Friday, September 30, 2011

A Flute Landscape

I’ve always suspected the dinosaurs
want to come back to enjoy chasing us
and, more to the point for them, eating us.

Do hippie girls want to come back and draw
flowers on their cheeks and create a movement
to throw away cells phones and computers?

Dinosaurs and hippie girls is a world
where Beethoven could come back to a bar
and play acoustic piano for tips.

One of the bits of stop-motion animation I enjoyed making the most is “Where Did The Cows Go?” I created that, of course, because of the horrible radiation issues farmers—and everybody else—in northern Japan were and are still dealing with because of the Fukushima meltdowns.

I’ve been thinking about this for at least two reasons.

One reason is, many people might not know this, but for the last few days a nuclear power plant in Michigan has been venting secondary steam into the atmosphere. Supposedly it is just small amounts of tritium. But the power plant is right on Lake Michigan and for much of this week the wind around Chicago was what we call lake-effect wind, blowing from east-to-west. So, in our own little, trivial way, Chicagoans have joined the 21st century and become compatriots of the Fukushima cows.

So I’ve been thinking of recording and posting a guitar version of the little song from that animation.

That’s the second reason I’ve been thinking about this melody.

I’ve become very interested in the differences—real, perceived and imaginary—between high-end audio and cheap little speaker audio.

I’m not going to put up a guitar version today, but I might do it in the coming weeks.


This is the little melody from “Where Did The Cows Go?” If you click on the music image, you can see the image much larger. The lyrics follow the rhythm pretty simply:

“Darling, where did the cows go?”
“They’re out back. But they don’t look at all well.”

I imagined this as a flute melody, and one of the amazing things about working with a music workstation is that I can play this on a keyboard, but hear it as a synthesized flute. Another cool thing is that I can play this any way I choose, capture it to a sequencer, and the sequencer can display what I play in standard music notation.

This is all pretty standard stuff nowadays, but I’ve been thinking about this a lot because so many musicians—or, rather, so many musicians on the internet—spend so much time talking about the sound of what they play that you almost never see anyone actually talking much about the content the sound is expressing.

I recently watched this video, for instance, of a very good musician named Adrien Scott (of Air Supply, remember them?) demonstrating the new Roland Jupiter-80. It’s a nice demo and Scott has been involved with synthesizers for a long time so he is an expert presenter.

(There are especially good parts at 2 minutes 33 seconds, and 3 minutes 23 seconds, but the whole video is interesting, too, so you may want to watch the whole thing if you have eighteen minutes available.)

But I was really struck a couple of times when he says things like, “Why play this sound”—and then he presses a key and makes a bleeping sound—“when you can play this sound”—and he adjusts some setting then presses the same key again but this time makes a slightly different bleeping sound.

Even if we ignore the philosophical issue of defining music as sound rather than, well, music, in demonstrations like this often to my ears the difference between the old, “bad” bleeping sound and the new, wonderful, high-tech and expensive “good” bleeping sound is so subtle that I wonder if people, say, jogging while listening to iPod headphones could even tell the two bleeps apart?

It’s interesting because of the philosophical issues, the practical issues and the financial issues.

This is an informal comparison of the three typical approximate price points:

Casio WK-7500: $400
Yamaha PSR-S910: $1,800
Korg Kronos: $3,500

(The Jupiter-80 doesn’t have a sequencer or recorder so it’s not really a workstation per se, but it is in the Kronos price range.)

It would be interesting for someone with access to all three of these keyboards to select standard piano sounds, play the same song, and upload the samples at standard YouTube resolution. I strongly suspect most people wouldn’t hear a difference between the Casio and the Kronos.

There’s even another option. If a person already owns a computer, there are so-called “hybrid” solutions like the Arturia Laboratory for about $400, which provide a high-quality keyboard controller which has almost no functionality built into it, and various software programs which offer all the functionality—and sometimes more—of even the high-end dedicated workstations.


But all this stuff—the technology stuff, I mean—always makes me wonder if something is getting lost. No, it doesn’t make me wonder if something is getting lost. I know something is getting lost. It makes me wonder how much is getting lost.

I’ve talked about my friend Alison, the artist and graphic designer. One time she went out for a job interview and when she got back we talked and, to my horror, she started crying. The whole job interview, for her, wasn’t about her art abilities or her job skills or her degree from the Art Institute, it was about which computer hardware systems she liked and used, and which software programs she was most expert in. Well, she was a person who didn’t like computers. She wasn’t an expert with any hardware or software. And she felt her entire profession leaving her behind and embracing computer operators—computer operators with graphic design skills, but nonetheless the focus had shifted completely onto the tools side of the equation.

That same thing seems to be happening in the music world. Music skills are still in the equation, of course, but the focus seems to have shifted to the tools. Computer operators with music skills.

(And, of course, this is a bigger issue still. I did a post about a Bob Berman article describing how some professional astronomers don’t know the sky at all, and depend on computers to target their telescopes. Computer operators with astronomy skills. Obviously I could go on. Cameras are little computers now. Computer operators with photography skills. And, more seriously, military drones are killing a lot of people these days. Computer operators with soldier skills.)

I’m wondering how much is getting lost and I’m wondering: What kind of world are we creating?


When the whole world has been reduced to tools and tool-users, will there be any place for art?


Wind in the junkyard
blows across rusted metal
like a flute landscape.

Is this a junkyard church, this decay
around us, bricks, steel and broken glass?
Do rusted gears not turning say mass,
is their oxidation how they pray?

Thick clouds turn sunlight to shades of gray.
A photographer kneels in the grass,
hesitant to intrude, to trespass
the broken bricks and cut wires display.

Tiny computers, tiny motors,
focus the camera in the dim light.
The photographer just frames the shot.

Old factories. Old houses. Old stores.
Broken junk transfigures in our sight.
Tiny glories that won’t be forgot.

No comments: