Loose Wire — And Now, I Show My Age
By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 16 May 2002 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
I was drinking beer backstage with the guys from Deep Purple the other day (I’ve always wanted to be able to say that) when I got to thinking: Technology has transformed pop music in the past 20 years, and at the same time, nothing’s changed at all.
Admittedly, this thought followed two and a half hours of Black Night, Woman from Tokyo and Smoke on the Water (anthems that were injected straight into the drinking water at my school: If you didn’t know the lyrics of Child in Time you ran the risk of being beaten up or, worse, forced to listen to the whole 10-minute song), so I might have been hallucinating. But when you see guys — three of them in their mid-50s — adopting poses unchanged since 1972, you’d be forgiven for thinking that popular music is a static beast: Guys with long hair in uncomfortably tight clothing jump around stage wielding electric guitars; audience goes crazy, waves arms with lighters aloft, burns fingers, goes home happy.
But beneath all this there’s been a seismic shift in how music is composed, played, recorded and performed. Nowadays you’re just as likely to attend a concert by a disc jockey, a hybrid DJ-musician or just a guy with a couple of laptops and a mixer. And you’ll hear people talking about the rise of interactive music, where nonmusicians in the audience are just as likely to contribute as the artists themselves. Music, we are told, has been liberated from its traditional paddocks of proficiency and performance. I’m not sure it’s that simple, but almost.
Since the demise of my incredibly talented — but contract-deficient — 1980s band, Puzzled But Dancing, I’ve dabbled with synthesizers and home recording. My first synth, as we pros call them, was about the size of a laptop. Instead of keys, the Wasp — made by now-defunct British company Electronic Dream Plant — had a two-octave pad. It was so sensitive that with the slightest condensation it would spew random notes that would make Deep Purple’s Jon Lord proud, but which were somewhat embarrassing during a gig. Such analogue beasts are museum pieces now: You can emulate them on your computer with programs called softsynths. Reason by Sweden’s Propellerhead Software (www.propellerheads.se
) mimics a whole studio in real time. At $400 it sounds steep until you realize you’d spend that much on one piece of real equipment.
Composing has changed a lot, too. I could afford only a four-track recorder and spent hours trying to cram tracks together without them sounding as if they’d been recorded through rugs. The advent of a standard called MIDI allowed us to link keyboards, synthesizers and drum machines and store music as data, in the same way word-processing software lets you fiddle with a document.
This wasn’t easy: Ten years ago I was still messing around with a piece of DOS software called Cakewalk trying to harness my growing synth collection, but I spent more time trying to get the machines to talk to each other than actually making music. (With hindsight this might have been a blessing.
Still, once instruments could be hooked up to computers, music was quick to break out of its elitist confines. With software anyone could create music out of anything, without training or expensive gear. More than 900,000 people now use Cakewalk daily. In an interview in the May issue of Wired magazine, British composer Matthew Herbert describes how all the sounds in his song
come from doing everything to a frappucino and caramel latte except drinking them (
Purists, no doubt, will groan. But there’s room for everybody. Deep Purple will be around for aeons to come, though the line-up will probably change, as older members are replaced by their grandchildren or robots, but elsewhere technology will pioneer new forms of creativity we can only guess at. If someone who thinks a semibreve is a fancy name for a thong can make sounds from a laptop that entertain us, and make us dance, then who’s complaining? The only constant will be that anyone who picks up a guitar for the first time will still try to play Smoke on the Water. Which is probably no bad thing, since I know the words.