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Scaling the Pyramid, pt. 3

Posted on August 28th, 2013

In the chaotic pursuit driving art to the lowest common denominator, where does responsibility lie, with technology or the people behind it? Has the computer really fomented an insane banality of overproduction and commoditization of art? There was a time where the band would lay down some rough tracks on tape, and the engineer, after applying some rudimentary EQ, presented to the band a simple tri-state choice: left, right, or center. In the modern era audio engineers have incomprehensible flexibility. Autotune can pitch correct and is well recognized, but other pitch and tempo correction techniques in the hands of the skilled engineer can take the banging of a toddler on toy drums, process them, and, superficially, rival John Bonham. What once was somewhat colloquially termed audio engineering has now taken on a literal definition…the modern era has allowed sound to be carefully engineered, re-engineered, re-spun; it is a producer’s dream. The artist is just another input; with technology the sound is now limitless in its malleability. If the artist is formidable, the producer – often rightly – believes his own greatness is necessary to render the rough-hewn organism suitable for playback media. And if the artist is inadequate, so what? The producer’s facility with gadgets will bridge the gap.

So where does that leave us? Does art require the atavism of manuscript notation, composing works for orchestras that will never exist? These tools offer great sonic possibilities, but to make proper use of them require all producers and audio engineers to become aware that they are just part of an entirety of a creative process. Their job should not be to add and morph sound into something salable, but rather to become part of a dynamic process. This is no more ludicrous than puppet musicians who exist solely for marketing purposes allowing producers to assume total responsibility for the trajectory of the band. This method is fraudulent not only because the drive is purely pecuniary in nature, but because it perpetuates the role of the producer as the arrogant overman who will eventually get a ridiculous perm and shoot a b-grade actress in the mouth. The artist, engineer, producer, must become one. Any artist unwilling to follow his/her art through to the end is unfit; similarly engineers and producers must open their minds and realize they are also artists, just not at the expense of the people they are recording. These tasks which used to be separated by technology are merging into one, all work together to create a collective sound reflective of the best influences of all.

It is hard to overcome the temptations that technology offers: infinite reproducibility, infinite malleability, fine tuning and correction to the point of making art merely mechanical. Compressing the shit out of everything. Competing in the loudness wars. Getting the modern pop radio sound.

These tools present composers, musicians, artists, engineers with insane flexibility. Imagine what Revolution 9 might have been with these tools in the hands of John & Yoko. And now imagine how it could have been completely ruined as a result of having too many options and precious few reasons.

The impact of autotune and digital audio workstations is here to stay. Our goal should be to leverage the tool to create and improve art, to embrace this new era of a multicorporeal artist beyond performer, producer, engineer. Not to use it to cloak mediocre talent or twist the composer’s will. Not to use it to pursue methodical rhythmic and tonal perfection.

These new tools do allow unbounded creativity. That much is certain. These tools alone, however, do not result in great music. It requires everyone involved to not only respect their power as artists, but, more importantly, to embrace it and work at every level collaboratively and creatively. Arrogant producers and engineers beware: these tools must not be used to create the artist ahead of the art but to enhance the art the artist can and will produce – like an orchestrator, take the simplicity of beauty and enhance it to make it shine.

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Scaling the Pyramid, pt. 2

Posted on August 2nd, 2013

When was it exactly that the world lost respect for the composer? The artist is the one performing, the composer is the one creating. The lyricist, the arranger, the producer; all have been steadily lost in a haze of automation and reduction into a sonic morass. The little artist thinks what he does in an evening is instantly gold; he believes (read: hopes) some fancy MacBook makes him a god. Autotune does not make a singer – processed Fourier transforms do not lend a voice character. Loops do not make a basso continuo. Time correction does not make a great percussionist. No limiting filter can resurrect a shabby recording. No thousand dollar software is a philosopher’s stone. A great artist understands that timeless masterpieces require skills beyond filters and reverb presets. There is a reason lyricists, audio engineers and arrangers exist: great art demands skill. Even Mozart needed Da Ponte. The greatest painting requires an expert framer and skill with the brush does not mean one can carve wood.

Listeners of music should demand the same: pieces that challenge the ear, works that jump start the mind. Aural compositions, sonic landscapes, progressions of themes, development of ideas, paintings of light. Not just a bass drop and a heavy beat, some flash and show. Making something fit for a club, something catchy, is not art. Art challenges the listener to accept things distasteful, giving them the choice to embark upon their own personal journey of discovery, to scramble up the scree and see the beauty of the new-found horizon from the ridge, looking back upon the valleys before with new eyes. The listener must be integral with their art, retracing the difficult road of every cross that was borne, following the same path when consuming art as producing it. Discovering beauty in the discord that mirrors our own nature. Art is the pyramid that challenges all; it yields to nothing.

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Scaling the Pyramid, pt. 1

Posted on August 2nd, 2013

Over the past few decades, our collective consciousness has exuberantly shifted away from the pursuit of meaningful art in favor of art without sacrifice. The contemporary musician or popular artist benumbed by frivolity and vanity, has fallen victim to the same traps as his lazy consumer counterpart and become slaves to the task of product generation without an inkling of why they’re creating something in the first place. What was once the creative drive has grudgingly yielded to increasingly simpler, less taxing demands where, by an ever widening margin, the decision to make something matters more than what one makes. Contemporary musicians flinch at the sight of challenges that demand more than their scant production tricks and commiserate with their partners in indolence, the easily amused, easily impressed listener, himself so badly diminished by this sorry culture that he’s unable to tell shit from shinola.

Contemporary musicians have learned that if they aim low enough, they’re bound to find an audience whose inverted sense of quality demands they praise credulity. Artists are hailed for their innocence and purity much like a parent would praise an addled child who’s finally managed to put a round block in a round hole: the satisfaction derived has nothing to do with the scale of the achievement, but in witnessing the monkey do what the listener fully expects him to do. Indeed, any expression of surprise is most likely feigned. Lazy artists are unable to aim higher than their lazy minds allow. They find succor in performing basic tasks because they are undoubtedly easily distracted. The middling artist and audience have fused: the demands of each are just enough to keep them happy and stimulated without asking too many questions. What was once termed a guilty pleasure is now the mechanism used to establish the benchmark: guilt arises when one is forced to think, and a sense of the greatest elation arises when thoughts can have their volume reduced to zero. As a result, audiences are conditioned to accept inferior material, artists are conditioned to create inferior music, and somewhere along the way all parties involved ceased to be capable of making difficult decisions.

The artist has allowed himself to be diminished to a wallpaper salesman, providing banal soundtracks to banal lives at fever pace; because the staying power of the product is minimal, the listener will require a steady stream of rubbish to flood his ear space – the Internet has been an unrivaled tool in this process. Although the financial gains of the artist have dwindled, his audience and his heroes preach that work must be done quickly and with a modicum of effort, so anyone wishing to “write a song” will find that he can sit at his computer and within a few minutes, produce something that resembles a finished piece. After this, the creative process actually begins: listeners can scramble to outdo each other in imbuing meaning and quality to a song that by definition must lack both. When audiences long ago lost the ability to judge they replaced it with the dubious talent of rationalization and can generate on command a dazzling list of excuses for half-cocked product X. And because lazy minds all share a vested interest in seeing their kingdom protected, attempts to tarnish their jewels are met with the stiffest resistance.

The modern day musician requires a little bit of free time, the ability to pirate a piece of software, and above else the temerity to call something a song. When a person says they are embracing technology and labels his opponents as technophobes or troglodytes, he does so because he must; he is protecting a thinly veiled secret about the “work” necessary to do what he does. The process on both sides of the curtain will be wholly unimpressive unless the creator makes sure to tell you how impressive it is. Artists starve now by choice; they wear costumes and drop names intended to inform the audience of a struggle about which neither side knows anything. Musicians whose stock-in-trade was their modest upbringing created at a cut rate because they had to; the contemporary artist asks his friends if he thinks his music will be more credible if it sounds cheap enough.

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