Talking about Music

Tonight’s email brought a bulletin from Electronic Musician. These emails are just junk, and I mostly just delete them, but this one caught my eye. The bulk of each eMusician XTRA email is, frankly, repackaged press releases from manufacturers. This is fairly depressing, though not surprising. What little remains of what was once a respected journalistic undertaking is no more than a bundle of manufacturer press releases. Gotta stroke those advertisers, dude! Nothing else matters.

But the decline of the magazine publishing industry is not what I wanted to talk about. No, I have a bigger bee in my bonnet.

Headlining the email was a link to a video clip on the EM website. The clip is called “When Classical And Electronica Collide: Inside TechnoClassica 2.0.” The clip, prepared by EM editor Mike Levine, is about a project at Penn State University in which a classical ensemble (including string players and flutists) is combined with a computer rig, synthesizers, drums, and a rather large and fast-moving rear-screen video animation. The video clip is mostly an interview with developer Max Fomitchev, who teaches computer science at Penn State, but there’s also a little footage of the music being played onstage.

The sad and aggravating thing about the clip is that there’s not a word in it, not a single solitary word, about the music. The idea that there might actually be an aesthetic or artistic vision behind the project seems not even to have occurred to Levine. At least, if it occurred to him he didn’t think it was important enough to be worth mentioning, and based on the bits of music I heard, I have to think he may have been right. But if the music isn’t important enough to be worth talking about, why the fuck should EM be uploading the video at all?

Pardon me. I’m a little overwrought. But only because I do actually care about music. About both classical music and electronic music, in fact. I don’t discriminate against either, and I’m happy that people are thinking about new ways to fuse them. But if there’s a fusion of styles, let’s talk about it, shall we? Let’s not sweep it under the rug, or pretend that it’s trivial. If in fact it’s trivial, then let’s turn off the video camera and go find something more worthwhile to do a webclip on, shall we?

In the course of the clip, we learn that the musicians use in-ear monitors so they can play to a click. We learn a bit about the software that was used. We learn that the stringed instruments have blinking neon lights in them, which are activated by microprocessors. We learn that Fomitchev is hoping to attract fans of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra — not a very exalted aspiration, I would have to say. “We’re hoping to rival some serious schlock and kitsch,” he might as well have said. Oh, okay. Go for it.

At one point, Fomitchev says, “There are a couple of professors at the school of music that openly denounced this undertaking.” Without having heard more of the music, I can’t be sure whether the denunciations were appropriate. But from the fact that Lomitchev is aiming at a TSO vibe, I’m betting the denunciations were right on the money.

On the other hand, the music could be amazing and visionary and stunning in its artistic depth. If that’s the case, then Mike Levine has entirely failed as a music journalist, and he’s the one who should be denounced. Either way, whether the music is good or awful, Levine pretty much ends up with the short end of the stick. He didn’t tell us who the instrumentalists were. He didn’t tell us what classical piece we were hearing an arrangement of. He didn’t ask who did the arranging. He didn’t ask about why that particular type of arrangement was favored over other possibilities. He didn’t even ask how the onstage video worked in tandem with the aesthetic vision of the music.

Nobody was talking about the music.

Okay, to be strictly fair, EM has almost never published a word about music. Levine is only following along in the grand EM tradition. But even so, this video lays bare the sterility of that approach to content.

The older I get, the more I think the only thing worth talking about is the music. Oh, I’ll still write a product review, if an interesting product comes my way. I’ll talk about filters and signal routing, about aliasing and clipping, about transients and convolution, about latency and automation and user interface design. But at a very basic level, I don’t care about any of that. I care about making music. When the music becomes irrelevant, something essential has been lost.

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