Brian Eno’s Recording Studio as Sackbutt
When teaching the history of electronic music, I naturally spend a fair amount of time talking about the technologies of the fifties and sixties, and even the forties and before. Univac computers, punch cards, and 78 rpm disc-cutters are all technologies I had heard about but never seen, let alone worked with. Almost all of my undergraduate students, born at the end of the 1980s, have never heard of, let alone seen, a reel-to-reel tape recorder or even a reel of tape. So it becomes a bit of challenge to explain the hybrid splicing techniques of James Tenney or the multiple looping process that gave birth to Steve Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain, as a fair amount of cognitive leaping is required on the part of the kids. But I had a real shock when I met with a group of first-year students, all from the media department of the School of Information Technology at the university where I teach, for an introductory class last week. While talking about Morton Subotnick’s Silver Apples of the Moon—which, after all, was the first work commissioned specifically for the medium of the LP—I discovered that almost all of them had never seen a record up close and in person. In fact, some had only the vaguest idea how a record and turntable work. It all made me feel quite old.
I don’t mean to suggest that the LP record is a dead technology, lest Christian Marclay, followed by a thousand DJs, come after me to put my head on a spindle and watch it turn around at 33 1/3 rpm. Yet as more and more iPod scratchers and Wii musicians emerge, its passing may come sooner than one might think, and will surely turn on generational grounds. Analog tape’s death as a creative tool certainly seems unexaggerated—the only person I know scratching and performing with it live these days is Joseph Hammer. Still, the paradigms of the analog recording studio inform music of the digital age—looping is just one example. Now plug-ins on the market are designed to affirmatively install the artifacts and flaws in processing that people used to work quite hard to remove. I’m surprised no one has invented a looper that adds the slight—and sometimes not so slight—speed variations that occurred as a long tape loop traveled around the circumference of an electronic music studio, threaded around microphone stands, chairs, and whatever else was handy. But this is just a kind of sonic nostalgia, as the processes for composing and performing evolve forward without looking back. It’s interesting to observe how young musicians think about time and process. Loops, tape, even CDs are linear and time-based. Young musicians today use flash memory, random access, broadband, hand-held devices. The LP record will fade out in the creative community, and the compact disc won’t be all that far behind.
It goes without saying that the means of composition effect, consciously or not, the results. In computer music, today it’s hard to imagine having to wait days before hearing the results of your meticulous program carefully punched on IBM cards and submitted to the batch processing center at your university—results that probably were one or two seconds long, at most. Since the availability of analog synthesizers, the computer music composer, the programmer, the engineer, and the performer have merged into one, while taking on the role of the audience as well, using the instantaneous feedback the medium provides in a way that was unimaginable in the era when the biggest sound you could make came from an orchestra. It’s interesting that Brian Eno, who postulated the idea of recording studio as instrument, has expressed discomfort with the computer, considering that it has encapsulated and extended the functions of said studio, and put it into the hands of hundreds of thousands of artists.
Not sure exactly what point I’m trying to make here—maybe I’m just smarting from the realization that such a gap would exist between a teacher who somehow still likes to pick up and hold his music, and his students, to whom a song, a track, a tune, a composition, is as ephemeral as an infrared signal from a game controller. I’d love to hear your thoughts.