Sunday, January 09, 2011

Mash-Up for the Masses

In an interactive feature titled, The Recombinant DNA of the Mash-Up, the New York Times offers a neat summary of the last hundred years of audio collage.

It reminded me how current technology now allows even the least musical of us to enjoy the feeling of making music, exactly because neither triggering nor even beat matching samples requires any dexterity or talent (given the right software).

Of course, there are varying degrees of electronic artistry, but many programs find popularity precisely because anyone can begin combining samples and 'making music' without any training whatsoever.

But what I find interesting, is that even with such immediate magic at our disposal, many would still prefer it if someone else chose the loops and pushed the buttons.

Sidestepping the notion of DJ as musical curator, why is that?

Maybe it's like choosing a designated driver? Most people can drive, but once you and your friends decide that you're going to spend the night mainlining one pure pop hook after another, fueled by a potent mix of rap and rhythms, it's simply more prudent to let someone else get behind the wheel –or laptop– and do the actual driving, and generally direct all the madness for the entire evening so that everyone else can safely reach peak ecstasy as they bump and crash and spin around the floor, and into each other, searching through movement and spirit for the joy that comes with surrendering oneself to a collective sonic singularity.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Quantum Audio: Post Modern Post Noise

It seems apropos that on the first day of a new year to make a resolution for the future. I would like to make such a resolution on behalf of staid Music Theory, which is I think in need of some new threads to follow. Mine is merely the opinion of a commercial music producer, but I arrive at this opinion based on the increasing necessity by which commercial works are judged not just on thematic development, but on their ability to communicate symbolic data.

Certainly, I'm not the first to suggest updating the core curriculum. Others before me have sought, developed and presented new methodologies for analyzing traditional music, e.g., the application of linguistic analysis to a given composition. Indeed, A Generative Theory of Tonal Music by Fred Lerdahl, Ray Jackendoff and Ray S. Jackendoff have had me pondering this and related topics for over twenty years. Along the way it occurred to me that while there are several approaches on the table, a common realization amongst many musicologists is that there is more to music than just the music itself.

Therefore, it seems to me, that at the same time we expand our meaning of Music Theory, we must also expand our meaning of Music. And it may also be that Composition itself is a limiting word, because so much of what we do in commercial audio is better described as Design.

Yesterday’s Music Theory parcels musical from non-musical sounds. However, today’s music designer doesn’t draw the same distinction. Likewise, today's Music Theory limits itself to the analysis of harmonic constructions, whereby a pitched note is like an atom, and a motif a complex molecule. But anyone commissioned with the design of a sonic brand understands even smaller particles exists, and they must possess some significant value because their deft placement produces increases the effectiveness of a given communication.

Traditional music analysis continues to be useful, but modern music designers will often expand their knowledge base by cobbling together a kind of personal post modern, post noise philosophy. By doing this, they form an individual understanding of how to communicate Concrete Information with Abstract Sound. The result is a skill set which allows one with some confidence to code commissions with inherent semiotic DNA in order for to maximize the efficacy of a given transmission.

By ‘inherent’, I don’t mean that a given sound is inherently imbued with any meaning at all, but that human cognition endows certain sound classes a specific meaning, but only after a collective audience has agreed to a shared definition of a given sound, collection of sounds or sonic experience.

Do you know what Happy and Sad sound like?
Do you know what Spring and Autumn sound like?
Do you know what Victory and Defeat sound like?
Do you know what Sadness and Anger sound like?
Do you know what a Chase or Love Scene should sound like?

Of course you do.

But what does Nokia sound like? Or General Electric? Or Ikea? Pick any brand. It's when we are faced with such a commission that we begin to form an art (and possibly a science) out of what may have once been executed by a natural impulse or guess work. Which is to say we form a technique, which is never present without a theory to support and direct it.

Choose a friend or family member: What do they sound like? How do you filter his or her traits and attributes in order to choose the ring tone to alert you to their incoming calls? –Yes, that too is branding! Do you do this by feeling or analysis?

Some musical professionals already do employ musical symbology, especially those who create movie scores, primarily as a means to enhance story, but still, mostly only at the motivic level. Otherwise, this art is not common, and more media composers –especially those in advertising and branding– would do well to begin exploring and implementing their discoveries.

My own ongoing study enters its thirtieth year and synthesizes relevant data from a variety of extra-musicological sources including: linguistics, semiotics, psychology, cultural theory, environmental sound and more recent findings produced by the study of memetics, which altogether have produced in me a nearly formalized bio musicological understanding of sound that I have taken to call ‘Quantum Audio’.

Of course, Quantum data suggests –as with quantum physics– an understanding that the world exists on at least two scales: Macro and Micro.

Let us agree for the purposes of this article that 'Macro' suggests the construction of traditional harmony and melody. Pitched notes are its atoms and motifs its molecular structures.

'Micro', then, as it applies to Quantum Audio, is the examination of sonic particles, both musical and non musical, whether initiated by man, machine, nature or created as an effect, or existing as a residual 'after glow'. Whatever category they fall into, they are always smaller than a motif, rarely longer than a note, but they are nonetheless significant because by tiny, almost imperceptible means, they shape our experience of a given musical or sonic work, signaling to us whether or not what we are hearing is a message or something else. In fact, their impact might be said to delineate the difference between whether or not we recognize incoming audio data as general information as informative audio.

British physicist Dennis Gabor also proposed a similar term, 'quantum of sound', to describe indivisible physical units of audio information. And while the two concepts sound identical, we will limit our use of the phrase Quantum Audio to describe only those psychoacoustic microstructures that are not so small that they cannot also act as carriers of semiotic messaging.

At any rate, if we are to become experts of 15-second 'messages', 5-second stings, three-second bumps, two-second logos and 1-second long (or less) navigational tones -and it is clear that we have to be– then it goes to reason that those who aspire to creating the most efficacious music design must begin analyzing music on a micro semiotic level, much as composers have long done at the macro level. And if we are to become experts in audio branding, then the research academics have long taken for granted will also have to become part of our skill set as commerical sonic artisans.

While it may strike some as gibberish, others will find that once one approaches the art of music design as the skill of assembling and embedding symbolic data, rather than, say, simply pasting sound to picture, or developing thematic support to enhance narrative, one actually does arrive at a different musical or otherwise sonic result –and some might even think an expontentially more potent communication– than one would have otherwise.