Freeze Frame: A Snapshot of Music Making on the Internet

Freeze Frame: A Snapshot of Music Making on the Internet

When the software conditions the experience, it conditions the music. One thing that many people notice when they start making music online is that the Web is a powerful vortex; it doesn’t let you go. There is no single way to end a session; rather, there are many ways. There are bootlegs of everything that has ever made it onto the Net. Multiplicity is an unwavering factor in the online experience. Look at sites like You will find hundreds of peer-to-peer networks, each of which is the private preserve of a file sharing community. These can be seen as the operational mode of a culture of distributed networks, held together by a common thread: each represents a particular taste as distributed through the system.

As Artaud said (in an incredible pre-cognition of the digital era’s constant stream of information guiding any creative act): “All true alchemists know that the alchemical symbol is a mirage as the theater is a mirage… [It’s] the expression of an identity existing between the world in which the characters, objects, images, and in a general way all that constitutes the virtual reality of the theater develops…” In a way, collaborative music making on the Net requires an interaction of people and software that turns almost all normal contact between musicians into a mediated experiment with the hypothetical. Is there a human on the other side of the screen? The sounds can only give you a hint. The software is a window onto a realm governed only by the uncertainty of that fact. The connections displace physicality in a way that leaves you a victim of context. This is the experience of tele-composing. It makes the creative act become a cog in the abstract machines of the software that mediate it.

Using online studio software, such as Rocket, Pro Tools, or Reason, allows you to mix equally with either musicians or found sounds. Through the software interface, there is a certain equivalency. Collaboration can take place in real time between people, or between the remnants of creativity that people leave behind — the Net is full of such suggestive debris. In this context, the only limitation comes from the bottleneck that bandwidth places on file exchanges. The quicker the speed, the richer the environment.

Another effect of software is to dematerialize the musical instrument. It does this by distributing the qualities of an instrument across the various peripherals that control the sounds that the software generates. Algorithm displaces rhythm and becomes the environment in which to create. Max/MSP is an open-ended software environment that lets you create templates for virtual instruments—it allows you to make an aggregate of whatever sounds you run through its parameters. Almost all process-oriented software behaves like this. Editing environments such as Pro Tools or Digital Performer function as dissecting tables of sound; they allow the musician to compose material from multiple layers of tracks and files, and to then condition the total output. It’s like building music out of Lego blocks.

That is, either Lego blocks or samples. Online, everything is a sample. Every audio element becomes a potential fragment for manipulation and recontextualization. Sampling follows the logic of the abstract machinery of a culture where there are no bodies—just simulations of bodies. The fragment speaks for the whole; the whole is only a single track drifting through a vast database. The basic structure of “assemblage,” the method of collage, holds sway here. Think of this terrain as object-oriented programming with beats. Take the file, edit it: import/export/MIDI/SMTP.

Time code synchronizes the fragments, and makes it work wherever you are… FTP controls the data exchange as a basic source of file exchange… Lee Perry popularized the term “versioning” by using a series of vocal tracks that were taken out of context and de-familiarized through sound effects programming. This can be done either as a live process or improvised on a virtual “mixing board.” Software that allows real time online jamming is appearing from every corner of the globe. But is your online collaborator a person or a bot? Or a combination of the two?

On the Web, collaborators can come in all guises. The White Stripes have no bass player. Steve McDonald, the bass player for Red Kross, felt that the White Stripes tunes could use more bottom. So each week he adds a bass guitar part to one or two White Stripes songs, and makes them available as “bootleg” MP3s. Jack White, the White Stripes’ front man, has apparently given these remixes his blessing.

From Freeze Frame: A Snapshot of Music Making on the Internet
By Ken Jordan
© 2002 NewMusicBox

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NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.