Monday, April 21, 2014

TED on Music, plus some photos

Attributes of Music, painting by Anne Vallayer-Coster

Technology and music always seem to have a tricky relationship. On the one hand, technology is crucial to all music. Some examples: the wound metal and nylon strings on the guitar, the clever and complex mechanism of the piano, the intricate mechanisms that enable wind instruments to be conveniently played in tune, and more recently, the development of high-quality recordings of musical performances.

But at the same time, technology, in its burgeoning energy, always seems just on the verge of running rough-shod over the music itself. I've just run across an interesting example in a TED talk. I'm rather a newcomer to the whole Ted-talk phenomenon. TED, which stands for "Technology, Entertainment, Design" is a conference project owned by a non-profit foundation. The main conference is held each year in Vancouver, BC, Canada. A whole host of talented and famous (not always the same thing) people have given talks, which are limited to 18 minutes. I wonder how much the organizers work with the presenters to create the most impactful talk. In any case, the talks, at least the very few I have seen, are pithy, entertaining and present cool things in a humorous way. So, very attractive. While you have to pay the large sum of $7500 to attend the talks in person, they are available on YouTube for free. Here is one where a vocalist demonstrates how computerized sound recording technology can be used to augment his already impressive gifts:

Quite entertaining. Amazingly accurate imitations of all sorts of sounds, natural and musical, with just the voice and amplification. And he can, with the aid of the technology (sampling and looping) quickly create tracks that mimic familiar musical genres. And that's about it. What's wrong with this, from my quirky point of view, is that it is about everything but creativity!! Mimicking the sound of a cat or dog or housefly or Pink Floyd, is all still just mimicking. To me this, while seeming to be very cool and slick and techno, is aesthetically no different than a Frank Gorshin impression:

Or, perhaps, rather less creative than a good impressionist. If Frank Gorshin is before your time, Jim Carrey has shown how to do a good impression:

Which shows the creative aspect of impressions: they are satirical caricatures of the originals and, hence, creative.

So the problem with the technology of Beardyman's polyphony, is that it is rather too accurate. He manages to make his voice sound just like sounds in the real world and, with the aid of the digital sampler, to put together textures that sound just like jazz or Pink Floyd. Which is clever and talented, of course. But what it is certainly not is interesting or creative.

I wonder how many TED talks are just like this? I suspect that this is high-class entertainment for the privileged class that makes them feel really good about themselves because they appreciate all this cleverness. Which is actually dreary and dull as soon as you dig into it.

Oh yes, and technology always seems to present a danger to creativity because it distracts from actually doing something. Creativity always, with no exceptions I can think of, comes from somewhere in the human mind, not from a gadget.

Or is it just me?

And as a little bonus, here are some photos of composers out having fun.

Schoenberg playing tennis:

Schoenberg swimming:

And Stravinsky sun-bathing:

UPDATE: I just ran across a brilliant critique of the whole TED idea, ironically in the form of a TED talk!


Anonymous said...

That photo of Stravinsky should be struck from the public record!

Craig said...

Sorry, that rather lame comment was from me. I forgot to fill in my name.

Bryan Townsend said...

In Taruskin's huge two-volume book on Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions, he has a nude photo of Stravinsky that is rather, ah, revealing...

Craig said...


Bryan Townsend said...

and you will want to avoid the video of the Korean girls dancing to Dvorak that I posted yesterday...