How Technology, Space and Place Affect Song Writing

By Matteo Tiratelli

The idea that context determines what music is recorded, played and sung is both obvious and extremely counter intuitive. We don’t normally notice the way that music evolves in response to changes in technology and the spaces in which it is listened to. This doesn’t mean that artists are not reacting creatively and artistically to these changes but merely that their creativity is embedded in its context. What worries me, however, is that the rise of recording and modern technology has undermined their creative control.

Talking Head, David Byrne, introduces his book How Music Works? by revealing a “slow dawning epiphany about creation: that context largely determines what is written, painted, sculpted, sung, or performed”. This idea that context determines what music is recorded, played and sung is both obvious and extremely counter intuitive. Our normal image of the creative process – artists hunched over pianos, guitarists holed up in dingy bedsits –  is highly romanticised and individualistic. It doesn’t allow us to see how music evolves in response to changes in technology and the spaces in which it is heard.

The most noticeable way in which technology and space affect music is through instrumentation. The invention of the electric guitar was the invention of a brand new instrument; it is not just amplifying a guitar. Likewise the percussive music we associate with African traditions is played on instruments which carry well in the busy, open spaces in which they were played. With the absence of significant reverb or echo, dense, complicated rhythms can be heard and appreciated, even over the noise of dancing and chatter. (Alan Lomax, among the greatest American field recordists and a personal hero, has gone further and argues that these leaderless percussion ensembles reflect the egalitarian societies in which they emerged.) There is clearly something of a chicken-and-egg problem here but it seems extremely unlikely that such music would have been written in medieval Europe where music was predominantly heard in large, stone-walled churches and cathedrals. The 3 to 4 second reverberations not only meant that complex, polyrhythms would be inaudible but also that quick key changes would soon build into discordant cacophony. Therefore slow, melodic, modal music that was well suited to these unique atmospherics developed.

This much might seem obvious to some of you. Where this theory is more controversial is when applied to transitions in music – something we tend to attribute to one or two innovative geniuses. The changes in musical composition in the 1700s didn’t happen because someone had only just invented “complex harmonies”, but because there was a shift from performing in large cathedrals to busy, noisy concert halls – filled with dancing aristocrats in elaborate outfits. These were precisely the conditions in which Mozart’s frilly, elaborate music could be heard and appreciated. Even in Bach’s era (only slightly earlier in the century) the reverberations of the small churches he performed in would have overwhelmed Mozart’s harmonies. In the late 19th century, classical music evolved again this time as audiences changed their behaviour. Instead of talking and dancing, people began to sit down and listen in silence. Music was now seen as a form of spiritual self-discovery and cultural education. This allowed composers to experiment with dynamics; quiet sections became a real possibility. Incidentally, this is something that is fading today because listening to any big change in volume on headphones is extremely painful (even in electronic music “drops” are rarely a real change in volume).

This might seem like a crude rehashing of a structure vs agency debate but I would prefer to see it as undermining this distinction. All action is embedded in a social context but neither makes sense without the other. This can be illustrated by considering the long tradition of writing for specific spaces – from Wagner’s custom built opera theatre to early DMZ dubplates written especially for their sound system. These are creative actions written deliberately to a certain social context; what I am trying to say is that almost all creativity is a response to social context. This doesn’t mean that artists aren’t reacting creatively and artistically to these changes, but we shouldn’t ignore the way social context affects musical creativity.

The modern musical era is best defined by the rise of recording, something which has complete changed the way we consume and composed music. Songs can now be violently uprooted, listened to in a million different places and spaces simultaneously. In so doing it has been stripped of its cultic, quasi-religious aura; as cultural theorist Walter Benjamin said it is emancipated from its dependence on ritual and allowed to fulfill a truly political role. Legendary ethnographer Paul Willis has pointed out this also means that us ordinary people can use recorded music as the building blocks for our own creativity. We appropriate music and musical symbols, throw them together and juxtapose them, thus we use music in an artistic and creative way. Seeing art not as artefacts and institutions but as an activity, allows for an optimistic interpretation of the rise of recording. It has radically changed the way we interact with music and in so doing opened up huge new avenues for everyday creativity.

However, recording has also influenced what music is written. Early recordings were of such notoriously poor quality that vibrato was necessary to blur the pitch and stop the recording sounding out of key and chaotic. However as recording got better, people got used to this technique (which had previously been seen as naff and unsophisticated) and it became a standard. Similarly the invention of the microphone allowed for a whole new style of singing. Singers like Frank Sinatra and Bing Cosby were among the first to sing for the microphone; using it to capture singing which sounded like the whisper of a lover (something considered scandalous at the time). Indeed this idea of singing for the microphone is something like the distinction between acting-for-film and acting-for-the-stage; a distinction many actors (and singers) could do with paying attention to. In a similar way when 12” singles appeared they had the physical space for longer, louder and more bass heavy tracks. This was perfectly suited for certain environments and, just as soloing had emerged as a way of extending the melody and keeping the groove going for dancers, extended edits were invented to fill the dancefloors.

The advent of recorded music has also meant that artists can no longer control where and how we experience their music. And this has become even more important in recent years (think of how precious Robert Smith’s line notes on Disintegration sound today). With music being played in shops, on laptops or headphones, in clubs and in cars, the art of mastering has become even more important. However, only major releases can afford to be mastered separately for all these different systems. The big losers here will be independent labels who find that their home-stereo ready mixes sound terrible on Youtube. There is however a more subtle issue here. Computer EQs, automatic “sound checks”, volume smoothing, MP3 clipping – these all have important effects on how music sounds but are mostly controlled by the default settings on iTunes. Indeed it seems strange that artists have so willingly surrendered this creative control. Some artists have even embraced it. Gwilym Gold’s recent album is completely different every time you listen to it, however, this seems less like writing music than writing an algorithm. And while it might be interesting to think about, little is gained from actually listening to it (or actually releasing the non-album).

Perhaps this is too pessimistic and we shouldn’t be too worried about iTunes Sound Check; but I do think that artists should be more concerned with how their own creative control is being undermined by the advance of technology. Even if changes in music are often a reaction to technological and social change, these reactions are artistic and can be good or bad (just look some of Frank Sinatra’s contemporaries). But if musicians are to react in this way they need to take control of their own music.

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