2.3.4 Premises for the use of technology in music


The rough polarisation above does not answer the question: “What comes first, music or technology? ”, which was mentioned in Section 2.3.1. One could argue that the technology in popular music is designed with the music in mind, and therefore that the music is setting up premises for technological development. However, this  would involve overlooking the fact that the technology in use definitely also sets up premises for the music produced (see Engum, 2012[1]). Moreover, one could perhaps argue that advanced and complex technology is so unfamiliar, uncontrollable and inflexible for the performing musician that it restricts performance and creates “unmusical” premises. In this respectI think that Alex Nowitz, as an example, demonstrates the opposite.

In my artistic research project, the premises for the use of technology are strongly connected to the musical field (or genre) I am rooted in, and intimately related to my choice of musical projects in which I take part in, the various improvised interplays with other musicians. My musical ideas, the need for control and flexibility, the intuitive appreciation of a sound or a technical option, the mix of acoustic and electronic sound – all of this is fundamentally grounded in my musical experience, my development and my choices along the way. During the period of my research project, I have become gradually become more aware of what actually constitutes my field and my music, even if I consider it to be open and genre -crossing. The discussions and reflections about technology and music also contribute to clarity in this regard.

Choice of sounds

I work with sounds in an intuitive way. My choices of sound reflect my taste for sound as such, and also whether I experience the sound and function as being suitable in the various interplays in which I take part. As an example, I tend to use a slightly different palette when playing  the acoustic double bass than with the duo with drums/electronics or with my trio BOL (drums and synthesizers). I have noticed that I often search for a kind of “organic” sound. I have registered (as discussed in Section 1.5.6 ) that if a sound is “too digital”, it is harder to implement it in my mix of the acoustic and electronic. The “organicness” or “digitalness” in sound is not definable as such ‒ it is a matter of experience and taste. An example of this is my experience with the Hadron, as mentioned previously (Section 2.2.6). I first found it to be exiting, but when trying to implement it in my vocabulary, I ended up using a “small part of it“; it was hard to find sounds that were experienced as being organic, and ‒ more importantly ‒ as connecting to my other sounds and the music as a whole. (This could change, as new states in Hadron are being developed.)  As I see it, my choice of sounds constitutes my personal, extended voice. (The ideal of “personal storytelling” in my genre is briefly discussed in Chapter 6.) It also defines my relationship with my genre; I am avoiding sounds that are experienced as being alien in the musical expression.

Control and predictability in improvisation

The need to be in control varies from artist to another, and some of the choices to be made when using live electronics concern complexity, both concerns usability and processing. To be in full control (if that is a goal) will often demand either highly developed and specialised skills, or less complexity. To work with live electronics as an improvising musician, it has been necessary to find an “operating level”, where I can work intuitively. I have gradually expanded my repertoire of sounds and techniques, implementing them in the improvised interplay, operating with different musical structures and premises (see Chapters 3, 4 and 6). I have chosen to have access to a certain variety of sounds and effects, and I have focused on simplicity and usability in the setup. My choices regarding instruments, controllers and sound-processors are based on how I experience them at work, however simple or complex. These choices are also based on my former knowledge and skills. [2] The question of control is something I reflect on continuously. On the one hand, I want full control, to be able to “hear what I want to play”, and this is something which I can compare with a jazz musician’s “inner ear” when listening to a harmonic progression. On the other hand, unforeseen turns are often appreciated and welcomed in improvised music ‒ where surprises and experimentation are a natural part of the playing. “Accidents” can create new music. Creating situations that bring in unforeseen elements is definitely an interesting possibility when working with live electronics. (It should be noticed that in the improvised interplay, this is always a possibility regardless of which instruments are involved, through the interactive impulses of fellow musicians.) As I see it, the ability to “control the situation of not being in control” is important, as well as deciding on the level of control. There are individual preferences here, as to what makes the improvised interplay work in a musically meaningful way. These preferences are part of what defines a field or genre (see also Chapter 6). In my genre and within the musical contexts in which I perform, I experience a basic preference for instrumental control and intuitive flexibility rather than technical complexity and unpredictability.

Having a personal vocabulary – or repeating yourself?

Given all the possibilities and choices that music technology can offer, my choices in my artistic process might perhaps appear to constitute a very “narrow” approach,  especially in relation to other genres, where there is a constant search for new technology and techniques in music. In Chapters 3 and 4 I will, among other things, show how I use the same techniques and setup in different musical projects.  As I see it, I work with a vocabulary that has become an extension of how I perform as a vocalist. With this vocabulary as part of my total instrument, I face a challenge which is very familiar for improvising musicians: the balancing between “having a personal expression” and  “repeating yourself”, between using your deeply rooted musical language in creative ways, or applying “the same” solutions, phrases and forms. It is interesting to note that sometimes the use of technology can create expectations that are not present (to the same extent) when listening to other instruments. For instance, you recognise the sound of Miles Davis or Arve Henriksen – and many of us appreciate what we think of as their “personal tone” and musical vocabulary. In my artistic project I experience my use of technology as being guided (rather than limited) by choice, rooted in my personal preferences, often fundamentally dependent on inner ear experience and the need for control in the act of improvisation, as mentioned earlier. These choices should of course be questioned continuously, and the vocabulary should be developed, adjusted and sometimes also changed.

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[1] Trond Engum has, in his artistic research project “Beat the distance”, challenged the premises that standard software sets for creative work in the studio, both as a music technologist and as a rock musician.

[2] A music technologist once asked me if I had ever “questioned the mixer”, and suggested, as a vision, another type of device to replace it, with a dramatically different design and functions. I had to admit that this was difficult for me to imagine. This made me realise how much the mixer is part of my instrument, and that starting to use another type of device would be like learning a new instrument.  It was of course possible, but I would have to be convinced about the advantages.

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