Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Machines, Music and Meaning

Machines, Music and Meaning:
From orchestral cannonfire to the Countdown clock

[First published by SEMIONAUT†, March 13, 2012.]
From rail rhythms in rock, to drill bits in glitch hop and dub step, the use of machines to make music is not a new idea, although their influence may not always be apparent to our ears. 

In one very clear link, music refers to the sound-making device itself, as when Tchaikovsky employed cannon fire in his 1812 Overture. Certainly, cannon fire can be said to be dramatic, and because of its powerful effect, it signifies a warning to potential invaders, as much as it should also produce feelings of patriotism in a loyal nationalist, as was the composer’s intent.

Tchaikovsky also chose to use an actual cannon for the sound of the cannon’s roar, rather than engage traditional instruments to mimic explosive blasts. That is to say, as with words or images, sometimes the power of abstracted sounds lies with their direct or common associations. Likewise, sometimes a sign only points in one direction. However, also like language and imagery, and depending on context, abstracted sounds lend themselves to a variety of uses, which resonate well beyond literal interpretation.

For instance, the clock at your bedside simply indicates the time of day. But when embedded within the score for a game show, such as Jeopardy or Countdown, we do not so much as note the time as we become aware of its passage, and all that such passage implies. We may thus find ourselves empathizing with an indecisive contestant when a looming deadline must be beat. In the case of Countdown, if we remove the clock from the main theme, all we have is an exciting musical prelude, but otherwise lacking any real sense of urgency.

For another example, trains have long had an influence on modern music, either as a literal effect, or as a source for a powerful rhythm. However, in ‘This City Never Sleeps’, the band The Eurythmics employ the sound of London’s underground towards another interesting result. For whether we notice it or not, the lack of crowd murmur within the sound sample imparts upon us a feeling of loneliness. So that no matter where or when we listen to this song we are transported to a particularly empty place in both our hearts and the middle of the night.

In the same way, consider the Cha-Ching opening of a cash register in Pink Floyd's ‘Money’. The register alone might set the physical scene of a shop, but it’s the incessant looping of the sound that produces a feeling of obsession, and thus, before a single word is uttered or sung, the music is instantly framed as a missive on consumerism or greed.

Even if we dismiss mechanical rhythms as primary influencers, industrial products have been responsible for not simply contributing novel sounds to music, but for seeding several modern genres. One needn’t even point to electronically powered music for an obvious example. What would calypso be, for instance, but for the empty steel oil drum?

Generally speaking, the use of machines in music have historically suggested that we are collectively more modern than we were yesterday. But since mankind’s most recent mechanical fascination is with an otherwise silent device –the computer – one wonders what impact it will have on music of the 21st Century? Will silence become the new indicator of modernism? Or will this silence force us to reconsider our own biological rhythms and usher in a new bio-musical age? Or will the computer’s easy capacity for copying and combining thrust us towards an ever increasingly paste modern future?

Of course, any answer would only be guesswork, but we can be certain that otherwise reticent machines will continue to find new ways to speak to their human designers through the language music.

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Semionaut is an online magazine & knowledge resource offering insight into culture, media, creative industries, and brand strategy. Its publishers, editors, and contributors are professionally involved in the application of semiotic and cultural analysis to brand communication and design issues.

1 comment:

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