The Rambler :: blog

Sunday, October 05, 2003

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Discovered via Angus and Jon, this is kinda fun. Create your own avant-garde, asynchronous machine mix. I like the bluesy swing of the second one, myself.

Which is interesting, now that I think about it, because I know the guitars are being played by machines, and yet I still put a human spin on the sound they make. I know nothing about Remko Scha, so I hope I'm not doing him an aesthetic disservice (and from now on I'm referring to him metaphorically anyway), but in my experience, the musical conservatives who use 'anti-humanistic' arguments as a defence are missing a point. Someone has to build those machines in the first place, make decisions about gearing, speed, position relative to the guitar, that sort of thing. And Scha is - as a conscientious musician - well aware, after a period of practice and experiment, of what effects different adjustments will probably have (maybe not precisely, but at least generally). So he retains some level of control. He may choose to abandon this, of course, to varying degrees - set the machines up blindfolded, say, or get a non-expert in to do it for him, or use chance methods, or whatever - but even that is a choice. And all along, he has been making these decisions based upon his knowledge and experience of his medium and a certain amount of intuition. Which is, after all, all that any artist can really claim to be doing. (I'm very pragmatic about the whole business, you see.) What distinguishes the good from the bad lies in this knowledge of one's medium. [This is a whole other post, and one I might get round to expanding upon - what really matters here though is that take any great artist, and one of the most impressive things that binds them all is absolute control over their material.] So, to return to our musical conservatives, the ones who would indict 'automatic' music, it may be that they are overlooking Scha's actual contribution to the work itself. The work has all been done pre-compositionally, rather than at the point at which the sounds are produced: this doesn't mean that it is not there at all.

Maybe Scha intended that by setting up his machine in a certain way, he would get a swingy, 6/8 time, slap string sort of sound. I doubt he would have intended the blues feel that I hear - and why should he? - but by engendering his systems with certain identifiable traits (a twangy guitar sound, a lilting rhythm), the listener is bound to make some neural connection and think of it in a certain way.

All of which brings me to drones. I'm inclined to think - as Angus suggests - of a drone as a 'zero-degree loop'. In the sense that a pure drone, once begun, will continue indefinitely and without variation, just as my electronic loops. But in practice these are extremely unusual, and, like pure electronic loops, tend to come with some variational aspect incorporated or overlaid. (I was stunned, for example, when I first heard John Cale's Sun Blindness Music - after all the reviews I expected it to be pure drone, but no, it's almost continuously changing. Definitely scrolling, not looping.) This comes back to the point I made before about the psychological impossibility of non-variation. When does a long chord or note become a drone? Cale's piece, I would argue, is more about long notes than drones. (Interestingly, as a sideline, dronemeister extraordinaire LaMonte Young started out this way - his earliest pieces are twelve-tone serial works, just written very very slowly. And from there, the notes got longer, and fewer, until you have drone music.) To take a facile experiment - listen to Fratres by Arvo Pärt (get one of the ensemble versions, not the solo violin and piano version). Throughout the whole 10 minutes, you have a two-note drone (sustained by a solo cello in most versions) running beneath the rest of the music. When does it start sounding like a drone? Pretty soon, I would argue, after around 5 seconds or so. Not much longer than the first note of Beethoven's 'Egmont' overture. There's something different in our experience of both these pieces that inclines us to think that one sustained note is a drone, the other a defiant opening gesture. It's to do (I think) with envelope (the Beethoven has a diminuendo written in, the Pärt is just at a constant volume), and context (with the Beethoven there is nothing else happening at that point, in the Pärt other musical material is overlaid); but also the basic experience of listening creates a change in how one hears a drone. For a few seconds, it is just a long note. Lengthen it a bit (and/or add some other pointers) and it becomes a 'pedal' note (as you get in the bass at the very beginning of Also Sprach Zarathustra). Lengthen it still further, or disrupt the expectations your pointers have set up, and it becomes a drone. Lengthen it again, and again, and again, and it becomes different again, and again, and again - we just run out of words to differentiate it. Lengthen it really far - into the electrical hum of a desktop computer, say, or the white noise of a distant motorway - and it may disappear altogether, only re-emerging at unexpected times. Once you take it beyond a certain point - and that point depends on both listener and context - the drone (or loop) detaches itself from everything else and becomes its own entity.

And then you get into a whole other question - when the humanity of production defers to the humanity of reception. And I'm too hungry to start that one now.

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