norms that govern the development of most new musical tools. The multi-track tape paradigm for example, which is the basis for every DAW and is still present in Ableton, requires that we think in terms of channel strips and a metric timeline. Building  accessible tools that don’t adhere to such norms  – Quince is an example – would be an excellent first step towards renewing musical culture. Here’s where mainstream music-making can borrow from the aesthetic and technical riches amassed by experimental musicians over the last century. Couple this with the Web 2.0 culture of ideas/information sharing and we might just be reminded of what left-field truly is and leave behind prosumer technology in the process.
  2. Technology has outstripped us. We’ve made machines that are capable of doing more, or at very least facilitating more, than most of us are capable of imagining. Now we have to catch up. Catching up requires either that we work towards abandoning staid and normative concepts of music, or that we accept our affective and aesthetic faculties are not up to the task of following our sound-making technologies into their future. Either we stay home and play until all the guitar strings are broken, or we accept that our music-making tools are on their own band-wagon and get on board.
  3. Music is an affective technology. In its experimental forms it has outstripped our abilities to listen. Following Adorno’s thesis that music predicts the shape of society to come,  we can  learn a great deal about the world by listening to the music that has gone off our cultural grid (formally defined by the presence of metric rhythm and equal-tempered pitch). If we could all listen to the outer reaches of music, then perhaps we’ll grow within ourselves the empathetic and intellectual tools required to grasp the realities of hyper-phenomena such as climate change, mega-cities, and a planet of slums. Time for another cognitive big bang.
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