Archive for July, 2019

Music of the Future

I recently came across a particularly prescient observation by the renowned conductor, composer and music critic Donald Tovey (1875-1940). Writing some time prior to 1940, he speculates with remarkable foresight that it may become possible to produce orchestral music without orchestral instruments simply by reproducing the characteristic patterns left by a stylus in the grooves of a phonograph disk.

He says: “There is nothing to prevent the eventual production of music directly in terms of the track of the phonograph-needle. That is to say, the composer, untrammelled by the technique of instruments, will prescribe all producible timbres in whatever pitches and rhythms he pleases, and will have no more direct cooperation with the craftsman who models the phonographic wave-lines than the violinist has with Stradivarius.” (The Forms of Music p.141). He concludes, however, by reaffirming the preeminence of the natural human voice and instrumental timbres.

For some time now we have had the means to create music which reproduces the effect of orchestral instruments without the need for ‘live’ musicians other than to create the original samples, which can be manipulated in software. Phonograph disks may no longer be current technology, but the analysis of recorded sound has made it possible to quantify and reproduce instrumental timbres digitally with growing accuracy. As a consequence, it has become possible for composers to write music that would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for live musicians to perform, but easily reproducible by digital means. To that extent, Tovey’s prediction has been realised.

Of course, “with freedom comes responsibility” (Nelson Mandela, 1995). Just because it may be possible to produce unfeasibly complex rhythms and unplayable extremes of pitch, it does not follow that this is necessarily a good idea. For most of its history, music has been a form of communication. In fact, there are analogies between music and verbal language. Consider this: “If the trumpet sounds an indistinct call, who will get ready for battle? In the same way, unless you with the tongue use speech that is easily understood, how will anyone know what is being said? You will, in fact, be speaking into the air.” (1 Corinthians 14:8,9 New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures rev 2013) Care needs to be taken that what is written still says something that is understandable, even though effort may be required.

Recent history has a lesson for us here. There was a time in the middle of the last century when Western art music was dominated by serial and related twelve-tone techniques derived from the work of Arnold Schoenberg and his disciples. The so-called ‘Darmstadt School’ of composers gained a reputation for polemic under the influential and uncompromising leadership of Pierre Boulez, contributing to a widespread perception that tonal music represented retrograde tendencies of less cultural and artistic value than the systems and styles favoured by Boulez and his colleagues. The complexities of ‘total serialism’ proved impenetrable to a significant proportion of the concert-going and music-consuming public, widening still further the divide between ‘serious’ music and the music people actually liked to listen to, which had been developing from at least the 1920’s.

We now have a globe-encircling musical culture which is overwhelmingly dominated by genres based fundamentally on nineteenth-century idioms, albeit combined with rhythm, melody and instrumental textures derived from heterogenous sources and making extensive use of modern technologies. The historiographical argument which appeared to drive the Darmstadters and their like would seem to have been comprehensively defeated. New musical languages may have value in themselves, but unless they are understandable by a music-consuming constituency, they will be short lived and sterile. Interestingly, serial methods do seem to have achieved some penetration into the wider musical consciousness of the general public, but largely as a means of extending the expressive capabilities of tonal idioms. As an example, the film-score composer Howard Shore made use of tone rows when writing the cues for a scene which needed to convey existential horror and a dissociative state (New Line Cinema’s production of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers).

So what of the music of the future? Well, who knows? Current technology has made it possible for new music to reach an audience with unprecedented ease. It also enables exploration of unfamiliar genres and stimulates curiosity. The established funding models for music production are being overturned and re-written, which may be a good thing if it leads to greater democratisation of music. However, if it results in a reduction of the status of professional musicians to something resembling the eighteenth century model of indentured servants dependant on the patronage of the wealthy, that may not be so good. As has been the case throughout history, there is some wonderful new music being produced, a considerable quantity of mediocre music which provides a pleasingly decorative background to many people’s lives, and a vast quantity of derivative fast-food garbage intended to achieve nothing more than to relieve the undemanding of their cash. Do we need to worry about the music of the future? I doubt it! Music can look after itself. All we need to be concerned about is finding music we enjoy, which communicates to us, and which enriches our lives.