Dub equipment and dub philosophy pt.2

Music and computers seem to be inseparable nowadays. In the last 15 years computers have taken over completely in the studio, and even on stage. A bit strange, because computers were not really designed for making music (see also Dub equipment and dub philosophy pt.1).

Anyway, computers can do lots of things so why not music. But the core business of your laptop is computation. Mathematics in other words. So how is computation related to music?

Tough question. The anthropologist Edwin Hutchins has written a book about 'computation and culture' titled Cognition in the wild. It's not about music, but interesting anyway. Hutchins wrote the book because he doesn't like the way western science tries to model and understand the functioning of the human brain: as if it's a computer.

According to Hutchins, this is short-sighted because you can't ignore culture. "Humans create their cognitive powers by creating the environments in which they exercise those powers". Culture influences thought, perception and even computation in a long-term feedback loop. Computation is not as simple as it would seem.

For musicians right now computation on a laptop is mostly a highly abstract kind of manipulation of symbols. A linear and rational type of interaction like clicking on something, typing in numerical values with a keyboard, scrolling, switching tabs, reading e-mail etc.

The contrast with the way experienced 'analog' musicians handle their instruments couldn't be bigger. For example, when a really good guitarist like Jimi Hendrix does a great performance we say he becomes one with his instrument. It's exactly the same thing with classical musicians. Or consider what Lee 'Scratch' Perry says about the magic moments in his Black Ark studio:

"It was only four tracks on the machine, but I was picking up twenty from the extra terrestrial squad. (...) I see the studio must be like a living thing, a life itself. The machine must be live and intelligent. Then I put my mind into the machine and the machine perform reality. Invisible thought waves - you put them into the machine by sending them through the controls and the knobs or you jack it into the jack panel. The jack panel is the brain itself, so you got to patch up the brain and make the brain a living man, that the brain can take what you sending into it and live."

So what does that mean for laptop composers? How do you become 'one' with your iMac as a musician? Merging with a violin or a drum set would seem a bit easier than a motherboard mind melt. Maybe overstimulated hacker-brains can do it, maybe that'll create a new kind of biofeedbacked chiptune sound. The famous circuit-whisperer Bob Moog actually believed that musicians can connect with the circuitry of an analog synth on a mental/brainwave kind of level.

Ok, so suppose that's true, would the same thing also be possible with computers? There is in fact a lot of research going on in the field of 'mind control' user interfaces. They will probably hit the market sometime this decennium. Musicians may be able to work with this technique in unexpected new ways. It's probably going to be better than Google Glasses, but we'll have to wait a few more years.

In the meantime let's take a look at some of the innovative stuff that computers already allow us to do right now. Very personally speaking, i'd say that in terms of rhythm most computer music sounds a bit straight and stiff (not enough sweat) but this is compensated by new possibilities in terms of timbre, harmony and virtual acoustics.

Timbre is the new harmony

Looking at the harmonic evolution of Western classical music (ignoring other harmonies like the ones produced by the Indonesian gamelan etc.) there's an interesting development from medieval times through baroque and romantic musical flavors right up to the spectral composers at the end of the 20th century.

New styles in Western classical music are usually characterized by new and greater harmonic freedom moving from stuff like 'strict' counterpoint to 20th century polytonality, atonality etc. Composer and musicologist Joseph Schillinger has analyzed this phenomenon in The Schillinger System of Musical Composition and he even shows some tricks that directly transform 17th or 18th century classical music into something that sounds like Ravel or Debussy.

Also in the 20th century the gradual 'liberation' of jazz harmonies is just as interesting. A great statement was made by Miles Davis when he recorded Bitches Brew. Also, if you listen to stuff like the Jack Johnson Sessions by Miles Davis and then switch to, for example, Messiaen's 3 Petites liturgies de la Présence Divine you'll notice that harmonic evolution more or less ignores stylistic boundaries.

I don't know when the most recent harmonic development, known as spectral composing actually started but it's all over the place in the works of Messiaen and Ligeti, although Giacinto Scelsi is sometimes credited as one of the founders of this 'genre'. In a nutshell it means that the timbral quality of a sound determines how you work with it. As my musical friend the xenharmonic composer Jacky Ligon puts it: timbre is the new harmony.

In the practice of non-electronic classical music this means that composers are very sensitive to partials/overtones and to the overall effect of a certain mix of sounds. In a symphonic piece a part of the effect is often not unlike playing with the EQ, only without using the actual studio equipment but working purely with the natural character of instruments. This is where spectral composing and dub meet.

If timbre really is the new harmony (of the spheres) that would make Bill Sethares the new Pythagoras. A professor of electrical engineering and a mathematician, Sethares has been doing some 'hard' scientific research recently in an area that's infested with obscurantism. He has come up with a grand unifying theory of tuning and timbre that would make Pythagoras forget all of his troubles with commas and wolf tones. This paper is very technical but for practical use here's Sethares' book called Tuning Timbre Spectrum Scale.

 glamma woods - angular banjos by DUBBHISM

The great thing about the digital era is that it allows unprecedented experrymentation with this new harmonic-and-timbral frontier. A good example: the Xenharmonic FMTS VSTi. A synthesizer capable of matching timbre to virtually any tuning imaginable.

Harmonic innovators like Harry Partch built their own collection of instruments to get the same kinds of harmonic effects, which is great, and makes the sound more unique, but it's also less practical. Especially if you want to try out lots of new combinations.

But let's not overstate the importance of mathematics and theory in music. This famous picture by Dürer, made in 1514 says it all: the angel is pissed off because Copernicus and other scientists have just discovered that the nice little universe that Pythagoras made up (harmony of the spheres, earth in the middle, man as the measure of all things) does not really exist. Computation can't come to the rescue, on the contrary, science is giving this person a headache.