Wednesday, February 17, 2010

New Lamps for Old

In the field of electronic music many ideas are tried time and time again and often it seems as though what is new is more important than what is old. In music stores after the advent of MIDI people rushed to trade their old analog gear for fresh sparkling Digital synths like the Yamaha DX 7. Now the old Oberheim is worth around 2-3k and the DX 7 sells on Ebay for much less. However with the even more new and improved VA synths rapidly becoming passe I notice DX's are slowly rising in value. The Oberheims are too. It is all relative!

  I am posting a link to my first album "Retroflection"done with *Alien*Mbc* back in 2000 in the interest of History and with a view to the future. All the gear used for the "Retroflection" CD is pretty much defunct, replaced by Vst's and pretty new interfaces as well as some truly improved recording gear. Getting back into the studio seems like a goal worth pursuing. What Retroflection lacks in sound quality it more than makes up for in heart. Music is more than the drum skin, it is the beat, more than a sampler it is the melody. Music is about Soul and about feeling. If your a creative artist in the electronic area remember that you can always rent equipment from a studio or borrow something. A local music store in Oregon arranged for us to have the use of many neat tools for a very small fee widening the sound choices.

 So the next time you see a shiny box you got to have think of the advice that Ed McMannus gave his Electronic Music class : "Wait a bit and it will cost much less as the latest and greatest machine comes along." The learning curve on gear is often pretty steep and after you really KNOW what your old gear will do maybe that's a good thing. The important thing is to make music not scrimp and save for the "perfect" synthesizer! muli-tracking one synth may just make you a better artist. Look for deals in the local paper or Craig's List and check the garage sales. These are great times for low tech finds and to buy new gear that probably exceeds what we used 'back in the day.' A 400$ digital recorder will out perform the 800$ 1980's era 4 track cassette in my opinion. And I have seen 200$ recorders with very good specs. If you have a 48 channel mixer and a rack of gear I say good for you but I am wondering why you are reading this Blog. Just kidding, I know some people have stacks of stuff and I have envied them for sure. But make do with what you have and make some music.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Further the Bus and Ken.

 When I lived in Oregon in 1980 I managed to find a 3 bedroom prefab located on Rattlesnake Road out side of Eugene by a really nice little mountain called Mt. Pisgah which is on a county park. The side of the mountain was partially leased out to some people for a few dollars a month by the Government.Down on the way to the county park entrance was Ridgeway Road. The next neighbor or two down from me was living in an old barn which had been converted into a house. The landlord told me that Ken Kesey lived there and I about fell over. To me Ken was larger than life and I was actually over whelmed with the idea that the famous writer of so many good and timely novels was right there.I saw the bus in the field behind the barn house a few times then it struck me that it was the bus written about by Tom Wolfe in "The electric acid cool aid test." Getting close to Ken turned out to be a lot harder than I imagined.
A neighbor told me some outrageous tales about Ken's childhood and expressed amazement that he was not a convict or dead. Years later Ken was dead and Mt Pisgah apparently renamed after him. I did see a nice memorial to Ken on the top of the hill overlooking the valley where his home was. Now Further is supposedly at the Smithsonian and Ken is gone. I wonder if this is his greatest prank?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Electronic music: So many styles!

In the area of electronic music there are many, many styles and forms ranging from simple and repetitious drum beats to elaborate orchestrations with all kinds of variations in between. Early electronic music was mostly odd noises and manipulated recordings of 'found sounds' and composers such as John Cage went so far as to publish
4' 33" of silence! (four minutes and thirty three seconds.)  which helped establish the idea that beauty is in the eye of the beholder or maybe I should say ear...the idea was that the incidental back ground noises were art and by framing this in concert Cage made a major point about sound as art. While John Cage's silence was at one extreme others have made music so dense that there was no break, no dramatic pauses- just a barrage of sound.

Kitaro has made a career out of music that is mainly electronic and it reflects certain Eastern values and displays emotions in the titles and ambience which many find relaxing. Nine Inch Nails has a format that borders on bombastic and assaults the listeners senses as the key idea are pounded out, enhanced electronically and presented with a forceful front singer. Other music acts emply varous amounts of synthesized sounds but many like early Led Zeppelin did not have any reference to synthesizers or manipulated loops yet they played a prominent role in the sound.
Gary Wright's "Dream weaver" is an example of pop music done electronically in the early 1970's and it was very popular and still heard on many stations.

Labeling electronic music styles:
With modern electronic sound tools like synthesizers and samplers, drum machines and effect units or software vocals are often not a feature in music which is purely electronic. Voices mutate into string sounds or drones and words become less of a focus. The very blandness of so called "New Age music" is very popular with certain listeners and just as ignored by many, many more who loath it. I talked with several music store owners and employees and deciding what album belongs to which established style is a major annoyance. Techno? Dance? Hip hop? Ambient? Even the style labeled Ambient is subdivided into many types. I have heard Ambient that is far from my own concept of ambient. Techno while hated by many is pretty much an expansion of 1970s disco with out the exact flourishes that it held. Hip hop artists have credited Kraftwerk with being a major influence. Kraftwerk hits like The AutoBahn showcased sounds made with machines that were very original and the words were often vocoderized.
While the general public in the 1970's demanded pop music that had a standard 3 minute format many turned to longer composistions by Tangerine Dream or progressive rock artists which relied heavily on keyboards. Pop music and electronics began a long term relationship that continues with recent artists in the U.S. The last bastions of conservative music styles such as country music now has electronic additions in the form of keyboards, samples and digitally enhanced vocals and effects.

Why does electronic music hold such fascination for so many?
As a quick look at more recent hits such as the work of Madonna shows, electronics are pretty much the main tool used. She received her award and called the engineers to the stage. Band? No, engineers! Paul Oakenfield and William Orbit are well known in the electronic music world and both worked with Madonna. Orbit's work on "Ray of light" in 1998 is amazing. The listeners in mainstream broadcast mediums do like a 3 minute format but they also enjoy the electronic sounds. The artists probably like having no one onstage to divert attention. In the 1980's Michael Jackson's stage show had a massive electronic arsenal located under the stage and the story went that when hiring the technicians to work there height was of importance as well as ability to move quickly and effectively. One time I was testing out a synthesizer in a large music store at a shopping mall and soon realized that I had at least 35 people crowding in behind me to see what the noise was. I asked the store manager if that happened a lot and he said it actually did, especially when the synth was being manipulated with programmers exploring the capabilities and tonalities the keyboard or module could do. Novelty may be a major factor or perhaps it is simply the curiosity about new sounds that generates interests.

Here to stay!
After the novelty wears off (as it has) the fact remains that electronics are part of music and will remain so for most mainstream hits. Many listeners such as myself prefer a certain style of music based on electronics and more and more artists are beginning to focus on electronic music to the exclusion of most other forms of instrumentation.
This is as a reflection of the technology of our times and the availability of new electronic instruments which have become commercialized and readily available.