Tag: meaning

The Voice in the Machine

A photo of a person at a mixing desk using their finger to slide one of the controls

Electronic sound has been part of American musical life for over a century. As early as 1907, audiences in New York attended concerts featuring the massive early synthesizer, the Telharmonium. Just over two decades later, tens of thousands of listeners heard the theremin in concerts and radio broadcasts, around the same time that thousands of organists began playing the Hammond Organ in churches across the country.

Music historians tend to use these three instruments as examples of early technology that presaged—but were not part of—electronic music history, rarely mentioning the communities, traditions, practices, and meanings that coalesced around these instruments and their sonorities. To historians, the instruments and their popular practices simply weren’t revolutionary enough to merit inclusion. Their argument: early electronic instruments “did nothing to change the nature of musical composition or performance.” These instruments may have mattered little to composers like John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen, but their sounds and performance practices resonated with performers and audiences across the U.S.

A common thread runs through the early reception histories of these instruments: their emotional impact. Audiences heard their electronic sounds as deeply expressive, even human. In 1906 critics raved about the Telharmonium’s “delicacy of expression”; one Literary Digest writer claimed it was “as sensitive to moods and emotions as a living thing.” Two decades later, writers described the theremin’s sonority as “clear, singing, almost mournful” around the same time that Black Pentecostal worshippers celebrated the voice-like qualities of the Hammond Organ.

Today, electronic musical sounds have become so pervasive that we hardly notice them. We take their ubiquity as a matter of fact: one is hard-pressed to find much commentary on their impact or meaning. While historians often explain electronic music’s popularity as the outgrowth of the “pioneering” experimentalism of avant-garde composers such as John Cage or Stockhausen, no real evidence backs this up.

Electronic musical sound is essentially a “black box”: a technology so universally accepted that it is difficult to discern the processes that led up to its establishment. And yet occasionally, a new technology emerges that creates controversy, causing the black box to fall open and inviting us to examine why electronic musical sound seems as compelling today as it was more than a century ago.

“As tidy as a golf green”: a new(er) electronic sound and its haters

Enter Auto-Tune. In 1997 Antares Audio Technologies put Auto-Tune on the market as a Pro Tools plug-in meant to correct poorly intonated vocals. Auto-Tune’s fixes were meant to be indistinguishable to listeners, but within a year artists began using the tool in audible ways for expressive purposes. Cher’s 1998 hit “Believe” was the first high-profile instance. Studio engineers achieved the effect in this song and countless others since by setting Auto-Tune to makes pitch adjustments rapidly or even instantaneously (many artists now sing with Auto-Tune even before the production process begins). The results change not just the pitch but the timbre of the singer’s voice, rendering it machine-like and digital. Artists as varied as Kanye West, Kesha, and Bon Iver adopted the technique. T-Pain built his career on it, crafting a distinctive vocal sound that dominated the airwaves in the late aughts.

The increasing preponderance of Auto-Tune precipitated a backlash among critics and musicians that peaked with T-Pain’s popularity, and has not fully subsided. Most ground their criticisms of Auto-Tune in notions of authenticity and skill, but frequently lace their attacks with the kind of identity politics I’ve traced in the histories of earlier instruments like the theremin.

Robert Everett-Green, writing for The Globe and Mail in 2006 complained that Green Day’s recent use of Auto-Tune made punk seem “as tidy as a golf green,” and worried that as “dead-centre pitch” became the new norm, “a lot of popular music’s expressive capacities may wither away.” In a 2006 Pitchfork interview, Neko Case denied that artists used Auto-Tune as an expressive tool, declaring that its purpose was, “so you don’t have to know how to sing. That shit sounds like shit! It’s like that taste in diet soda, I can taste it—and it makes me sick.” Jay-Z’s 2009 “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)” admonished artists to “put your skirt back down, grow a set man,” and “get back to rap, you T-Paining too much.”

For these detractors, and many more like them, Auto-Tune wasn’t simply the hallmark of an artistic poseur; it threatened to destroy the political, racial, gendered, and socio-economic identities of the music it inhabited and the musicians who used it. It neutered rap, turned punk’s anti-authoritarian stance on its head, and diseased everything it touched.

“Digital souls, for digital beings”

Yet some argued that rather than sap music of its authenticity, Auto-Tune honed and complicated the expressivity of the voices it inflected. While many attributed Kanye West’s sustained use of Auto-Tune on the 2008 album 808s and Heartbreak to Kanye’s poor singing skills, Oliver Wang wrote that the result was “a melancholy, intimate and decidedly quirky effort.” According to Wang, Kanye’s “ghostly, mechanical vocals enhance the album’s already despondent atmosphere,” even if the “inhuman” qualities of those vocals rendered it a “frigid, passionless despair.” Musicologist James Gordon Williams argued that T-Pain uses Auto-Tune to trouble “the binary between racially authentic sound and technologically manipulated sound,” and in so doing created an inimitable personal voice.

The theme of expressivity that recurs in the histories of the Telharmonium through Auto-Tune raises an inevitable question: Why? Why has electronic musical sonority—across time, instruments, and performers—sounded so human to so many? Is it because such sounds remind us that our lives would be completely dismantled without technology? That technology is an inextricable part of the human condition? When an Auto-Tuned voice sounds melancholic, is it because such reminders trigger feelings of dependency or inadequacy?

In his history of Auto-Tune for Pitchfork, Simon Reynolds posited that Auto-Tune is so compelling to modern listeners because its “sparkle suits the feel of our time”:

It makes absolute sense that Auto-Tuned singing—bodily breath transubstantiated into beyond-human data—is how desire, heartbreak, and the rest of the emotions sound today. Digital soul, for digital beings, leading digital lives.

Our immersion in digitality may explain the allure of the Auto-Tuned voice, but our inclination to hear the human in the machine is far from new. Technology is as old as humanity. Perhaps we have always seen—and heard—ourselves in our tools.

Beyond revolution

While Pitchfork grapples with thorny questions about technology and art, academic electronic music histories sorely lack nuanced approaches to the impact of technology on musical life. Scholars tend to treat the adoption of new musical technologies as points of rupture and revolution. In doing so, they obscure the ways musicians and listeners use technology toward more traditional ends, like expression and entertainment. This is not to say that technology does not change us, or what we do, or how we do it. Anyone who reads the news in 2019 is constantly reminded that technology shapes our lives and our world in myriad ways. It is crucial, though, that we not twist this fact into a totalizing concept of technological change, in which new tools sweep away existing values and activities. All too often, fixation on what we see as revolutionary obscures the work and impact of marginalized people.

When we pay attention to non-revolutionary popular electronic musical practices, we can begin to better understand why those practices and the sounds they produce command such lasting popularity. Mainstream electronic music historians would have us believe that electronic music owes its current popularity to the boundary breaking of avant garde composers. But from the Telharmonium to Auto-Tune, it seems there were never barriers to overcome: audiences and performers embraced electronic musical sound from the start. To the thousands of people who first experienced them, and to listeners today, electronic sounds ultimately mattered not because they were pioneering or innovative, but because they performed emotional, expressive, and cultural work that resonated with audiences. The instruments, techniques, and sonorities were new, but the ultimate ends—expression, communication, pleasure—were as old as music itself.

What Makes Music Matter?

A few weeks ago NewMusicBox posted my list of “Questions I Ask Myself” and, in the weeks since, it has led me into many big conversations with old and new friends that have both confirmed and challenged the feelings I shared. In many of them, I found myself struggling to make some point about what makes music matter, what mattering is. I was feeling a conviction growing inside but every time I tried to put it into words, it came out confused, facile, or worse.

I sat down to write, hoping that thinking slowly would help me figure out what I’ve been trying to say. Whether or not I’ve succeeded, I’m sharing it with you here in the hope that these conversations will continue.

What makes music matter?

Here are some of the things that I think of first:

  • its cultural or historical position
  • special qualities of its form/content
  • its ambition, scale, or scope
  • if it won prizes, was recorded, or was heard by lots of people
  • if someone important wrote it and important people play it
  • if it does something nobody has ever done before
  • if people agree that it’s the best

But when I consider the music that actually matters to me, the reasons are different:

  • I’m invested deeply in it, either by playing, studying, writing, or teaching it
  • it matters to someone I care about and they brought it into my life with infectious enthusiasm (wrote it, taught it, shared it)
  • it’s part of the life of a community that I care about
  • it gives me a particularly vivid and intense interior experience; it makes my eyes go wide
  • it inspired a sense of freedom and possibility and added fuel to my own creative drive
  • it gave me comfort or strength at a time when I needed it
  • it reconnects me with some time or place or person in my past

The mismatch between these two lists suggests that I have some fundamental misunderstanding about what music is. The items from the first list aren’t irrelevant. They set the public conditions for an encounter and multiply the possibilities of one. But they’re abstractions. The “mattering” is private, concrete, and rooted in life—labors, relationships, joy and heartache, private epiphanies and shared experiences.

A personal sketch (maybe you can relate): I spent some years in a very focused music school culture where it’s just a given that certain music really, really matters. I left, and the world felt like a desert. My constellation of heroes and monuments was unknown. My arguments (often from List #1) for their importance failed to move others. Temporary gatherings of fellow desert-wanderers made me feel like myself again. Other concerns grew—family, justice, politics, money—and my art, which once had real traction in my insulated culture, seemed to pass through them like ghost arms.

I was indignant for a while. The indifference of the world to List #1 offended me. I felt a duty to spread the culture I had joined. Exciting phrases included “educational outreach,” “let’s play it in a bar,” and “what if babies just grew up listening to Boulez and thought it was normal.” I framed my evangelism as a service, as if having big ears for difficult music constitutes some kind of moral force.

Really, I was just trying to make the world more comfortable for myself. Green my desert my own shade of green. Turn the people around me into people like me. Recreate the conditions in which what I do matters.

I still want to matter, of course. We all do, and it’s good that we do. It’s better for everybody if we make a life in which our efforts, creations, and passions aren’t just for us. But I misunderstood “mattering” by confusing List #1 with List #2.

List #1 is all just variations on being impressed, which, as an actual experience, compared to the deep web of life and love in #2, is pretty thin soup. But I think that the real trap of #1 is that it required me to identify with a specific culture: respect certain authorities, share certain opinions, subscribe to a certain narrative of history. If my work matters because it’s, let’s say, “a new synthesis of serial and minimal techniques,” without a shared ideology to prop up those words, it doesn’t matter. It is a scary and isolating position to hang my identity on, because as soon as I meet someone who doesn’t share that culture, I might stop mattering. It’s more comfortable to gather with people who believe what I believe, and the need to proselytize becomes almost existential.

Meaning is not bestowed, it is made; it grows out of personal investment, subjective experiences, quality relationships, and community life.

Instead of depending on an abstract culture, reasons #2 identify that value comes from the actual experience of building meaning, often with others. Meaning is not bestowed, it is made; it grows out of personal investment, subjective experiences, quality relationships, and community life. This shift in my thinking has been liberating because it’s all in my control. I don’t have to wait for prizes or recognition for my efforts to matter. My work doesn’t have to fit into a narrative of history. It doesn’t have to be the first or the best. And I’m not trapped in a single culture: we can create meaning together over anything as long as we dig in, work hard, and care about it together.

I want to give you an example. The most meaningful piece of music to come through my life last year was a song. It was written by one of my students, and it matters not just to him and me but to a musical community that I feel very lucky to get to be a part of. It’s in a prison up the river from where I live.

This community is really good at making music matter. We make it matter by wanting it badly and working hard at it. It’s rare and hard won. We’re 32 students and a handful of teachers who meet twice a month, and we’re in our fourth year. Our students are learning to play violins and cellos, keyboards and guitars, saxophones and drums, most of them with uncommon verve and dedication. They’re learning theory and notation. They’re writing songs, big band charts, string quartets, and an opera. We put on concerts and play in each other’s bands. I get to teach a little bit of everything, and I have never worked with students more motivated to learn.

“Music has the power to create community” is something we hear a lot, but I admit that the idea had become a kind of a pious formula to me and had lost, if not its meaning, much of its force. Now I have a vivid example. Our students tell us that it gives them new purpose and identity, a new way to think about themselves, a new way to be together inside, and also to relate to their families outside. “We don’t really have anywhere else to practice positive relationships, practice trusting each other, being vulnerable and opening up, but we can do that here” is a sentiment I have heard in many variations. This is now my personal gold standard of music mattering.

I want to tell you about this song and the man who wrote it. I’ll call him Ned. I want you to have a sense of what he’s like. He’d be the first to tell you: from the outside, he is grouchy, negative, dark, and cynical. He’s prickly and keeps other people away. He always finds the downside. If you point out something good, he’ll turn it inside out. If you invite him to do something, he’ll tell you he can’t (but he probably can).

Here’s how I know music has power: it took 20 minutes of playing guitar together for him to let his guard down. He’s also smart and artistic and sensitive. He’s a novelist and a poet. He somehow quietly learned music notation and chord theory without me noticing. You give him a compliment and a challenge, and it’s like the sun comes out. His grumpy facade is just a hardness that gets him through the day.

He had a creative explosion last spring. One week, I couldn’t have even told you whether or not he’d actually absorbed the theory and notation classes I’d been leading. The next week, he’s written out a lead sheet for a song — I remember it had a wild melody that arpeggiated every chord. I tell him that melodies usually stay within an octave and have more steps than leaps; the next week he’s revised it and written another. Then another. By the end of the semester, he’d written ten.

If my ideas of value were based on List #1, I’d consider this all sweet but not worth much. The songs weren’t innovative. They didn’t have “high quality” form or content. Maybe someday he’d write something truly great, but he’d have to work a long time at it for any of it to matter. (The idea feels so wrong to me that even typing these words makes me want to explode.)

I said the song isn’t innovative, but I take it back. From a historical perspective, sure. But that perspective completely contradicts our lived experience and dehumanizes actual people.

I said the song isn’t innovative, but I take it back. From a historical perspective, sure. But that perspective completely contradicts our lived experience and dehumanizes actual people. For him, and for those of us cheering him on, this song was an absolute breakthrough. It’s called “The Me You Can See.” I asked him last week if he’d be OK with me sharing it with you, and he said yes. Here’s the chorus:

The me you can see
Is not the real me
It’s just the me
I allow you to see

The me you can see
Is not the real me
It’s not the me
I wanted to be

The melody is plaintive, earnest. He wrote a special part for a cellist he’d started playing with more. The song is so open, so vulnerable, so true about himself, so self-aware. That he would want to open up like this with me or to other men in the program was significant and risky, because it compromised the identity he’d constructed to survive in prison. He went ever further: he wanted to share it with everybody. He asked me to sing it for a big “general population” crowd at one of our concerts. It was the greatest performing honor I think I’ve ever had.

If I had gone into this situation with a mission to champion new music culture through education, it wouldn’t have happened…. I’d tell myself I was pushing him out of his comfort zone (for his own good), but really I’d just be pushing him into mine.

If I had gone into this situation with a mission to champion new music culture through education, it wouldn’t have happened. I might have assigned him a flute solo with a limitation on the number of pitches, with Musica ricercata as a model. I’d be pushing him to find new sounds on his guitar. I could have easily left him feeling embarrassed by his confessional poetry, triads, and simple arrangements, as I used to feel when I brought songs to teachers. I’d be saying, “Well, if you’re into songs you should really listen to Wolf or Björk…” I’d tell myself I was pushing him out of his comfort zone (for his own good), but really I’d just be pushing him into mine. I probably would have stifled something really important in him.

Thankfully my agenda wasn’t “champion new music culture,” it was “connect with this person.” Music gave us something in common. It was a way to spend time together, to care about something together. You might argue that this demotes music from sacred art object to mere social instrument; I say this is what makes it matter at all.

What would happen if we gave ourselves to people instead of ideologies?

What would happen if we could let go of our anxiety about not being the first or the best?

What would happen if we dropped the idea that art is justified not by its position in culture or history, but by the actual experiences of real people?

What would happen if we measured our success not by the quantity of people who hear us, but by the depth of the experience we have shared?


Beethoven Eroica manuscript title page with Napoleon scratched out

Beethoven Eroica manuscript title page with Napoleon scratched out

Jeffrey Edelstein, critic: I wonder how the history of titles helps to shape the thinking of composers? Why do some titles seem to help you hear a piece and others do not? Why do some magnify the mood of a piece and others do not? Why do I remember some titles and not others? What are the mysterious attributes of a great one? Some titles are urgent—Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated!—and others seem to take on meaning more slowly—David Lang’s statement to the court—and yet both resonate with their times. A title may be literal and poetic simultaneously—Michael Gordon’s Rushes. And a title may be literal and allusive—Georg Friedrich Haas’s In iij. Noct. Titles may seem evasive, ironic, or serviceable, but I am not always sure how composers think about them. I can smile along with some of Milton Babbitt’s titles—The Joy of More Sextets—but then the music starts…

John Supko, composer: A good title will tempt listeners to invent the meaning of a piece for themselves. This is a fine thing, if you ask me, but it’s difficult to know who benefits more—composers or listeners—from this hard-won ambiguity. Composers slogged through centuries in which titles were little more than taxonomy: Sonata, Fugue, Mazurka, Passacaglia. With marvelous economy, historical titles supplied quantities of structural information to audiences about the music they were going to hear. A title for earlier composers was like a blueprint, implying a set of instructions to follow, a collection of expectations to satisfy. The expectations were the listeners’ and they could be extremely precise and technical, concerning the number and treatment of melodic themes, the harmonic trajectory, the roles of instruments, the time signature and rhythmic material, the use of repetition and even register, to name a few that spring to mind. Composers who survived the scythe of history distinguished themselves not simply by their dexterity in fulfilling the expectations of listeners but by doing so through the judicious use of those acceptable anomalies we have come to call personal style. The same roiling audacity that led Beethoven to expand sonata form eventually bubbled over and engulfed the entire concept of form itself. After a while, there were no longer names for the forms composers were fashioning except those they themselves dreamed up. What, after all, is the form of Liszt’s Nuages gris but that of a flock of drifting clouds?

Today, in the absence of formal conventions, titles are more important than ever before. They often represent the audience’s first contact with a composer’s work, and thus their first attempt at understanding it. But now a title can be anything, from elegantly suggestive, such as David Lang’s death speaks, to unpronounceably opaque, as Georg Friedrich Haas’s “….” appears to be. In deciphering the latter title, perhaps it would help to know the title of another Haas work, in vain, from which to intuit a potential affinity with Beckett. Could this elliptical title bear some relation to the gaps that proliferate—or at least the feelings they elicit—at the end of Watt?  These thoughts might slide through our minds upon finding “….” listed on a concert flyer, and we might be wrong on the particulars, but we can nevertheless develop a vague sense of the aesthetic territory the work inhabits. Somehow we feel sure that this work will not be a Neo-Romantic tone poem. Nothing about the title, however, would suggest that it was a double concerto for accordion and viola.

The titles you’ve mentioned track my own initial thoughts about what titles can mean and do. As it happens, I also thought of Milton Babbitt, but not of any particular piece. It was rather the great discursive range in his titles that intrigued me, from the dead serious (Three Compositions for Piano) to the downright goofy (Septet but Equal). I thought about the public’s image of Babbitt as the severe wizard of musical modernism, and how easily even a cursory perusal of his titles would demolish that fiction.  But I also wondered, like you, about the obvious disparities in, let’s say, tone of voice, between Babbitt’s titles and musical language. Four Play is a 16-minute work for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, and it’s as spiky and serious as anything Babbitt wrote. The work’s title can be overlooked by the inattentive, but its reference is clear. Surely it’s significant that such an unremittingly sober composition should have a salty double entendre for a title. This collision of sex and serialism may have been Babbitt’s most magnificent dissonance.

Four Play contains no obvious humor, much less sensuality, in its musical material, so the title doesn’t seem to provide any clues to prepare the listener beyond signaling that it is a quartet. Is Four Play‘s mischievous title meant to soften the sharp edges of its musical argument? Perhaps it willfully undermines the work in the manner of Satie’s Airs à faire fuir (Songs to Make You Run Away and Préludes flasques (pour un chien) (Flabby Preludes for a Dog)?  Or does such a title represent a general disregard for the importance and utility of titles? We can only observe that Babbitt’s title tells us something his music doesn’t.

Rzewski's War Songs

The first page of the manuscript of War Songs, another urgent title from Frederic Rzewski.

Edelstein: Sometimes a title touches me, stays with me, and allows me to be moved somehow more deeply by a work of music (along with the performance and production). I remember feeling this way about Milton Babbitt’s Philomel and about David T. Little’s Haunt of Last Nightfall. And I remember feeling this way about Steven Mackey’s Heavy Light and Barbara White’s The Wound and the Eye. It must matter that I’ve spoken with or know these composers: I can hear their voices and feel something of their personalities in their titles that I also hear in their music.

But I have never met Philip Glass or Robert Wilson, and perhaps no title means as much to my grasp of the music as Einstein on the Beach. The title Einstein on the Beach concentrates a simple, straightforward meaning for me—as our idea of the universe was transformed from Newton’s conception to Einstein’s there yet remains one fixed point: human love. But the expressing of this meaning—or more precisely, the feeling of this meaning—involved a long, complex, and ambiguous work of art in order that I felt the movement from stability to instability, felt the theory of special relativity, and felt gravity and grace in human love. One detail particularly illuminated the title: the seashell at the front of the stage with a spotlight on it. It’s Newton’s “I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” At least one of Newton’s biographers says that he never actually saw the seashore.  A character in the opera picks up and listens to the shell and, I imagine, hears Einstein’s roaring, unstable, endless ocean of truth. And, in the end, a bus pulls up and we don’t drown. I do not think I would have felt the coruscating music and crystalline production in quite this way without the title.