Saturday, September 27, 2008

McLuhan, Medium, Message and Music

In his 1964 book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan first produced his now famous opinion that "The medium is the message."

This statement has been interpreted widely, but I'm going to limit the meaning of 'message' in this case to mean 'effect'. This speaks directly to McLuhan's argument that while content maybe significant, the medium itself by which content is delivered produces an independent effect (on the person or persons consuming given any given media).

More to point, this effect, McLuhan argues, overrides any effect produced by content alone (were one even able to divorce it from medium).

Agree or disagree, McLuhan nevertheless presents us with food for thought when we consider his statement in regards to the method by which modern music is composed and produced.

Philosophers have focused primarily on Television as The Medium, but McLuhan didn't limit himself to TV. It simply so happened that nothing else so well illuminated McLuhan's points as the example provided by Television.

One could similarly ask whether or not one's experience of consuming music changes whether one listens to vinyl on a turntable, or an mp3 from a hard drive. Instruments themselves can be considered mediums. Is a melody different when 'broadcast' from a Stratocaster than from a Stradivarius?

Yes and yes.

Jay W. Wilkey, in his 1969 article, Marshall McLuhan and Meaning in Music, rightly notes, "A medium may be thought of as an extension of man." But if that is the case, network and cable TV is an extension of the entity originating the broadcast, not the viewer. In the same way for instance that light may be thought of as an extension of the light bulb, not the eye, which reacts to it. Now contrast traditional media with the multipurpose personal computer. The PC is not only an extension of those distributing content but for those using the machine at home to produce it.

For the end user, a TV screen is a canvas, but a computer monitor is also an interactive tool.

Today, (convergence aside) it appears that the personal computer is quickly replacing TV as The Medium –if it hasn't already. Unlike TV, or a light bulb for that matter, our engagement with the PC is not so direct. However symbiotic our relationship with computers is, unlike TV, a PC doesn't simply invite consumption; it also invites engagement. Significantly, we use an interface system to fulfill the task of engagement: usually a mouse, a keyboard and a Graphical User Interface (GUI).

One might even now say it's not the computer that is the medium, but that 'The Interface is the Medium'.

McLuhan suggested content specificity is of little importance, relative to the effect the medium upon which it is delivered also projects an independent message.

If we take McLuhan's concepts and apply them to music, the inevitable conclusion is it doesn't much matter if a composer's output is symphonic in nature or a sample-laden hiphop track. What should really spark your interest is that both traditional-sounding music and (the modern equivalent of) musique concrète today share similar production processes, given the ubiquitous use of Digital Audio Workstations by creators of both.

I can tell you from personal experience that copying and pasting marcato strings is not so unlike copying and pasting funky drum hits.

[FYI: Per Wikipedia: Musique Concrète is avant-garde music "...that relies on recorded sounds, including natural environmental sounds and other noises that are not inherently musical, to create music".]

Certainly, various genres of music –symphonic music, pop music, country, jazz, hiphop, etc– all sound quite different from one another. But whereas thirty years ago the phrase 'electronic music' was nearly synonymous with 'experimental music', that notion has since changed. In fact, both phrases are anachronisms by today's standards. Today, much modern recorded music –from Nashville Country to Nigerian Hiplife– is created using the same formerly experimental techniques. Well, how experimental can one work be relative to another if everyone is using the same techniques to piece together samples and loops, and executing wholesale copy and paste treatments?

An age of collage cannot be also be entirely an age of originality.

But what collage does very well that wholly invented works can only rarely accomplish by themselves (the works of Charles Ives come to mind) is illuminate new perspectives by simply contrasting existing ideas (manifest as graphic, visual, audio or otherwise) within a novel context. In this regard, PC tools invite collage and collaborative techniques, and as a direct result present new context –at least more so (I would argue) than a pencil and a piece of paper.

The old sounds aren't simply being rehashed or recycled; they're being presented in a way that teaches us something new about the component elements voiced within the work, the world and ourselves. One indirect result is the now oft circumstance of sample-heavy works reflecting new light on the works they borrow from, frequently refreshing old content with contemporary insight.

Returning to McLuhan, content may very well be incidental at an empirical level, if the medium by which we create content and then distribute it produces an overriding effect (however subliminal to our senses) on the audience/consumer/user.

On the other hand, instead of having to rely solely on content itself for connection with an audience, content creators now possess an increasingly larger opportunity to manipulate context in such a way that it invites a wider audience, assuming they also have the talent to make a connection in the first place (something the technology also facilitates).

This is a profound concept, because now astute composers, well informed in electronic media techniques, can hope to win listeners over with the mere idea of a musical work, potentially earning fans before the piece has even been performed. This is already especially true for core fans of any specific genre, because the overriding genre concept defining a given work will often endear a bit of forgiveness in fans in regards to actual talent, artistic literacy or skill set of the work's creator.

This can be accepted two ways:

1) Today, everyone has the opportunity to sound like a professional.

And that may be true, but:

2) Equally significant, today even accomplished composers and sound designers can use the same digital tool kit (as amateurs) to produce art well beyond their own however-well-trained abilities.

–Meaning: the opportunity for interesting new works by amateur and professional alike grows exponentially. This is good news for audiences, spectators and the public at large.

In a way, this paradigm also speaks a bit to the power of branding. In fact, it may not be an accident that both the public embrace of branding concepts parallels the widespread shift to digital tools and distribution. But that's another article.

For the moment, consider how much the (digital) medium (by which music is now created and distributed) shares with design creation and distribution. Both rely heavily on digital technologies. Both are produced via engagement with a Graphical User Interface. But not only do Composers and Designers use many of the same commands to produce their respective works, many commands also have a history of usage in Text-only programs, such as Microsoft Word.

Copy and paste a word, an image or a melody: Is the artistic skill informing the various arts really so different? To my mind, they merge once one accepts the notion that a GUI levels differentiating skill sets in favor of a common virtual tool kit.

As a result, Designers and musicians (and writers for that matter) are now using the same tools, and they are using them in very much the same way.

I suspect future music theory and appreciation studies will include techniques and analysis whereby (seemingly) traditional music scores will reveal evidence of collage, collaboration and creation via Digital Audio Workstations. It may be that music educators will also be in a position to produce corresponding design corollaries –visual art and images produced using the same tools and techniques– among the gathered artifacts.

But why wait for the future, when we can do this now?

McLuhan was not the first to argue that communication technology (The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man), be it print or electronic media, affects cognitive organization, but he is perhaps the most popular to expound this idea. It behooves musicians to consider the relationship between their tools (i.e. musical instruments and production equipment) and their own cognitive processes.

Does music shape the mind or is it the other way around?

One needn't limit this consideration to digital interfaces, either. Multi instrumentalists already know how the improvisational composition of music with a keyboard engages a different cognitive process than when referencing a fretboard. The former feels horizontal and linear. The latter resonates with diagonals and feels dimensional, independent of how the resulting music actually sounds to the listener.

Either way, one can't help but notice how partial composition using one instrument is enhanced when the process is completed using an altogether different instrument. (For instance, writing a harmony with a piano and creating a lead melody with an electric guitar –a composer is apt to produce something far different melodically than if he or she composed both harmony and melody via keyboard)

It will be equally interesting when composers tire of the kind of inspiration digital tools provide, and use them as one would a traditional instrument in the hands of a competent performer. That is, with a sense of transparency, influenced only by the innate capacity of one's own inner ear and gifts.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Point of Impact @ Brand Zero

“A brand is always a story well told,” the New York Times reports Ms. Lucas, the vice president, general merchandise manager for beauty and perfume buyer for Henri Bendel, as saying as she gave a reporter a tour of the boutique’s perfume bar (An Underdog Pursues the Scent).

I understand how Lucas arrives at her assessment. For those who have never given women's retail any thought, movies that lend themselves to multi-tier licensing deals –like STAR WARS– illustrate Ms. Lucas' point emphatically.

Likewise, part of our experience of a given brand results from the context which we discover a given product, service or experience.

But I arrive at Branding from a different angle. To my mind a Brand is not a story in and of itself, but the thing a story delivers.

In my market theology: Story is simply a tool to deliver a brand or creator's promise, message, lesson or entertainment. Positioning is what the client or account or company does to carve out market space and visibility. A brand mark is most certainly an element in that strategy. But, brand marks aside, Branding is completed and returned by consumer consensus responding to the promise delivered by the Position.

Both Promise and/or Message are intangibles that your clients want consumers to understand about a given product they represent at first POINT OF CONTACT. –At least in a retail environment.

As with any ideogram, neither the communication itself, nor what is being communicated can be defined as story –there's simply no time for it. Rather, marks, identity assets, logos and packaging provide a business opportunity to inject a single shot of symbolic data into a consumer's brain. Call the resulting impact 'a feeling'. A story may in fact be the vessel for whatever is promised or experienced, but so is an ideogram –or in the case of a sound logo– or audiogram.

Wikipedia defines Ideogram as follows:

"An ideogram or ideograph (from Greek ἰδέα idea "idea" + γράφω grafo "to write") is a graphic symbol that represents an idea, rather than a group of letters arranged according to the phonemes of a spoken language, as is done in alphabetic languages, or a strictly representational picture of a subject as may be done in illustration or photography.

Examples of ideograms include wayfinding signs, such as in airports and other environments where many people may not be familiar with the language of the place they are in, as well as Arabic numerals and mathematical notation, which are used worldwide regardless of how they are pronounced in different languages."

Naturally, Ideograms are abundantly found in portfolios comprised of brand assets.

AUDIOGRAM is my own derivative invention, and refers to the sonic equivalent of ideographic mark.

In any regard, both ideograms and audiograms carry independent messages open to wide interpretation by those who receive them. We can narrow interpretation by creating context, but consumers often connect with companies, products and services before assimilating context. And your context may prove besides the point if public consensus posits a contrary mythology. In effect, Packaging and Content (or Company) only become synonymous with each other after consumers experience the product or service being advertised, and come to consensus on the value of the thing.

Story delivers brand assets, but neither the story nor the promise is the branding. Although, the reaction to it may very well be.

To make it real simple, consider advertising for a film. A trailer can make an awful film look great. The film's producer's want people to think they have a great film so that they'll actually pay to see it. But what happens after the public sees the movie, and everyone walks out the theater saying, 'it stinks'? Is the film's brand: A) Great? Or B) Awful? Or both? Like the The Rocky Horror Picture Show, it may require the right mood to discern its brilliance.

Of course, we can expand the concept of branding to mean anything we want it to, to apply to any and every sort of corporate communication. But when the feet hit the street in a given supermarket aisle, –and dare I say also along the cosmetic counters at Henri Bendel–, the only thing that matters is POINT OF IMPACT.

In fact, how does packaging compete with story?

Forget the hundred million dollar campaign produced by a legacy brand designed to introduce the pubic to a new logo. What intrigues me is what happens in the mind of a consumer who looking at boxes wrapped in packaging that hides their contents will then choose one over the other, instead of first doing research? It happens all the time.

Stories –delivered via advertising– hopefully drive consumers to stores. But faced with a multitude of heretofore unknown choices, how does a given consumer decide whether to buy one cosmetic over another? Or walking into a store, armed with information –and possibly a recommendation– with every intention on making a specific purchase: what happens then, when a given shopper ultimately decides to go with a different, unexpected, untested, new choice?

I would have to guess lacking personal experience or recommendation from a trusted source, nano-second judgments are made by each individual based on symbolic information made manifest by branding and packaging. When it comes to consumers purchasing products new to them, often choices are made first; and once having been made, only then does the consumer go looking for a back-story. Hopefully they accept the one your marketing department has created. Otherwise, it's behemoth brand against the bloggers, and nothing defines a brand like a bunch of unhappy consumers.

In like manner, the same piece of language can be read using one font or another, but sometimes one specific font is a more perfect choice to serve as the vehicle to deliver a specific composition. That is why Typography, like Sonic Branding, creates experiential value.

Say what you want about Art versus Commerce, first impressions do matter, even more than stories –at least until you've earned the full Faith and Trust of your client or customer.

As a Music Designer or Songwriter, your intention might be to compose an epic metal ballad, but your audience will tell you if you are indeed a rock shaman, or if alternately you are received (and perceived) as formed from the same mold as Spinal Tap.

• Audiograms are not inherently Brands by mere virtue or intention alone
• Brands are not stories, but are the subject of them
• Stories deliver and exemplify brand assets
• Logos, Ideograms and Audiograms promise an experience
• Faithful delivery of the promised experience creates Trust
• Trust is the basis of a relationship
• Relationship and Reputation ultimately define a Brand

In effect, the faith and trust that results from consistently delivering a given experience –THAT is the brand.

Branding –whether it is a graphic logo for letterhead or an audio mnemonic for a Television commercial– BEGINS with design and creation. Application of the mark distinguishes one product, service or company from another. But only when customers become return customers, and come to some consensus as to the value and identification of the assets –in effect making mark and thing synonymous with each other– do those assets and the promise they make (or message they deliver) become the brand.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Musician Under the Influence (of Technology)

As it happens, two weeks after concluding a series of articles on the effect technology has on modern music production, I stumbled on Nicholas Carr's article, 'Is Google Making Us Stupid?' (July/August), published on The Atlantic website. I found the article via a mention in a US News & World Report essay titled 'A Digital Dumbing Down?' about "The lively debate over the intellectual impact of digital culture", by Jay Tolson (August 28, 2008). Both articles are well worth consideration.

Naturally, after reading both articles, I felt completely 'on zeitgeist'.

Here's a thought provoking excerpt from The Atlantic article that touches on material related to topics discussed earlier this year in the Critical Noise blog:

"Sometime in 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche bought a typewriter—a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, to be precise...the machine had a subtler effect on his work. One of Nietzsche’s friends, a composer, noticed a change in the style of his writing. His already terse prose had become even tighter, more telegraphic. “Perhaps you will through this instrument even take to a new idiom,” the friend wrote in a letter, noting that, in his own work, his “‘thoughts’ in music and language often depend on the quality of pen and paper."

Like Socrates in Plato’s Phaedrus (Carr notes), bemoaning the development of writing, Carr spends a little too much time lamenting the suspicion that someone or something has been, "remapping the neural circuitry" of our brains, with the result that his own (and possibly everyone's) attention span is noticeably shorter. Others support Carr's argument offering the wholesale abandonment of print as anecdotal evidence to its truth.

Carr does have a point that can be supported by brain science, regardless. Repeated physical activities and mental tasks do influence brain structure –no doubt about it. Musicians for instance, demonstrate greater numbers of nerve cells in certain areas of the brain related to auditory tasks than non musicians.

And yet, I can't relate to Carr on his point because I still retain the capacity to juggle web surfing and a good book. Not to mention that children who should be most susceptible to a diminished capacity for concentration as a result of new technologies are still somehow able to digest a five to eight hundred page tome belonging to the Harry Potter series.

I do relate to Nietzsche’s friend, the composer, however, and I'm aware of the impact new tools have on my craft. Is there reason for concern? In some instances, perhaps. In one respect, technology IS killing musicianship; Guitar Hero is no substitute for actually playing a guitar. But music software and the  novel interfaces being invented to manipulate that software are  changing performance technique, composition and streamlining production in ways I find interesting, even exciting. A life spent building virtual worlds has never stopped computer scientist Jaron Lanier from also becoming a composer, a visual artist and an author.

Kevin Kelly (Wired), responding to Carr on his own blog, The Technium, suggests that perhaps Nietzsche's change in style was not the result of the typewriter interface, but the effects of age and infirmity. Kelly is possibly correct, but is he also such a unique animal in the universe that he alone hasn't recognized how punching keys creates percussive rhythms that may shape verbal and creative expression in a potentially different way than unaccompanied pen or pencil to paper? Kelly may as well argue no difference in musicality between sliding violin samples across a digital interface than actually playing a violin. Nonsense.

Maybe it's my age –younger than Kelly but not so young that I feel compelled to stay connected 24/7 to the digital social ecosystem. And maybe I don't surf as much as Carr, or perhaps I simply have a different relationship with technology from both men. I started programming music on computers, in BASIC, in the early eighties on a Tandy TRS-80, of all things.

Programming definitely influenced the way I filter information, be it incoming sensory data or outgoing communication. After dabbling in FORTRAN, the world has been ever after filtered through a lens some called Karma, others 'Cause and Effect', but which I know as the IF-THEN construct.

In fact, when selecting and connecting melodic information, thinking 'in FORTRAN' probably plays a bigger role in the formation of my aesthetic than I've previously given the construct credit for. And I don't think that's necessarily a negative.

What I do find interesting is not how unlimited information access or ambient awareness might be eroding our mental capacity or distracting our focus, but how emerging similarities between Modern Audio Production and Graphic Design might be due in no small part to the influence of the Graphical User Interface in both industries (Music By Design).

Increasingly, the lens which we interact with the world is a data chocked screen.

And common or shared software protocols make once dissimilar activities available to experts of one art form who may now choose to experiment with another. The result is a kind of hybrid artist who may not be able to function as a musician or designer in the analog world, but is quite capable of producing something worthwhile in both Photoshop and ProTools.

To Carr's point:

If I have any misgiving about the latest technological advances in music production, it's that so much professional equipment of yesteryear has been replaced by disposable TOYS, virtual and otherwise. New England Digital's pre ProTools music production synthesizer (Synclavier) was crafted with the same buttons the military used to build B52 bombers, and it felt like a Steinway/CRAY super computer blend under one's fingers.

In contrast, few contemporary music tools are constructed with more care and craft than Fisher-Price Toy Musical Instruments, except that Fisher-Price products are actually built to last. It seems that new millennium instrument manufacturers are determined to edge their own products into obsolescence, and do exactly this with each new update. Getting customers to trash last year's product on the false premise that the latest technological advance will increase musicianship is central to countless business plans.

But you'll never find a Pianist abandoning his or her piano, or a Violinist his or her violin. How many electronic musicians are using the same tools today that they were using five years ago? Not many, I bet. This strange circumstance appears to have produced a culture of artists who would rather forgo the development of a competent skill set in favor of access to a perpetually novel tool kit. And, no doubt, the music made by perpetual students will bear evidence of this circumstance.

The flip side, of course, is that good music teachers from all over the world have become instantly accessible to the dedicated few at the touch of a mouse. Also, the tools of music production are now relatively affordable, and therefore within the reach of nearly everyone who wants to express themselves with sound –regardless of whether their ambition is to be a professional or simply enjoy music as a hobby. This can only produce a positive effect on a culture where the Arts have practically disappeared from the syllabus (in favor of new laptops for social networking, perhaps?).

Closer to my point, and as others have noted we've entered an Age of Design.

In his organizational paper of the same name, Jeff Conklin writes in Age of Design (Clicking this link initiates a PDF download!):

"...the job of humanity is now shifting from understanding our world to being conscious about creating it —that is, designing it."

Whatever one calls it, this paradigm shift is informing both our aesthetic and our process. Maybe we do read invent less, and read far fewer books, but we're arguably making and creating more using the tools of collage and synthesis.

It's also possible any diminished interest in text is the result our cognitive systems are undergoing a reorientation towards (or evolutionary preference for) pictographic writing systems (SMS shorthand, emoticons, branding, etc...), over traditional communication via the written word.

As with Ancient Egyptians, our preference is to consume and transmit data in packages that resemble a modern equivalent of hieroglyphics. We're all suddenly thinking visually and purposefully –regardless of whether we're artists, musicians, writers, managers or anything else– we've become a culture of designers.

How often now is every thought, every concept, first conceived as an image? It's only after one sees the thing does one then translate it into spoken words, formal or informal text or even shapeless sounds and music.

Google may or may not be making us stupider, but computers and other electronic tools, and GUI ubiquity especially, are certainly changing the way we connect to reality, process information and communicate our thoughts.

Why use the word when a picture –or ideogram– is worth a thousand, and nuance requires negligible energy to bring meaning into focus. Of course, Text works as well as it does because it is both an image and it conjures a sound.

So, perhaps we are thinking less like verbalists, and more like visual artists?

I don't want to believe that we're dumbing down. I'd like to think we're actually 'Designing Up'.

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Online magazine EDGE has posted other responses to Carr's article. Contributors include W. Daniel Hillis, Kevin Kelly, Larry Sanger, George Dyson, Jaron Lanier, Douglas Rushkoff, W. Daniel Hillis and David Brin. Simply click the link to visit: The Reality Club

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To specifically read more about how digital technology is transforming music composition and production from a primarily aural-centric task into a more visual experience than it it ever has been before (the invention of musical notation notwithstanding) click the following links to visit Table-of-Contents pages for two different but related series of articles posted earlier this year on the Critical Noise Aural Intelligence blog.

Critical Noise 2008 Series 1: Evolution of the Music Designer

Critical Noise 2008 Series 2: Computers Have Changed My Brain