We begin by setting a standard. This is the greatest online video I know of that captures an excerpt of electronic music performance. Here's Detroit's Octave One:
If that doesn't make you feel like throwing your computer through the window and screaming TECHNO TECHNO TECHNO at any passerby (you don't have to do it, you just have to feel like it), perhaps you would feel more at home here. Enjoy the new Fleet Foxes! If you are feeling properly invigorated, though, you might put that energy to use in locating and purchasing the great new Octave One album, Summers On Jupiter.
Octave One (a.k.a. Random Noise Generation) are brothers Lenny and Lawrence Burden, who for something like 20 years now have been not only producing incredible techno records, they've been playing their productions in what remains a pretty unique live show (though I've heard that both Phuture and Dan Bell do something like it, I've never had the pleasure of seeing it). As the above clip demonstrates, they do their thing with a rack of sequencers, samplers, and synthesizers rather than with turntables, spending performances both engrossed in creating the subtleties of their music and physically expressing its effects. Yes, a lot of the power of this performance is the spectacle of it; seeing the rack, seeing their heads bouncing up and down above it. But what's most compelling about their live shows is that they are a rare instance in which electronic music production and performance collide. The result is an ongoing practice that is profoundly connected to the origins of dance music, in encounters with the early machinery of musical simulation.
That moment of origin is described by Kodwo Eshun as an instance of "autocatalysis," which is
when sound emerges by itself, when the machine generates a new sound autonomously, without a human agent. A machinic lifeform emerges from the sampler on its own. The Roland TB-303 Bass Line Rhythm Composer engineers its own audiomatter. In ’87 the 303 discovers acid on its own, uses Phuture to replicate.The machine rebels against its creator, in conspiracy with its user. Eshun's gesture towards a process of production that is not merely cyborgian but entirely mechanistic may seem hyperbolic, but it is certainly more reasonable than the boring attribution of complete authorial autonomy to the Artist that cultural producers in the high-modernist traditions of literature and rock music are often granted. In this interview, Lawrence Burden similarly describes Octave One's music as navigating a dialectic between the humanistic and the mechanistic, with the latter sometimes achieving preeminence.
This is nothing new, in the history of radical sonic culture. Arnold Schoenberg's 12-tone serialism was a kind of written technology, a system of composition that functioned as a machine: once put into operation by a "composer," it would develop the music itself. John Cage similarly sought to immolate the notion of the composer with pieces based on "chance operations" rather than either composition or improvisation, both of which emphasized a kind of subjectivity/ownership that Cage meant to abolish.
It is this tradition that brings us to Microsoft Songsmith. One wonders what Arnold and John would have thought of this strange artifact of digital you-culture, a piece of software that composes musical accompaniment to match its user's voice. If Songsmith is like the 12-tone serial technique, it's hard to say who its Schoenberg is--is it the user who sets the machine in motion, or the presumably large staff of programmers who created its parameters? Regardless of who its Genius is, it's clear what its Masterpieces are. This video, a recomposition of Oasis's 90's rock hit "Wonderwall" has been causing quite a stir lately.
What an improvement. The song is transformed; a new harmony completely alters its emotional mode, the meaning of its words, the appearance of the video, a new rhythm gives it a goofy propulsion that we could not previously have known Britpop sorely needed. I am reluctant to give youtube poster azz100c full credit for this piece (nor should we grant it solely to Oasis or Microsoft), but I will thank him for bringing it into existence. What's remarkable about this artwork is not only that it has no author, but that it consequently deflects all criticism one could direct at it. Of course it has "no soul," of course it's incoherent, of course it's repetitive and simplistic. Its composer was a series of 1's and 0's, for crying out loud.
"Roxanne" isn't quite as astonishing as "Wonderwall," but it is valuable for demonstrating irrefutably how moronic this song is. Occasional moments of dissonance, when the program does not what it was programmed to do, but what it can do, are an utter delight. azz100c has a couple other pieces posted, but they're not worth looking at; some Doobie Brothers track sounds practically the same as its original incarnation, and "What's Goin' On" was just a terrible idea. (A worse idea: this commercial. DON'T CLICK you will regret it.)
Songsmith will probably fade into relative irrelevance soon enough, with only these wonderful videos remaining as vestiges of Microsoft's folly. The questions Songsmith raises, however, are more important. What can the technology of today produce that is comparable to what the Roland 303 and 808 produced, what the Technics SL-1200 produced? What can it do that isn't just an easier imitation of what previous technologies and their users already accomplished? I'm sure I'm not the only listener sick to death of that Ableton micro-looping warp click sound and all its variations--Songsmith is a breath of fresh air in comparison. But I'm guessing it will be a while yet before anyone does on computers anything nearly as vital as what the Burdens do on their obsolete black boxes.