Monday, June 26, 2017

Creativity and Technology

Technology is a wonderful aid to musicians of all kinds. One of the most used examples is probably this one, which sits next to me when I practice:

On the left hand side is an electronic tuner that sounds whatever note you choose and will even compare that with a note from your instrument as it contains a microphone as well as a little speaker. On the right is a metronome that will sound a click at whatever tempo you choose. You can even tap a tempo into it and it will tell you what tempo it is, measured in beats per minute. You can also set the meter by choosing to have a different sound on every downbeat, every 2nd, 3rd, 4th beat, for example. A wonderful little piece of technology that efficiently replaces the old style wooden pyramid metronomes (that were never quite exact):

And the older tuning fork (that always was perfectly accurate):

I still have one of those kicking around. I could go on for hours about the fantastic things you can do with notation programs like Sibelius and Finale, that enable the composition, professional typesetting, and synthesized playback of virtually any kind of composition.

But all this is dwarfed by the technology available to pop musicians these days, as discussed in this article from Scientific American (thanks to commentator Will for sending it):
Apple's GarageBand program for Mac computers lets you create fully orchestrated “compositions” just by dragging tiles into a grid. Everything sounds great, whether or not you know anything about rhythm, pitch or harmony. At the time of GarageBand's introduction, its product manager told me that even if the program semiautomates the composition process, it still gives people a taste of the real thing. It could inspire a novice to learn music, maybe take up an instrument.
Agreed. But how can we gauge artists' talent without knowing how much of the work was theirs? Should it affect how much we pay for their output? And what about when commercial musicians use GarageBand to produce their tracks—as Oasis and many indie bands have done?
I don't think this is a problem for any trained musician: it is actually pretty easy to hear the difference between real musicians and synthesized drum tracks or autotuned voice tracks. If everyone is out there lip-syncing, then all a good performer has to do is go out and sing for real to win that competition. At least that would be my hope! But I do have a beef about one phrase: "even if the program semiautomates the composition process, it still gives people a taste of the real thing." Composition is not really a "process" in that sense, at least not the creative part. Real creation remains a mystery because none of us, least of all the creators themselves, know where it comes from. The "process" part is more the craft aspects of composition: getting the ideas down on paper in a legible form, working out voicing or some of the rote aspects of orchestration, for example. Virtually all of the real acts of composition are inherently creative and therefore, absolutely impervious to being automated or replaced by technology. This is a little less obvious in pop music, a lot of which seems to be industrialized commercialism.

Let me give a personal example. Decades ago Yamaha came out with their first "acoustic/electric" piano. This was an electronic keyboard enclosed in a wooden case so it looked a lot like a baby grand piano. The keys were weighted to give the sensation of the normal piano mechanism instead of that of an electronic keyboard. They promoted it by staging demonstrations in department stores. One of my students, an adult, came to a lesson one day having just heard the demonstration and breathlessly claimed: "you couldn't tell the difference from a real grand piano!" I gave him A Look and said, "how much do you want to bet? $50?" This was so long ago that $50 was actually a lot of money. He suddenly got very cautious. I told him that I had friends, some of them just down the hall (we were in a conservatory) that could tell the difference between a Steinway built in New York and one built in Hamburg--do you really think we can't tell the difference between a concert grand and an electronic piano, no matter how gussied up? He didn't take the bet!

Mind you, now electronic and synthesized instruments, in the pop world at least, don't make any effort to sound like their acoustic forebears. But I still think that if you have much musical sophistication at all you can tell genuine creativity and musicianship from computerized fakery without too much trouble. Essentially all that technology is there, not to aid creativity, but to distract us from the lack of creativity. Right?

There are pop musicians who make rather a thing out of doing covers of songs and showing how good musicianship can replace all the technology. I give you Overdriver, from Brazil:


Will Wilkin said...

Bryan I really appreciate how you take the time to think and to articulate what you think. I'm rushed just reading it, and can't make a deep thought comment because I have to sign out. But I often reflect on what you write, and I thank you for taking the trouble to look closely at the popular (or should I just say contemporary) culture around us. I've pretty much tuned it out to save my mental bandwith for only quality and necessity, I let the world take the highway to hell because I can't save it and it doesn't want to be saved. But you enrich my life by giving me these thoughtful windows into what I don't otherwise even look at, and it helps me be of my own time even though I'm deliberately moving backwards several centuries or more in my cocooned mind.

Now back to my hacking out some Corelli sonatas on my fiddle before I cook, after over 12 hours on the job for only 9.5 hrs pay, the rest is 30min lunch and 2 hrs unpaid time in the truck.

Bryan Townsend said...

Will, thanks to you for reading my posts thoughtfully! My first three or four years as a musician were in the pop music world, so I have a tiny bit of insight. Plus, I have never completely stopped listening to pop music, some of which has an appeal all its own. But like you, my real allegiance is to a different kind of music, some of it centuries old.

Great stuff, Corelli!

Marc Puckett said...

The "process" part is more the craft aspects of composition: getting the ideas down on paper in a legible form, working out voicing or some of the rote aspects of orchestration, for example.

What are the 'non-rote aspects of orchestration', I wonder? Stumbled over a Requiem last night by a Christopher Wood, of which the entire orchestration is credited to someone else, whose name I don't recall alas.

Bryan Townsend said...

An awful lot of orchestration is very creative indeed! An example that is on my mind lately is the bassoon solo that opens the Rite of Spring. At the time it was written, it was considered to be out of the normal range of the instrument. It really has a unique sound. Lots of other examples: some of Bartók's "night music" movements, such as the one in Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta which has tympani glissandi. There are a host of examples in 20th century music, where the orchestration is so unique or original that it is a truly creative act.