Sunday, April 01, 2012

What Machines Teach Us About Music

Photo Credit: R.Bart
Fundamentally, all musical instruments are machines, whether they are composed of nineteenth century spruce, horsehair and animal gut, or plastic parts and circuit boards.

The piano is an early computer with a digital keyboard interface. The violinist is a cyborg wielding a controller in one hand and symbiotic touch screen in the other. Both devices are designed to translate a series of logical operations into sound, stir the senses and move the soul.

So, from the very beginning we can observe that machines have been integral to man’s relationship with music. And yet, while musical instruments have long been used as tools of mimicry as much as melody, some along the way have considered the collective sonic palette of even the symphony orchestra to be inadequate.

In fact, in 1913, Italian Futurist and Noise visionary, Luigi Russolo (1885-1947) laments he is weary of ‘Eroica’, and traditional instrumentation and tonality in all its varieties. Much more, he realizes, is he excited by the sounds generated by the burgeoning Industrial Age, and where others only hear noise, he hears sonic opportunities.

Indeed, he believes “that by selecting, coordinating and dominating all noises we will enrich men with a new and unexpected sensual pleasure.” And to this end, Russolo dreamed up a new music paradigm he calls ‘The Art of Noises’.


It took the introduction of the Tape Recorder over a quarter of a century later before his vision will reach its full fruition. But once it does, and though it becomes very popular, his philosophy does not so much serve to eradicate traditional musical practices, as much as it does to refresh them with what many young people agree is a new improved modern flavor. Much later, with the introduction of the synthesizer, the sampler and eventually the personal computer, the deft manipulation of subjugated noise and sublime patterning reaches its apex of global popular appeal in the form of hiphop.

However, if we return to the very first 1948 radio broadcast of a ‘concert of noises’, produced by Pierre Schaeffer for Radiodiffusion Française, we can hear that it includes an ensemble of locomotives, which by even Russolo’s time was already as old a sound as that of the modern symphony orchestra. To the contemporary ear this recording resembles a film score sans moving image. The common perception is that this is all the work of its human designer, but I rather like to think it is a duet, between one machine and another, the recording device and the railroad. And spliced between the two, as it happens, is the seminal sound of all things to come.

Today, recording technology functions in at least three capacities: 1) As a sound source, 2) As an efficient production tool, and 3) As a teaching aid. But not withstanding its profound influence in our studios and on our stages, I wonder if there have been any other machines, apart from electronic versions of traditional instruments, which have been as influential on the compositional process as either the railroad or telegraphy.

Both rattled to life well before Russolo published his Art of Noises, and each produced such a potent rhythm that the two together might very well have given birth to modernism in music. What would rock’n’ roll be without the rail? Calypso with out the empty steel oil drum? Or media minimalism without Morse Code?

It may sound odd to say so, but if we are to speak of famous composers, then the locomotive and its inventors, and Samuel F. B. Morse are as important as both Beethoven and the blues.


As it happens, I’m reminded of this possibility on a daily basis, during my own commute upon New York City’s subway. This circumstance affords me much opportunity to imagine my own musical constructions over a consistent rhythm. And I do this so often that I now think of the thing that I am riding on as not so much a method of vehicular transport as a metronome on a grand scale that keeps time even as it moves through space.

If this methodology sounds curious to the non-musician, what I’m doing is not so different as when a DJ builds a musical experience atop a loop. In other words, we are both using a beat making machine as a compositional tool.

This begs the question: Is music merely organized sound as the composer, Edgard Varèse, has described it? Or is music only that which is qualitatively emotional, as technologist and concert pianist Manfred Clynes posits?


Notwithstanding the human construct that birds sing rather than speak, and if we accept that music is peculiar to humanity, then Varèse’s definition is too broad, for it permits the inclusion of natural phenomena, which might be perceived as organized in the ear of the beholder.

Conversely, if we accept the notion that organized sound must be qualitatively emotional to qualify as music, then Clynes’ definition is too limiting, because it not only denies us the use of an otherwise emotionally neutral railroad, put potentially dismisses the possibility of any Machine Signification in Music.

But no doubt an interesting thing happens once we begin to contextualize the sound of a train as a musical sound source, and that is that despite its neutral position, this sound (and any sound) appears to fit into an organization, and then also, begins to resonate with meaning, that is, depending on the context, the ghost in the machine, if there is one, literally seems to speak to us. It is a cognitive phenomenon which takes place not so much because a composer intends it, but because we the listener project meaning when we (automatically) frame sound with prior experience.

In other words, it’s all noise until you decide otherwise. Indeed, even Top Ten Radio is noise until you actually hear a song you like.

Marshall McLuhan famously said (among other things), "Art is anything you can get away with." But to answer the question, ‘What is Music?’ we might first look to what machines have taught us about music. And the answer to that question is that all sound is born of noise until the moment that we frame it as a tool for (or source of) communication. And only then is it transformed into art.

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