Technical Illusion vs. Originality

March 29th 2013  || by  || 2 Comments

This year I finally realized, how insignificant and meaningless the NAMM show (the largest music- and audio technology exhibition) has become to me from a musical perspective. Most “new” products are all about either re-selling old ideas, re-creating vintage equipment from the ’70s & ’80s in a cheaper, plastic-y (but usually more amateur-proof, more convenient) package, or making complex or experience-based processes easy for beginners, so that they can get “professional” results with a push of a button, without needing to have a clue about what’s really happening in the background, and enjoy the results – which can sound just like their favorite “Major Artist” (more about this in a later post). So where are the truly creative products? Those that make you think and work harder to achieve genuinely different (dare I say: original) results, which will enrich the cultural legacy that we leave behind on this planet…? I can’t see very many.

Don’t get me wrong, I love to use technology; I have been using it for as long as I can remember working with audio and music (28+ years). The trend I’m really not interested in, and frankly I’m against, is how digital technology is making humanity lazier, easier to get impressed, but less skilled, way less creative, and ultimately less happy. We can’t even begin to describe the difference between how Schaeffer or Moog must have felt when creating something original, never before heard/seen, and how users feel today when they finally figure out how they can get to a menu in their newly upgraded software. I’m certainly not criticising the advantages that technology brings to the medical fields, to various sciences or to the military, and not disputing its benefits (at least for their respective users) either. My issue starts where technology becomes more than a tool, it becomes a way of thinking, a way of life: it becomes the purpose. The time when you start depending on technology to carry out fundamental human actions (cooking, entertainment, learning, creating art or simply being happy) and to interact with others (communication or expressing emotions in other ways), is precisely the point when it starts making you, and your creations, less human. I believe that a large portion of our society has already passed that point.

“Sure…”, you might think, “this is an old argument that I have heard many times”.  I have, too, yet I don’t see that the majority would agree, and would stop supporting and praising the exponential technical “evolution” of the human race. Is it really evolution, when you become a technology-dependent user? I have been listening to some of my otherwise pretty smart friends for years, talking in awe about how fantastic their new xyz music production- or photography software is, because with it they can effortlessly and conveniently produce the “perfect” results (which, in my opinion, doesn’t exist anyway, not to mention that “perfect” should be a moving, evolving target, not a stationary idea). I understand that for those who can’t hum a tune or take a snapshot with a film camera,  toys can be great; they let them play around and make fun things that otherwise they would not be able to. But, if you consider yourself an advanvced amateaur, not to mention a professsional… your goal should definitely not be making your pieces to sound or look like the mainstream, nor to get results in a convenient way thank to some dumbed-down processes.

I have recently watched the biographic movie of the late Joseph Weizenbaum, who realized the curse of AI (after spending the majority of his life as one of the pioneers who helped paving AI’s way), and in the same film, listened to the idiotic, demagogic (and surprisingly naive) monologues of self-proclaimed futurist, Ray Kurzweil. It’s a great documentary. Then, when further researching the subject, I came accross excerpts from the movie on YouTube, and sadly found that most user comments are blindly supporting Kurzweil’s ideas and are describing singularity as the ultimate human experience and heaven-like state achieved with technology. They just really don’t get it…  does it seriously require so much of humanness in our hearts and brains to understand why you don’t want to become an always happy, “perfect” humanoid thing? Or, why it’s not a great idea to replace your good and bad memories with only positive ones, modified by ones and zeros custom-designed for you – and call it total happiness? I guess the “make it a good day” phrase would get a whole new meaning… Has Kurzweil not seen (or get the point of) Bruce Willis’ Surrogates? Instead of a “perfect” life for 150 years, I would personally go for a shorter one that is filled with realism and adventure – no question about it.

How ironic – from the ’60s through the ’80s, the “human machine” used to be a futuristic idea, which was different enough to be cool, but was not meant to be taken too seriously, at least not as a plausible and desirable future (nor did it take itself too seriously). From 1978 on, Kraftwerk’s Die Mensch Maschine let us imagine an alternate yet clearly fictional reality, it let us play the role of a machine – the keyword being play. Playing is imagining, imagining leads to creating. Creating means using our brain not to repeat, not to copy, not to imitate, but to  invent what doesn’t exist yet, to express thoughts/feelings in ways that have not been expressed before, as each of us has a unique view. To enrich the human history with something that is fundamentally new and original, and human, something that wouldn’t exist without you or them or I creating it. Those were great times.

But, now in the 21st century, wealthy “futurist” tyrantopaths and powerful companies are actually making purpose-lost humans believe, that living a virtual or by-choice software-supported life is cool and that the convenience of imitation (as opposed to creation) is what will make everyone’s life better and happier. They state that a “perfect” human will have a “perfect life” (apparently they haven’t taken a look at depressed lottery winners, wealthy hardcore drug-addicts, alcoholic- and bankrupt celebrities, etc.). Hiding behind misused words (like creativity) and syrupy advertising (you can create anything), they are managing to convince a large portion of population, that by clicking around in a simplified, purpose-built software, the user can actually get really inventive and achive the euphoria of creating something totally new, that was only possible for those with some specialized equipment, extreme dedication and (too much) time a few decades ago. They’re smart marketers; “optical illusions have gotten old, let’s keep everyone entertained with the technical illusion (and make a few billions along the way)”.

What does all this have to do with the NAMM show and music composition/production? Technology in music has served humans really well until is was enabling us more to come up with new ideas than to replicate old ones easier. Just like in many other areas, it has become a simple, quick and cheap way for anyone to imitate ideas – ideas, which have been already conceptualized and executed a long time ago, by those who pushed the boundaries of their mind, not (just) the technology of their times. Those who got something more out of new technologies than the masses (think of tape recorders and musique concrete). Technology is not inspiring users to push the boundaries of originality in music or sound – despite of what your favorite music store’s email newsletter tells you. If you have listened to mainstream radio or have seen what’s been coming out of Hollywood for the past decade, you know what I’m referring to. (It would be nice to have a recognized and truly independent award for those rare exceptions).

I do think that there are no limits to the extent and form of originality that one can come up with in music and sound today, despite of the sheer volume of ideas that the entertainment industry has wasted as over-exploited musical products, which it shoved down the consumers’ throat, especially in the past thirty-plus years. Ideas are so much more powerful and diverse than technology is! I often tell my students not to let technology drive their creative decisions, but the other way around – the leaders of the music technology industry seem to be on the opposite side (unlike some exceptional, respectable small companies).

''I'm the artist of the future!'' Let's make everything perfect, like on TV.

“I’m the artist of the future!” – Let’s make everything perfect, like on TV.

I urge programmers and software engineers to design products that help users to push the limits of our imagination, not the speed of the processors, and to contribute to the real progress of the human race, not products that make our lives overly comfortable and only seemingly happy. It might already be too late for that, as most users don’t realize how limiting this modern-day dependence actually is (try to get a sense for this dependence by turning off everything digital for a week in your house and at work), and they support it by favoring convenience and the illusion of their personal creative evolution, over creative thinking and hard work. This is especially true for today’s electronic music. Do unsuspecting users seriously think that the latest xyz plug-in that takes their sound closer to an [insert ‘major’ artist name] -track will open up their world of creativity and get their music launched into some brand new musical landscape? Do they seriously think that buying Native Instruments’ latest six-hundred-forty-million Terabyte sample library will help them to get their name written into the music history books? I hope you don’t. Real success happens when you are creating from your own, completely original ideas, your uniquely expressed feelings, personal experiences and memories that you turn into sound, music, image, etc., and when you let go of control and give space for happy accidents to happen.

According to Brian Eno, “Perfection is characterlessness”. I could not agree more. Throughout my career I have composed music both with the intention of creating “perfection” relative to industry expectations and trends, and also music not limited by particular guidelines or standards. I feel that my more predictable, more “perfect” pieces could have been created by many other composers… but those that were not born from the application of the established approaches, processes and techniques, but ventured off to take unplanned, untested directions while disregarding any routines or expectations, became the ones that would not exist without my existence – in turn, making my existence, and humble contribution to humans’ musical legacy, worthwhile.

My point? Next time when you’re enjoying the latest and greatest all-in-one easy-to-use music production software and feeling creative, challenge yourself by turning it off, grabbing a microphone and an object that you’d unlikely to ever record, or grab that $20 old toy synth (or other instrument with seemingly limited capabilities) from eBay, and start creating an experience. Instead of starting with a mass-produced algorhythm and your mouse, try some of the most human methods: discovery.

Singularity? The day when we trade our individuality for perfection – I despise that idea. We are alive as long as we are unique. Spending your money with companies that don’t sell you fake “creativity” but actually enable you to find your voice and ideas, will not only get you farther in your artistic endeavors today, but will help you to step on a currently unpopular road to an alternate, totally crazy, almost unimaginable and unbelievably human future as well: one with less perfection and less convenience.

2 Comments

  1. Dean Ross

    Hi Julius I realise that this post is a few years old but I thought I’d comment on it. I’ve often thought about this topic, but in this context: Why is it that in the so-called golden age of rock music the 60s and 70s when the instruments available (even to the stars who could afford anything on offer) were incredibly limited by today’s standards–the only instruments for keyboard players in the pre synth era were a piano, a Hammond, Vox or Farfisa, Rhodes, or Wurlitzer, ie pianos and organs basically–and guitarists had only one or two pedals/effects to choose from–did EVERY BAND have a totally and unmistakeably unique sound? I believe it was due to the fact that those bands’ options WERE so limited that they needed to be extra creative with the instruments they did have. Contrast that with today’s keyboard players in bands for example. Who stands out for having a distinctive style? Hardly anyone and I believe that is largely because there are thousands of sounds available now at the push of a button/menu dive, so there is little desire or even incentive to develop and cultivate an original voice.

    Reply
    • Julius Dobos

      Hi Dean. Thanks for your post – I’m in full agreement with your comment. Back in those days the limitation of technology brought the most creativity out of artists – the lack of “presets” resulted in much more originality. Actually, even those lucky few who had access to the more “advanced” technology in the late ’60s offering the them more options (VCS3, Modular Moog, etc.) were either 1) focusing on the music /style / performance instead of technology (Vangelis, ELP, etc.) or 2) deliberately “misused” the new technology in ways it was not intended to be used (JMJ, Schultze, Kraftwerk). These days there are so many options that users get fulfilled or tired of them before even thinking about creating their own alternatives. Instant gratification – even at the expense of unoriginality – is a common theme in the musical instrument and audio processing industries (even compressors and EQ plugins offer presets… amazingly). Isn’t this true for photography, movies, music videos, though?

      Today the artist with truly original concept and sound is relatively a rarity.. I am continuously browsing / listening in hopes of discovering a gem… which does happen just a few times each year. So don’t give up finding these exceptions – they are some out there!

      Reply

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