Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Which comes first, the genre or the music?

Those who know my musical tastes will know that I am not one to limit myself to one particular musical genres. While I write ambient and experimental music, I have a great affinity to listing to and studying the greats of jazz and classical. These two genres stand at rather opposite ends of apporaches to music or at least until the 20th century regarding classical.

Classical music has always taken a certain pride in its rigor. To be a great classical musician and/or composer, one must spend countless hours studying and playing the music of the greats and understanding the music theory behind their works. At first, classical music was very constrained and fell within fairly narrow parameters. If one was to be a master, one has to work within the narrow guidelines but also do so with creativity. Of course, this was more than possible and the greats such as Bach created created musical works that followed the well worn path of the music that had some before with its limitations but also its possiblities for great expression and beauty.

As classical music progressed, the rules became less important and creativity seemed to flourish as composers and musicians found new musical territory to explore. This culminated in the early 20th century with composers like John Cage who broke completely with tradition. Rather than following the past, he challenged it.

The 20th century avant guarde is also very much tied to the advent of electronic instruments. As technology offered hope for the future, composers like Karlheintz Stockhausen saw entire realms of unexplored electronic methods to create sounds that had never been heard. Early electronic music became the age not of organized notes that conformed to musical standards as in Bach's time but a brave new word of the Pierre Boulez coined "organized sound".

As jazz was using melodies and chords to provide broad harmonic constructs of expression, so to, electronics provided a means of expression. The line between composer and scientists seemed to blur. Artists like Stockhausen where asking questions of "what if" perhaps hoping to pave the way to some new synthesis of sounds that would be the pallet for an new age of music expanded far beyond the limitations of traditional instruments.

With the advent of the Moog Modular Synthesizer and Buchla's electronic music system and electronic music box, the ability to create complex electronic voices was now possible with a bit of a learning curve to climb and money to invest. At first, synthesizers were large the purview of universities and therefore, the use of these instruments stayed well within the confines of a carefully studied academic approach.

But Bob Moog did not want the synthesizer to remain locked in the ivory towers so he made a cheaper and more accessible instrument. This much smaller synthesizer was called a Minimoog. The Minimoog could easily be used on stage and it was for hundreds of bands. The Minimoog and a plethora of synthesizers that followed after.

But as music became accessible it left the ivory tower and moved to the recording studio. Electronic music had entered mainstream pop. Now pop music was not dictated by well footnoted treatises on the experimental wanderings of a Buchla Music Box but rather dollar signs. The more one could crank out hit album after hit album, the more dollars one could make but not just the musicians but the producer. So the pressure was put on putting the genre before the music. Music moved from the experimental seeking a genre to a genre that defined musicians and in many ways, limited their creative choices.

For a while, progressive rock found some bolder territory where they could both make hit records but also do something experimental and artistic but soon, following the leader seemed to dominate especially when the age of low cost computer memory made samples all the rage even to this day. Samples defined a game of musical follower the leader and soon, each time a new sound was used, it became all the rage for a new set of copy cat songs. And electronic music, that held the hope of exploring entire new musical universes, was dominated by sample driven music.

Now that is not the whole story and it was my pleasure in going to the 2010 Electro Music Fest to see that he age of experimentation is alive and well. Many web sites now provide music on the internet which reach into a much broader scope. The music appears to be leading the gerne again and this story is far from being over. In fact, now that someone can make quality recordings at home and then sell them on the internet makes the influence of the sample peddler/bankers far from the only game in town.

So where do we go from here? Will music now lead the way rather than the genre. How often are genres defined by someone simply doing something and the rest following. What is a genre other than a self imposed copying of someone's style with the hopes to be creative enough to break out of the box at least a bit. But then we have the new avant guarde. The musicians who value creativity more than copying the crowd.

But now I come to a dilemma. I was going to post a video of a musician flailing around with Buchla Lightening rods. It was not the carefully crafted sounds of someone like a Morton Subotnick who has learned to master the Buchla Music box and take listeners to another world. No, it was someone who at least seemed to me to have little musical experience and spent a large sum of money on Buchla Lightening. Now granted, some other videos were more musical than this poor example but the one I am thinking of, was nothing more than a child playing on a toy drum. I did not post it because I am not trying to disparage anyone in particular but to merely point out a problem.

I find it myself when I have a wealth of ways to make music and find myself lost in possibilities. I myself do have some musical training and I have found that those musicians who have some training themselves often make better music than those musicans who resemble more the flailing musician with lighting rods in the video I am talking about.

Experimental music is always as risk, when it puts the music before the genre and in doing to gets lost in a sea of possibilities. The music should come before the genre but in a thoughtful and skilled way. I am not suggesting that we either follow the way of mass produced pop music or the rigor of the Baroque period with its well crafted fugues but I am suggesting that we talk about music that is being created and try to learn some skills that will help the better experiments to begin to forms into genres or perhaps better said, musical paths that show promise. I myself would rather try to focus on a few genres that I create and learn how to explore them with some skill and forethought than to drown in a sea of the latest gadgets and believe me, I am very guilty of that. Perhaps, at least for a time, I want to go deeper instead o broader and try to find something lasting and worthwhile creating, even if it does mean I have to spend some time practicing and really learning how to use the wonderful instruments that I have that make those wonderful sounds. Perhaps, learning to use what I have will become the contraints that define a deeper creativity born of skill rather than drowning in the possiblities.

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