Thursday, April 10, 2008

University of Nebraska at Kearney student Grant Campbell responded to an observation I made in my previous (April 9) blog entry, “Rock History and How It’s Made,” prompting me to expand on some comments I made in that post. In response to my previous entry, he made the following comment:

The technology aspect is most certainly a driving force behind the change in “style” of the era’s [the 1960s] music. However, wouldn't it be genealogical for a certain era’s musicians to find their own way of utilizing that technology? I know you aren't taking ALL the credit away from musicians and giving it to technology. But if technology is going to advance anyway, I still think that it is the artists who need to be primarily recognized for their creative genius.

I should add that he’s responding to an observation I made at the end of my post, that most histories of rock ‘n’ roll focus on influence understood rather narrowly as artistic influence, rather than on the influential role of technological innovation, an “invisible” factor driving popular musical change. While I was by no means trying to diminish the role of the musician, I should say that what is meant by “artistry” might well in fact mean, in part, how the musician exploits the potential of a new technology, meaning on that point I'm in agreement with Grant when he talks about a musician’s finding his “own way of utilizing” a specific technology. But I would add that technological changes continue to challenge and modify what we mean by "artist" in the first place.

Since I suspect there are many who share his thoughts (or rather, hesitations), perhaps I ought to provide some examples of what I meant by my earlier assertion about the role of technology in popular music in order to illustrate my general point (not an entirely original one, I might add):

--Frank Sinatra responded to the development of the LP (long-play) record by creating albums unified by a sense of mood or tone, e.g., In the Wee Small Hours (1955). With an entire side available consisting of roughly twenty minutes, he was no longer restricted by the limitations of one side of a 78, or roughly five minutes. The second side of The Beatles’ Abbey Road (1969) exploits the length of a side of the LP in a similar way. Remember that the word “album” used to refer to a heavy cardboard portfolio that consisted of several 78s tucked inside separate sleeves, not a single 12" LP record.

--In the 1960s, rock musicians responded to the potential of the LP by “stretching out” or “jamming”—the “jam session,” which sometimes took up the entire side of an LP. While I certainly don’t wish to get into a simple “chicken-or-egg” dialectical argument, one wonders whether the storage capacity of one side of an LP didn’t in fact prompt musicians to stretch out or jam in the first place. A case in point is a band such as the Grateful Dead, a band that made records attempting to duplicate the ambiance of their live concerts, a practice in flat contradiction to that of most bands at the time, which tried to make their concerts sound like their records.

--The development of multitrack recording, among other engineering innovations, enabled the development of psychedelic music, the aural equivalent of an hallucinogenic trip. As Jim DeRogatis observes:

Musicians couldn’t specifically reproduce any of these [hallucinogenic] sensations, but drug users also talked about a transfigured view of the everyday world and a sense that time was elastic. These feelings could be invoked—onstage [synaesthesia, the “psychedelic light show”] but even more effectively in the recording studio—with circular, mandala-like song structures; sustained or droning melodies; altered and effected instrumental sounds; reverb, echoes, and tape delays that created a sense of space, and layered mixes that rewarded repeated listening by revealing new and mysterious elements. (Turn On Your Mind, Hal Leonard Corporation, 2003, p. 12)

The “altered and effected” instrumental sounds to which DeRogatis refers are technically known as “non-linear synthesis,” meaning that the sound that goes in to a particular electronic device is not the sound that comes out—think, for example, of the use of the Leslie (see my earlier entry) or the ring modulator. In this sense, I suppose, the use of technology to approximate a drug trip is an example of the banal insight that technology follows the path of ideology.

--After a live concert, the Velvet Underground--the band which I specifically mentioned in my last post--frequently left the stage leaving their plugged-in guitars behind, thus enabling a self-sustaining feedback effect (the amplifiers would generate sound waves that in turn would vibrate the guitars' strings, thus creating a loopiness, or self-sustaining feedback). Jimi Hendrix often did the same thing, exploiting electronic technology’s potential to operate independent of any conscious (human) control. Lou Reed's later Metal Machine Music (1975) is an entire album consisting of self-sustained feedback, pushing the point of technology's ability to operate autonomously of human control to the extreme--see below.

--In a further development since the 1960s, digital sampling enables one to make a record by combining fragments of songs compiled entirely from previous recordings—yet another challenge to what is traditionally meant by the word artist. Certainly the Velvet Underground was—in the traditional sense of the word—influenced by Andy Warhol’s notion of the pop artist, since he was at the time the VU formed using found photographs for the making of prints. Remember that Warhol referred to his studio as the Factory, suggesting the potential for “art” to be a mass-produced item just like any other, or perhaps, no different than any other. Think of Duchamp's "Fountain," a urinal to which he applied the signature "R. Mutt" and placed in an art gallery.

The larger point, I think, is that the language we use to talk about popular music is itself problematic, for as the practice of digital sampling reveals, terms such as "artist" and "musician" no longer really function. The question we need to consider seriously is whether they were terms antiquated decades ago, when rapid changing technologies began to profoundly change popular music.

No comments: