Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Response to 'Solo for Mp3 Player'

Following my last essay 'Solo for Mp3 Player', I had an email from Bryan Sonderman of Ilinx Group (extra links at the bottom), in which he made a more positive and creative assessment of the possibilities of mp3 players than I did. I found his thoughts interesting and agreed. Here's what he had to say:

Given their ubiquity and user-friendliness, I think that playing playback interfaces not only unleashes the dormant interactivity of these tools (itunes, youtube, ipod, spotify, etc), but also challenges our cultural assumptions of who makes music and what music can sound like. Mp3 players have the playability common to all music instruments: musicians playing mp3 players have infinitely permutable variables at their disposal (volume, timeline progress, forward/back skip) in the same way a pianist has the variables of the black and white keys, tuning, pedals at their disposal. Rapidly skipping through a sequence of mp3s, or constantly adjusting the volume of an mp3, etc. doesn't sound like music because we haven't yet conceived of such playful gestures as musical. It is only a matter of time...

a few things about digital music making, pertinent to music production using mp3 players....

1) it's easy: ableton live (especially session view) resembles music video game interfaces like Guitar Hero and Poppin Music. It requires very little technical knowledge.Thus, many amateur musicians now translate their experience consuming video games to a context in which they produce music. I've enjoyed hearing many non-musicians create beautiful music after only a short time playing with ableton. Lil Ugly Mane's recent project, " Study of the hypothesized removable and/or expandable nature of human capability and limitations primarily regarding introductory experiences with new and exciting technologies by way of motivational incentive" , chronicles this trend, compiling 150 "first beats" submitted by fans. Treated as an instrument, the familiar interface of mp3 players would presumably make music production an even more popular practice. I get dreadfully bored by most professional music, and am very pleased by the increasing quantity of vital and original music I hear from amateurs. 

2) it's information based: computers are tools for producing/consuming and circulating information. Digital music, in the form of midi, mp3, is the arrangement of sounds, AND the arrangement of 1s and 0s. The difference between the 1s and 0s that make up a midi tone and the 1s and 0s that make up a 3.5 min mp3 is only a matter of scale (Thank you for alluding to this issue!). Both should be viewed as equally valuable materials for making digital music. The act of playing mp3 players as instruments acknowledges mp3s as raw material for music production--it engages with the materiality of digital music in the way Pollock's paintings or Burroughs' text cutups engage with the materiality of their medium. But this will require a revolution of our attitude toward "originality". Because our mp3 players are loaded with music with which we are already familiar, we will have to remove the burden of originality from our mp3-based songs to make them seem musical. We will have to hear a Kesha track with constantly changing volume as something as musical as the source material. We will have to hear the PLAYFULNESS in tweaking variables like volume to hear it as music. Each jerky change must be heard as a playful gesture. 

3) it tends to be autistic : the boom of bedroom producers represents both the democratization of music production and its atomization. The personal screen, the abundance of tools which render other musicians unnecessary, weed: all of these things have led to the isolated producer superseding the band/ensemble. This has spurred a lot of variety and allowed us to hear music we otherwise wouldn't have, but it also compromises the musician's status as expert listener, and not just expert sound-maker. Playing music with other people exercises one's listening ability, and oftentimes pushes musicians in directions they did not predict....especially if the music is improvised. Practicing deep listening has a social impact, beyond music. It heightens the beauty of every sensation, and makes one more sensitive to how they interact with the world. 

This leads me to the utopian potential of playing mp3 players as instruments. Music software doesn't have to be an atomizing force. We should play computers with other people as often as we can, to prove to the luddites that technology has a place in vital IRL communities, and to prove to the technophiles that computing doesn't have to be a hyper-productive, individualist activity. I think this might be what goodiepal means by making music for artificial intelligence: integrating rational, binary technology with what is not rational and binary: playfulness, relations, mistakes, all those little bits of chaos that meat space presses us with every day. We are attracted to what is novel and unfamiliar, why would artificial intelligence be any different? 

I have made hours of music using iTunes and youtube as instruments (please reference the links in the postscript). The most exciting music has always been a collaboration: between a computer, myself, a fellow player and their computer. I would highly recommend an iTunes soundclash (two players playing itunes, constantly tweaking its variables, on top of and in response to one another). Now that is a prescription for coyote's medicine, a little bit of chaos to teach one how to live more resourcefully and creatively with what is available. And all you have to do is board a crowded train to see just how "available" mp3 players are. The sooner we engage with consumption media for its productive potential, the better. That is an indispensable attitude, a sort of hacking ethos, that resonates beyond music. 

Bryan Sonderman
Research and Development
Ilinx Group




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