Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Kids Today: Music Today

When we I was growing up (Gen X), I would never dream of listening to the same music my parents listened to. So I'm always surprised to find kids today listening not only to what their parents listened to when they were teenagers, but to learn that it's not uncommon for them to also listen to the music that their grand parents love.

And I make this observation not to besmirch young people today, either. I have been fortunate enough to have had a couple of very bright children as students and I think they are as good or better as any generation. With any luck, they will save us from national debt and invent flying cars that run on air. Not to mention that thank God we are producing eight year olds who intuitively understand the intrinsic value of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd.

I think the simple fact is, the latter half of the 20th century was a golden age in pop music, where songs were both entertaining and socially relevant –a common enough circumstance in Africa and the Caribbean, but otherwise rare in the Western world. Honestly, I wish I could have contributed to it, but I didn't, or I couldn't, or they wouldn't let me, or insert your favorite excuse here, and now it's over.

And today, in it's place, circa 2010, we live in an new age where music is oft relegated to a utilitarian role.

Hi, just arrive? Welcome (Cue The Beatles).

This circumstance is good for tunesmiths licensing works to electronic games and advertising campaigns, but not so good for artists trying to ignite (or simply participate in) a revolution.

So, yes, there are still great songwriters today, but does one of their tunes fit on my fitness workout playlist? Will it help sell a car? Will it lead to interest from EA Sports? Does it work as a cue for a Television drama?

Well, it had better, because that is the criteria now.

Friday, October 15, 2010

A Recitative for Data

Why does the music supporting various pharmaceutical spots so often sound similarly conceived? Whether comforting and organic, or pulsing and electronic, or as often is the case, a combination of the two, most of it belongs to a genre that I like to call Pharma Fusion.

On the surface, it's obvious why Pharma Fusion sounds the way it does: The music is clearly audible, but simultaneously and intentionally transparent. This allows for important medical information, including proper usage, input schedule and possible side effects –not to mention brand messaging– to be made perfectly legible.

The end result is bit like delivering the voice over as though it were printed in big type on a label.

Indeed, a critical commercial music production skill is understanding how to produce audio that doesn't jingle or enhance so much as it serves to support a voice over delivery containing factual content (or in the case of film, scoring around dialogue).

But for the composer or the sound designer working on these TV and Radio commercials, the process can also seem counter intuitive. The reason being that a score's function in a marketing context is ostensibly that of being the musical component of a sales pitch. But that's not really the case here. Notwithstanding an aural lift for applicable brand identification, good Pharma Fusion doesn't push, doesn't persuade. Like a mother singing to her child, it simply carries a message of experience, safety and hope.

And hopefully, these things are true.

After all, one wants to believe one is playing a creative role in the announcement of a potentially life saving or life enhancing drug, by using music to produce and amplify clarity.

As for the music design process itself, it helps to understand pulse. Whether intentionally or intuitively, so many of these scores use the human heart beat as a rhythm bed. But I also think it's a bit like knowing how to produce a recitative for data.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Noise and Jazz

In 1913, Italian Futurist and Noise visionary, Luigi Russolo (1885-1947) laments that he is weary of ‘Eroica’, and so he dreams up a new concert music created by machines that echo the sounds of the Industrial Age.

But what did he think of ragtime, and its syncopated rhythms inspired by the intersection of African Culture, urbanization and the Industrial Revolution? And then afterward when it spawned a million new modern musical memes under the auspices of a then embryonic ‘jazz’ form?

Or did the author of The Art of Noises tune his ears only to the symphony hall and so was thereby disinclined to listen to the popular music of the day? Did he not hear in it some of the musical machinations he heard in his head, simply because the format did not suit his aesthetic?

Or if he heard it, did Russolo hear in American popular music only hysteria, or burgeoning vulgarity, as many critics at the time did, and none of what made this new music so utterly modern, compliments a sometimes bawling tonality and often propelled by the backfiring rhythms of an increasingly post agricultural society?

Even if he may not have paid much attention to the jazz of his day, I wonder what would Russolo would have made of John Zorn, who's Avant-garde project, Naked City, is one of my all time favorite albums and listening experience? Or German experimental industrial ensemble Einsturzende Neubauten? Or even electronic musician Dan Deacon, who is a master of circuit sourced chaos?

Would he think them kindred spirits? However alike or different in practice from his original vision, I think he would.

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Photo Collage by Terry O'Gara