Monday, April 29, 2013

The Devolution of Music Part 1: Technology Does it for you!


“The vocal cord will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape.”
John Philip Sousa (American Bandleader & Composer)

     Does having a bread-machine in your house mean that you will never learn to make your own pizza from scratch? If you have a robot vacuuming all your carpets, does that mean you will never take your rug outside and beat the dust out of it? And if you have some technology that can do just about everything that a set of drums can do, or a guitar, or a piano, or a human voice, does that mean you will never learn to play the drums or guitar or piano or learn how to sing?

   The answer to all these questions is, unfortunately....yes!
   You will not likely learn any of those things....or at least, the odds are against you.
   Imagine one of those balance-type scales. One side represents technology (and it's ability to do what you may or may not be able to do) and stacked up on the technology side of life's balance is the ever-expanding and greater capabilities of more and more integrated and complex technology, usually researched & funded by the wealthiest of the wealthy and directed mostly for the purpose of sales and business. The other side is you. On your side, you have a two and a half pound brain that doesn't care for most types of modern music and sometimes you would just like to get a break from constantly hearing about Justin Bieber's latest sold-out show or Taylor Swift's newest break-up song. You might get annoyed and even think about writing a song of your own, but you're probably not going to. You'd rather let the technology do it for you. Wait for the next artist, or the one after that, buy the CD or download the mp3, maybe even dust off the vinyl and crank up the AC/DC. It might be thirty years old, but it's still great. There's only one problem...you've heard the record a thousand times and with each passing playback there are less and less people learning to play guitar. And no one seems to be quite as good as Angus Young anymore.
      The scales are heavily tipped in the favor of letting technology do it for you. What makes matters worse is that all this technology is designed to help you with life's difficulties, while at the same time leaving you completely clueless as to what is actually going on. You don't know how to knead dough, and you're not sure you want to; that's why you bought the bread machine to make your 'homemade' pizza. Similarly, with music, why should you learn the notes of the pentatonic scale? Sharps and flats? Those fifths and sevenths are for what? How the hell do I diminish a frickin' chord, and why would I want to do that anyway?
      But everyone is doing the same thing, or so it seems, and no one seems to be learning music the way they used to...in a class, or on a piano, perhaps with a book at home or with a metronome. No one reads music from a sheet anymore, and no one seems to be able to play those few standard songs that every guitar-player should know. Some of us have even forgotten how to play. And finally, much like baking...fewer learn in the first place.
      This... is devolution.
      Is devolution real or is it a joke? The truth is that it is neither. Frankly, (and this part is scientifically true) evolution does not have an actual direction. It is not linear, and does not guarantee that we, as a collective species, are progressing towards becoming something more complex, more advanced, more nuanced, or more capable in body or mind. The only measure of evolution is survival. So the only measure of devolution is whether or not we are more or less human than we will be in future, or were before now. It is my sincere belief that we are devolving, and becoming less human. And our devolving brains are only getting smaller, more instinct-driven and less capable of understanding all of that stuff on the other side of the scale of life that was mentioned earlier, while at the same time we are becoming more and more dependent on that technology to sustain us, nurture us, make our bread for us, and even create our art for us.
    Back in the late 1960's one of our less devolved (more advanced) ancestors predicted the future of music. Here's Jim Morrison, poet and lead singer of the The Doors:
 "It might rely heavily on electronics or tapes. I can kind of envision, maybe one person with a lot of machines, tapes, and electronics set-ups, singing or speaking and just using machines."
 The words seem prophetic and almost inevitable. When you hear it from the point of view of a person living in tensies of the 21st century, looking back at our ancestors in 1960s, and you probably tell yourself "it's not that difficult to guess something like that. technology is always progressing, and Jim Morrison is a musician, so he would know." But ask yourself the question again now. Do you know what music will be like in another 50 years? Suddenly, Morrison seems more like an oracle, a seer, or perhaps a little more evolved.

   But let's try to be fair and enlightened about this prophecy. We'll pretend we're human and we'll pretend Jim Morrison is also human, (i.e. not a prophet) and we'll try to be a little more realistic.
Jim Morrison MAYBE, could have been talking about Skrillex and his techno-dance mania of fans which is currently super-popular. Most of the youtube comments (on Morrison's video) seem to suggest this, and though it's not impossible, I have to disagree. For the purpose of this article, I'm going to be a little harsh and dismiss Skrillex as a DJ. Maybe he writes his own songs, but without any structure, instruments or back-up singers, his 'live-performance' is merely a matter of pressing play on his expensive audio equipment and then dancing along with the rest of the crowd. Jim Morrison would easily recognize a DJ without having to have any 'vision' of the future. (They had DJs in the '60s)
    And then there's hip-hop. Maybe Morrison was simply referring to something like rap music. Maybe he was only ten years ahead of his time, not forty. He did say 'singing or speaking' not exclusively one or the other. There's only one problem. Rap doesn't actually require ten-years advance in modern electronics. Rap is near thirty-five years old now, and the only electronics that they had back when it started was turntables and microphones. This seems hardly the hi-tech idea that Jim Morrison was referring to. Run DMC, one of the first big stars of rap, wouldn't qualify for Morrison's prediction for simply having too many people onstage to actually work the 'machines'. The truth is that rap was invented by artists using turntables more as 'instruments'. Perhaps rappers were lacking musical refinement, but they were not dependent upon technology. I suppose if you took away their turntables, they might hire a drummer, but who knows?

 Let's say Jim Morrison wasn't thinking about rappers or a glorified DJ when he made his comments. Then he might have been talking about this other form of music. Beatboxing, if there is such a verb, does make use of plenty of technology. However, it's a form of music, that, at the very least, requires the 'human element' of vocal abilities and timing in order to pull off a live performance. Not all is taken care of by technology, and much can go wrong if not careful. Perhaps Morrison was talking about some talented beatbox artist like Reggie Watts or Beardyman, seen here, presenting... some techno-music creation that is entirely his own.
    There is one more option to this technology-driven music, of course, and you've probably guessed it. It's the idea that there are likely many more people, whose skills and talent are at a somewhat lower level. Perhaps they are devolved like the rest of us, and they use technology, not only to enhance their ideas and artistry, or make cool mixes to play to their friends, but to prop themselves up like a crutch. Technology exists to make a pop singer with a less-than-trained voice sound smooth and even. How would someone do that? Well you start with less experimentation, less 'phat' beats, more pop beats. Keep the rhythm up-beat and on-beat. Avoid Bridges, key changes, slow parts. There's no actual band that has to keep time, so for rhythmic variety, use drums and bass like they are attached to a light switch and just turn them off for a while. Break the techno stuff down and simplify. Don't bend and distort the notes for weird mixes, vibes and sounds. Stick to recognizable fake instruments like horns, violins etc. Use it like a tool, not an instrument. And what do you get? A large percentage of the music available from the usual commercial sources today.

Ignore the dancers and 'band'. Just like Katy Perry's candy-colour fashion choices, they are something nice to look at, but not integral to the show. They're just visual props. This so-called live performance is, audio-wise, just as Jim Morrison described, one person with a lot of machines, electronics, tapes, etc. and certainly Katy Perry is not the only culprit of such performances, but just one example of the truth that we are ALL devolving....and losing our capacity to perform and create music and art, along with a host of other skills. Each day that goes by, technology becomes easier and more tempting to use, while our human abilities stagnate and diminish. Eventually disuse turns into disability and finally, if we do nothing to change it, we will find ourselves dependent on technology for even the most basic music and art.

Continued in Part 2: Monkey See, Monkey Do