Let Me Count the Ways

I first encountered a synthesizer in 1975. I had just been hired as an assistant editor at a startup magazine called Contemporary Keyboard. (The name was later changed to Keyboard.) My boss, who was living down the walkway in the same apartment complex, had an ARP 2600.

At the time, that was pretty much a state-of-the-art instrument. You could make all sorts of sounds with it, either by wiggling the knobs and sliders or by plugging in a few patch cords to change some of the internal signal routings. What excited me was the fact that sound had suddenly become plastic. Unlike a piano, whose sound is pretty well set in stone, the sound of a synthesizer is whatever you make it. Any synthesizer has, let’s admit, a limited sound palette, but the limits are extraordinarily broad.

Fast-forward. Today I have on my hard drive about 150 synthesizers. Not kidding; that’s an actual count. With, I think, not a single exception, all of them are immensely more complex and powerful beasts than the ARP 2600. I have, in fact, a very nice software emulation of the 2600. While basically authentic in design, it has a number of features not found on the original hardware instrument. Oh, wait — there it is now!

I’m not going to try to explain this technology, not today. Either you know about it, or you don’t. Today I’m contemplating a conundrum to do with creativity. The conundrum is, what is one to do with this magnificent mass of musical muscle?

When you’re young, it’s easier to become passionate about aiming for some particular musical goal and pouring your heart into it. There are, I think, two or three reasons for this.

First, you don’t know as much about music as you’ll know 40 or 50 years down the line. You may know hip-hop, or blues, or punk, or folk, but that may be all you know. When you set out to create something new, your choices are narrower and more straightforward. Later, you’re discovering new kinds of music and exploring them to learn what they’re all about.

But I’m now over 70, and I spent 20 of those years reviewing records every month at Keyboard. I’m familiar with Jon Hassell, Kraftwerk, the Residents, Weather Report, Robert Rich, Wendy Carlos, and quite a lot of other artists who have used synthesizers in various musical styles. I know what I’m good at and what I’m not so good at compositionally. I know a lot, but as a result, there’s not so much left for me to explore.

Second, when you’re young you just have more energy, period. You get excited about stuff and stay excited more readily.

Third, when you’re young you quite naturally have some hope that you’ll achieve something — that you’ll become famous, or at least join a band and catch the eye of a few potential romantic partners. I no longer expect to accomplish anything by making music. It’s just something that I do.

A friend posted recently on Facebook some information about how thousands of new tracks are being uploaded to Spotify every single day. And who is going to sort through all that to find the good stuff? Musicians have vanishingly little chance anymore to get noticed. It’s just not gonna happen, not unless you’re young, playing in a trendy style, and have the right haircut. And probably not even then.

Now about those 150 synthesizers. Each of them has editable parameters. Most of them have hundreds of preset sounds, which are provided when you buy and download the instrument — and all of the presets can be edited in thousands of arbitrary ways. To be sure, there’s a lot of redundancy in the sound libraries of various instruments. You’ll find wobble basses, screaming leads, gauzy pads, and Wurlitzer electric piano imitations galore. Even so, it’s safe to say that I have instant, click-of-the-mouse access to several million different sounds.

Given any five of these sounds, one could compose and record literally millions of different pieces of music. Frank Zappa once remarked that there are only twelve notes, but that didn’t stop Bach or Beethoven, nor Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk, nor the Beatles and the Beach Boys.

The number of things I could do with the resources that are at my disposal is infinite. The conundrum is, what would make any one musical concept more worth pursuing than another? Sure, I can upload fresh files to my bandcamp page. I have half a dozen CDs worth of material up there already, and I actually sold a digital download this year. To a friend. For $9.

Been there, done that. What’s next?

I did a whole “CD” of rearrangements of Beatles songs. (It’s on the bandcamp page. It’s called Reimagine.) I’ve done some exploring of microtonal tunings. (On the bandcamp page too — click on Werewolf Bathtubs and Forked Clarinets.) Concepts can be a useful way to organize one’s activity, but I don’t have any sterling ideas for fresh concepts that I’d like to explore. What I have are millions of sounds, lots of free time, a wide range of musical knowledge, not as much energy as I’d like, no expectations for the future, and no compelling vision.

This entry was posted in modular, music, random musings, synthesizers, technology, vcv rack and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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