Music: Who Makes it? Who just takes it?

by Laurie Spiegel

Once upon a time almost everyone made music. Households were self-sufficient, making their own food and clothing too. People were generalists, doing their personal best at each thing. People sang or played at whatever their level of skill, adapting a constantly evolving grassroots repertoire to their expressive needs and personal techniques in what we now call "the folk process".

Some people still make their own music. But the era of self-sufficient generalists faded over the centuries. During great socio-industrial revolutions, music acquired society's new premises: specialized divisions of labor (composer, performer, listener), a small specialized professional élite of technical experts, the concepts of authorship and ownership of music, it's sale as a commodity, the socio-economics of distribution by centralized monopolies, the premise of finished fixed-form musical works (product, versus process), and an increasingly skewed ratio between the few active music-makers and the majority who had become passive listeners.

Various technologies fostered these changes: notation, music printing, concert halls, and finally, overwhelmingly, broadcast and recording, each isolating music's active and passive participants further from each other.

Then suddenly in the 1980s another new technology, personal computers, appeared everywhere. These instruments of logic and artful intelligence, able to make or control musical sound, could mediate between human touch and sonic/musical response in a potentially infinite variety of new and untried ways, and between isolated musicians too. These newly-ubiquitous programmable networkable info-handlers could explode musical interactivity out of its confinements in all directions.

People who'd never played music before started tinkering with it, home hacker style, and loved it. For every master musician, thousands have an equally sensitive ear, a desire to express, a beckoning imagination, and substantial learned-by-ear music education gleaned from years of attentive listening, but lacked the luck, money, time, or coordination to learn music "young enough" or "well enough". Told to give up, they did. Computers gave them new opportunity, but only as far as existing software allowed.

Computer programs can put you in passive or active roles. They can just play prerecorded stuff, or sit waiting, putting the whole creative burden on you. But computers can also be programmed many other ways: with logic, response patterns, music theory, performance practice, data, and decision methods. They can operate in isolation or network people to each other, and can draw upon all the technique, experience, musicality, and variety their programmers can conceive and choose to use, to provide human interfaces to music on all its levels: raw sound, compositional structure, orchestration, performance interpretation, collaborative creation. Computers have the potential to mediate between people and music in infinitely varied new ways, to fill an entire unexplored continuum between the extremes of active creation and passive listening.

Computers bring into question all post-industrial assumptions about music: specialized roles, distribution monopolies, education, "finished works", their origins and owners. Like folk songs, musical data can now travel undegraded (and underground) independent of physical objects, without mass manufacture, warehouses, shipments. Perfect copies need no longer be made by the thousands to be economically practical. Pieces need not have sole creators nor fixed final forms to move among people actively and meaningfully involved with them. Intercommunication of music among people can now become as varied, multidirectional, and interactive as the actual means of making it.

Again, as once upon a time, music can be created and changed at home and directly distributed by an expanding, not contracting, percentage of those who want to, in an expanding variety of ways.

When will we start fully exploring and using these potentials? All of music needs rethinking, open minds, innovation, the questioning of long-held assumptions, and more individuals making wonderful new discoveries affordably available to others. How can we improve traditional musical economics, extend beyond entrenched divisions of labor, beyond old concepts of authorship and ownership, without sacrificing support for creativity? Despite music home made at anyone's own level, there will always be artists great enough to make us want to sit passively as listeners, and music's traditional economics often fail them. How can we find new approaches? Support the new generalists of computer creativity? Liberate more "non-musicians" to create? Let musical minorities reach each other?

We have the tools now. We still need the thinking.

Composer Laurie Spiegel has written computer software for music for nearly 2 decades, including Music Mouse - An Intelligent Instrument. A new CD of her music, Unseen Worlds, is just out on Scarlet Records / Infinity Series.


Copyright ©1992 by Laurie Spiegel. All rights reserved.
http://retiary.org