Rather than exploring new frontiers, SF these days has retreated to trying to be just like all the rest of publishing and producing the gray goo that permeates so much of society these days.It was that phrase "gray goo" that caught my attention. Let me aim at it from another direction. I was in my favourite coffee shop the other day and whispered to a friend who works there, "isn't this music just awful?" They use an Internet radio to provide background music for the business and it is usually "gray goo" meaning music that thrashes around in some sort of stew of styles, making no particular musical point, but just providing a kind of rhythmic wallpaper in the background. The only reason I notice it is because I have a long-cultivated sensitivity to music. And I hate gray goo. But a few minutes later on came Joe Cocker's cover of "With a Little Help From My Friends" followed by "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" the last song on side one of Sgt. Pepper's. What happened, I wondered, why are they all of a sudden playing something decent? She had no idea, of course and I'm sure that the usual gray goo returned later on. Maybe it was an anniversary or something.
The problem is basically that there are no aesthetic principles at work: all music is more or less suitable for use as rhythmic wallpaper because no-one listens very closely. At the end of the day the real insult is that the music doesn't matter. And if it doesn't matter, it may as well be gray goo. But this is exactly what I, and most musicians, fight against. In our solitary practice rooms we work to control the phrase, the rhythm, the tempo and the timbre so we can make the music matter, or, perhaps better, let the significance of the music shine through. As composers and arrangers we are always searching for the telling phrase, the striking harmony, the enlivening rhythm. If we fail, we end up with the gray goo.
I wish I could provide you with some good examples of the gray goo. I hear it everywhere, but it tends to be anonymous, undistinguished, utilitarian so it is hard to hunt down specific examples. I suppose this "Café Bar Restaurant Background Mix" will do, though a lot of what you hear is a lot uglier. This is just pointless:
And for an example of the non-gray goo? The good stuff? How about one of the funkiest, most committed performances of Baroque music ever? This is La Forqueray by François Couperin played by Vittorio Ghielmi (Viola da gamba) and Luca Pianca (Theorbo):
Those guys were really in the zone. [UPDATE: As one alert commentator pointed out this is not the piece for harpsichord by Couperin titled La Forqueray, but rather the piece for viola da gamba and continuo by Forqueray titled La Couperin.]
UPDATE: Wow, the Music Salon is having an influence already! When I dropped into my coffee shop this morning the background music was Erik Satie, Gnossienne #1: