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Author: Richard Barbrook

DIGITAL RHYTHMS by Richard Barbrook

Amongst all the different forms of mass culture, music is the most personal and emotional. Almost everyone can identify certain songs with particular moments in their life. The rites of passage from childhood to adulthood usually involve joining a musical subculture. We fall in and out love to the accompaniment of the latest hits. In the modern world, a major way of creating our identity as individuals is through our own musical tastes. If you criticise your friends’ record collection, you can be attacking their worth as a human being! What is more, in contrast to movies or television, many people are very conservative in their musical taste. My mother watches the same films as me, but doesn’t listen to the same records. For lots of people, their basic likes and dislikes in music are fixed during their teenage and twenties. It is a true cliché that many people’s record collection stops when they start having children. This can be seen in the popularity of radio stations which play nothing but oldies and the successful repackaging of old hits on CD. Despite the rapid changes in musical fashions, it seems that many listeners think music represents something transcendental and eternal‑ even if this is only the memory of their own youth.

This cult of nostalgia means most people live in a musical timewarp. This ranges from the classical music buffs stuck in the nineteenth century to the indie rock fans wishing to revive the 1960s. This cultural conservatism means many people have hardly noticed the rapid technological changes taking place in music. Many listeners have purchased the latest hardware and enjoy the better reproduction offered by the new recording techniques. However the newly purchased CD is often used to play old music performed on obsolete instruments. There is something absurd about the latest microelectronics being used to make a faithful reproduction of the music of the last century. The distinctive sounds of a particular style of making music are closely connected with the machines which help humans create music. Each major style of music is connected with earlier technical advances in instrument‑making. The violin and the piano were new instruments which created the particular sound which we now recognise as classical music. In the same way, jazz music is unthinkable without the technology which produced the saxophone and other sophisticated metal wind instruments. Similarly, rock music is identified with the invention of the electric guitar and amplification. Our emotional response to these styles of music is closely connected with the distinctive sounds of the weeping violin, wailing sax or screeching guitar. Now the new microelectronic instruments are creating their own distinctive sounds and styles of music.

Electronic music is already decades old. The Futurists and Surrealists dreamed of a music which would match the aspirations of the machine age. This influenced avant‑garde classical composers, like Stockhausen, to experiment with the earliest synthesisers. Out of these early efforts came Kraftwerk, the first musicians to popularise synthesisers. In their use of heavy rhythms and everyday sounds turned into music, Kraftwerk pioneered many contemporary sounds. In the early 1980s, English bands were the leading edge of electronic music, with groups such as the Human League, Heaven 17, Cabaret Voltaire and Depeche Mode. In turn, they influenced musicians in the USA. In the work of Afrika Bambaataa and many hip‑hop records, computer music came to dominate large sections of black American music. In the last few years, these new technologies have helped create house music, especially those records influenced by the Detroit techno sound. As this style has crossed the ocean back to England and the rest of Europe, so new musicians have emerged to take advantage of the possibilities offered by the new instruments. What is interesting about the development of music made by computers is how its success has depended on the falling price of the technology. Despite the French government squandering large amounts of money on Boulez’s electronic music lab in the Centre Pompidou, it has had no cultural impact at all. Only when the music computers escaped from the academy into the ghettos did the real possibilities of the new technologies become apparent. Today, Todd Terry and Juan Atkins are far more musically innovative and experimental than Boulez can ever hope to be. This is because the spread of the new musical technologies is intimately connected with the growing global dominance of west African rhythms over all other styles of music. The new technologies are ideally suited to a heavily rhythmic music which uses multi‑layered, complex and repetitive patterns. African‑originated music has proved its ability to absorb all other styles of music within its beats, from celtic through flamenco to bhangra. The future of music may derive from the villages of ancient Ghana, but it will be played on the latest computer musical technologies.

These new ways of producing music are part of the global transformation of the technological basis of capitalist societies. Economists see the introduction of microelectronic technologies as the movement from Fordism to post‑Fordism. Musicians are no different from other workers in finding their old skills are becoming rapidly obsolete. The post‑Fordist economy reduces all labour to the generic ability to work‑ as a computer operator! Therefore the musicians of the future will work on computers too. This has been made possible by the introduction of digital recording techniques. By reducing all sounds to numbers, digital recording does not just create the ‘perfect’ reproduction of music. It also allows musicians to manipulate sounds using computer technology. By using a sampler, the computer can mimic other instruments or play snatches taken from other recordings. This not only allows these computers to copy existing sounds, but to create completely new forms of music. The distance between playing and recording music is blurred in these new technologies. But importance of these new instruments does not lie simply in their technical capacities, but also in the rapid fall in their price. The early synthesisers were American or European and very expensive. As in many other areas, the Japanese corporations have turned the playthings of the rich into everyday consumer durables. A musical computer which cost £30,000 in 1984 is now available for £3,000. Casio are even offering a cheap sampler for only £99! It is the cheapness of these microelectronic instruments which is revolutionising modern music. In recent years, the government monopoly of radio broadcasting has been broken by the availability of very cheap transmitters. The increasing spread of these powerful, easy to use and flexible new instruments among the population is already allowing many more people to become musicians and make records.

These new technologies are a nightmare for the defenders of the traditional craft skills of musicians, such as the Musicians’ Union (MU). This organisation was founded in the factory‑like organisation of the classical orchestra. The MU never really adapted itself to the more anarchic world of jazz combos or rock bands. The campaign to “Keep Music Live” demonstrated its dislike of the gramophone, let alone any more advanced technologies. The new computer technologies confirm the worse fears of the MU. Now one musician can reproduce a whole orchestra using the new instruments. This threatens the jobs of skilled musicians as live orchestras become too expensive for film scores or other session work. Nowadays, the trained violinist is like a hand‑loom weaver competing against the latest computer‑operated mill. Even worse, a computer system is already cheaper than a good violin. The MU faces catastrophe because it does not know how to cope with the long‑term trend away from live music. On the one hand, the reproduction of the same piece in live performances has become economically ‘inefficient’. On the other, it is also increasingly difficult to reproduce many types of modern music in ‘real time’. More and more, musicians are famous for being producer‑DJs, rather than as live performers.

The more pessimistic defenders of traditional music believe that the computers are taking over. However, these new computer‑based instruments are still musical instruments. At the end of the day, they are only as good as their programmers. The potentialities of the new musical technologies will only be realised if there are musicians who know how to use them creatively. Learning how to play music on the new technologies is involves acquiring skills as much as learning the violin or guitar. Computer technologies do not just abolish old skills, but also create new ones. Already some rich rock stars have made terrible records using all the latest instruments and recording equipment. In contrast, some of the most innovative records of the last twenty years were made by dub reggae musician‑producers using the most basic recording techniques. As in other areas being restructured by microelectronic technologies, the central question is whether the machines will dominate us or whether we will control the machines. As DJ Keith Franklin puts it: “We need to know how to combine the human feel with digital sounds”.

But the new musical technologies are not just causing problems for the musicians with traditional skills. The big record companies are also worried about the long‑term trends involved in the introduction of microelectronics into music production and recording. This is one of the reasons behind the recent mergers between the hardware and software branches of musical production, as can be seen in the recent takeover of CBS by Sony. What the record companies fear is a break‑down of the commodity form within music. This is a common problem across the information economy. Music is like any other piece of software: it is expensive to make the first copy, but extremely cheap to reproduce every extra copy. In earlier stages of the industrialisation of music, the record companies thrived because they could lock a particular song onto vinyl in the shape of a record. In turn, this allowed the record companies to set up a system which sold musicians as individual ‘artists’, not as members of a collective culture. Nowadays, already this commodification of music is threatened by the home‑taping of records. The introduction of digital technologies makes things even worse for the record companies. Not only can perfect reproductions be easily made, but even the fixed shape of the record is being blurred. For example, many modern hits rely on sound samples lifted from other records. This has created innumerable copyright problems as the lawyers argue over who owns a ten second ‘break’. But this is only the start of a process which is unraveling the whole relationship between songs, records and the commodity form. In house music, the same rhythm will appear in many different remixes and samples. In this endless cycle of innovation and plagiarism, where does one musicians’ contribution stop and another’s begin? In the near future, you may no longer buy records as a fixed piece of music. Instead you could be purchasing a piece of ‘rhythm software’ mixed into various versions by different people. Moreover, as software, you will also be able to create your own versions of the rhythm if you want to! These advances open up interesting opportunities for reducing the separation between musical production and consumption. In turn, this will further blur the distinctions between musicians and listeners.

Within this MySpace version of the electronic agora, cybernetic communism was mainstream and unexceptional. What had once been a revolutionary dream was now an enjoyable part of everyday life.