Last time we discussed music, the internet and technology on music learning in particular. We noted the rise of apps, the easy accessibility of learning resources including one’s favourite songs, and the ability to synchronise our lessons with our daily lives. As a result, questions stemming from today’s times arise. Is the use of the internet to learn music a way of making the most of today’s tools, or a negative affect of today’s society’s culture of being accustomed to instantaneous satisfaction? Has sound recording influenced not only how we learn to play, but how we listen to and make music altogether? Has technology affected the art of performing live? Is musical notation in a state of limbo with more and more pianist and songwriters using modern technology to perfect their famous piano songs as opposed to recording it with the pianist playing pieces of written or printed sheet music? What are habits we should look out for and emulate or avoid? In in order to understand these questions we gathered the help of the highly accomplished Bruce Brubaker to unlock the answers to these mind boggling questions.
THE INFLUENCE OF TECHNOLOGY ON RECORDING FAMOUS PIANO SONGS
Technology is omnipresent. Hence, it is hardly surprising that it has had a profound influence on the art of music in the 20th and 21st centuries. It has altered how music is transmitted, preserved, heard, performed, and composed. Less and less often do we hear musical sound that have not at some level been shaped by technology; technology is involved in the reinforcement of concert halls, the recording and broadcast of music, and the design and construction of musical instruments. Many church organs, for example, now use synthesised or sampled sounds rather than actual pipes; instruments are now available that have what look like piano keyboards and make what sound like piano timbres, but which are actually dedicated digital synthesisers; virtuoso performers whose instrument is the turntable are now part of not only the world of disco but also the world of concert music. John Zorn, for example, has written a piece for voice, string quartet, and turntables). Technology is changing the essence of music, although a significant number of musicians still do not appreciate the extent of its influence.
“Spillane” by John Zorn
It has widely been accepted that technology came to music with the advent of recordings. Thomas Edison invented a crude cylinder phonograph in 1877. By the end of the nineteenth century, companies in the United States and England were manufacturing disc recordings of music. Prior to recordings, home consumption of all music, whether composed for keyboard or not, was solely by means of private piano performance. The possibility of preserving musical performances by recording utterly changed the social and artistic meanings of music. The invention of the tape recorder a half century later made musical sounds not only reproducible but also alterable. The resulting techniques allowed recorded sounds to be fragmented, combined, distorted, etc. Such manipulation could affect not only sound quality but also timespans. By changing recording speeds, for example, a composer of musique concrète could compress a Beethoven symphony into a single second or make a word last an hour.
Modern technological recording and broadcasting has removed music from the concert ritual. Today there are many viable places to hear music besides the concert hall; lounging in the living room, driving in the car, picnicking at the park or beach, on headphones while walking to school or work, jogging in the park, or waiting for the bus or train. Ambient sounds mingle freely with those emanating at supermarkets, places of work, restaurants, public transportation, and virtually everywhere, to the apparent delight of the listeners. Many composers may still create progressions that define a movement through time from beginning to end, but listeners are no longer slaves to a concert ritual that perpetuates closure. Everyone spins the dial. Technology has liberated listeners from the completeness of musical form. Is it any surprise that recent composers have cultivated aesthetics that avoid clear cut beginnings and endings, that they have written music more like a mosaic of loosely connected events than an ongoing progression through time? Such new approaches to musical time are in harmony with listeners’ abilities to choose for themselves the boundaries of their listening spans. Composers who continue to ignore this fact are arguably behind the times.
Listeners select not only where they start and stop listening to a piece of music but also in what order they hear its sections. As recordings have progressed from tapes and records to compact discs to USB drives to cloud storage and free streaming, random access by listeners has become almost as easy as breathing. Even in the early days of recording, however, the ordering of events in recorded music was more arbitrary than in live performance. Even before audio technology became a sophisticated art, it had a profound impact on musical structure. It is no coincidence that at the same time that music began to be recorded, composers began to reduce drastically the redundancy in their works. Pre-twentieth-century music is filled with repetitions and returns. The intensity in much early twentieth-century music comes from the lack of repetition: Arnold Schoenberg‘s Erwartung is an extreme example, in terms of both intensity and lack of overt repetition.
This piece has been described as the ”only lengthy work in an athematic style”, where no musical material returns once stated over the course of 426 measures, and among the “impregnable” “great monuments of modernism”.
Today, musical splicing is done electronically, with far greater sophistication and flexibility than previously imaginable. As a result, recording and performance are diverging into two separate art forms. When we listen to a fine live performance, we get caught up in the sweep of the experience. If we subsequently hear a recording of the same performance, we may be disappointed, because the excitement of live performance-partly visual and partly visceral-cannot be captured on audio tape. Furthermore, if there are a few wrong notes or rhythms in a live performance, who cares? But even a small number of clinkers on a recording-which will be heard again and again, in a more detached way than concert listening-can be maddening. Thus recorded performances seek perfection, while live performances seek immediacy.
THE EFFECT OF TECHNOLOGY ON GENRES & ACCESSIBILITY
Bruce Brubaker, a piano music album recording artist, international live performance pianist, and founder of PianoMorphosis, believes that mixing modern music and technology is a positive thing. In a way he relates it to the beginnings of sound recording at the end of the 19th century which was a technology which completely changed music. In fact he argues that it enhanced music, although it had other effects also. In a hundred years or so years after sound recoding, it’s very possible it changed the style of performing music so greatly it probably wouldn’t be recognisable anymore to what we as musicians do now according to Bruce. As our society moves much faster, it is already part of the way we as people learn the piano. It’s effectively now part of the future.
There are so many different kinds of online learning, and yet we are only getting started. In some ways, Bruce notes, it’s actually been a little slow, although certainly now, it’s something people are talking about and thinking about a lot. One of the greatest affects of it, Bruce states, is how, highly beneficial it’s been. “It’s completely changed what music is. I don’t know if the music is quite as significant but it certainly is significant. It kind of created an access to music in a way. The way people can find different kinds of music in different kinds of places whereas in the past it would have been impossible to find out about all kinds of traditions, not only classical.” It’s this accessibility aspect, which has been behind the revolution of music making, genre expanding, and social networking among musicians, Bruce highlights. The ability to learn from anyone in history without limits to our current geography is central to what has expanded our individual and collective knowledge of what music was, is, and will become. Therefore, accessibility is nowadays central to musical expansion.
Access to this information is key Bruce specifies. “In the past you would have to find somebody who played the instrument you wanted to learn and be in the same place they were to learn how to play the instrument. Different places, different schedules, all of these kind of questions of access were a pressing issue. Nowadays, there is more flexibility, and a greater geographical range. The learning process is much less one sided than in the past. Almost everyone will try things out, which might even be in opposition. There is more ‘democratic’ learning, which in turn has created a more unilateral form of learning. This has sped up the learning process. As a result the level of people’s accomplishment is higher than in the past. Furthermore, finances are now much easier to manage due to not having to necessary pay for a teacher.”
This idea of increased accessibility to less well known, or previously unknown pieces, is leading to a great appreciation of musical diversity. As Bruce mentions, “The internet has also allowed an access to all kinds of performances and music from all kinds of people and all places in time. Amazing pianists of the past who weren’t well represented even in the past now have their pieces available for free online. This opens up an entirely new and limitless fan base. There is unbelievable access to everything that, with the right channels, creates the possibility for big data collection of every aspect of music such as the history of music, performance, performance practices, techniques of playing, etc. How we make sense of it is a bigger question. Information technology overall is a bigger question in general.” Finding our way through all this should make the future unpredictable yet exciting to witness in the years to come.
Contemplating the scale of this seamless access to famous piano songs and instant communication and where it’s going will be an area of human sociology worth studying. How the internet and technology connects everything together as a global society is a manner in which we have never been connected before. Bruce strongly believes that music is a group activity. He says that, “People don’t make music as individuals, really. Music itself is a kind of function of human society as groups. Everything we do as individuals musically has an affect on the total music product of a group over time. As we understand more and more how connected we are it changes how we think about music. Seeing composers as individuals is an idea that’s coming to an end. Rather seeing them as a group of practitioners. Every person is part of some collective activity. With this idea evolving, it’s probable the younger generation is much more aware from an individual sense and therefore more interested in playing than in generations past.”
FROM PLAYING THE PIANO TO PRESSING A KEY
Naturally, this comes with challenges and difficulty that, in some of these videos, because the piano is an instrument which has keys and keyboards, and as computers have keys and keyboards, musicians may get the impression that making music is just pushing buttons somehow. Bruce warns that, “Because most of the music we are interested in is still music which is individual music combined into lines, this can become a difficulty. So if you see someone in a video pushing some keys and then copy that pattern of playing. You suddenly get the false impression you too can now make music. Longer connections or lines is much harder to develop in aspiring musicians. Fundamental problems with the piano, the kind of lines you can make as opposed to other instruments which have a horizontal line of playing has a greater risk of presenting a false impression of playing ability compared with some other instruments such as connecting individual notes into a bigger unit is. Of course, this is an inherent problem with making music on a keyboard, rather than a factor due to the internet. Oddly, music is particularly well represented in digital form. In fact, it is one of the first instances of music being considered in that way. It could perhaps be described in a mathematical way. Deaf people can play the piano, literally. It is an unusual instrument in that way. With stringed instruments for example, you have to control the pitch.”
In essence, Bruce indicates that pianists should watch out in case they might get the wrong impression of simply pressing keys and to be aware that there is another element. The technique of making sound on piano is something that is challenging to convey through an internet situation and is something to be concerned about. How you put your hand on the key, what you do with your wrist, arm and elbow. This is something a teacher in a room would help with and is harder to get that across in an online location or format. One of several difficulties to learn online is what would the teacher consider first when teaching such a student. Teachers too now offer lessons through the internet. Only with time will we know what this brings about in terms of its own benefits and drawbacks.
THE TECHNOLOGICAL EFFECT ON MUSICAL NOTATION
Bruce points out that, “The sound you hear when you play a modern piano is an outcome of the industrial revolution. Resisted by some and embraced by others.” Although he believes musical notation runs the risk eventually coming to be a relic of the past, he however, doesn’t believe it’s going to go anytime soon. What he believes is that, “Notation of music is coming closer to sound recording itself. We’re getting to a point where a permeable interface converges with notations and sounds. It is imperfect now but it will get better with the representation of sound in a visual way which will make things easier. In the recording studio for example, the engineer can visualise what’s being played, particularly when playing on a piano. I think the way we go back and forth with sound, and some kind of visual representation of sound becomes less and less separate. Enthusiasm for the piece versus what would make sense pedagogically to start with are two aspects converging. It’s good to have a basic approach to an instrument and a basic approach to music which is well grounded enough to learn more complicated things in the future and therefore easier to build on things.”
Today, because of electronic technology, we listen to unaltered music only rarely. The sounds we hear have been not only performed by musicians but also interpreted by audio engineers, who have reinforced the acoustics of concert halls, spliced together note perfect recorded performances, created artificially reverberant performance spaces, projected sounds across the world via satellite broadcast, greatly amplified rock concerts, and created temporal continuities that never existed ‘live’. The audio engineer is almost as highly trained as the concert performer, and can be just as sensitive an artist.
Recording technology has forced us to reconsider what constitutes a piece of music. It is unreasonable to claim that the printed score represents the musical sounds. The score usually gives no indication of how the audio engineer should manipulate their variables. Two differently mixed, equalised, and reverberated recordings of the same performance can contrast as much as two different performances of the same work. We might think conservatively of recordings as means to preserve performances, but recordings are far more than that. They are art works themselves, not simply reproductions. Thus people who buy records and cassettes rightly speak of owning the music.
According to music theorist Walter Everett, when The Beatles recorded their song, “Strawberry Fields Forever”, two versions were done. It was originally scored for The Beatles and for flutes, and recorded in the key of A at a tempo of about 92 beats per minute. After listening to the result, John Lennon decided it sounded ‘too heavy’ and wanted it recored and performed faster. A second version, with trumpets and cellos, was recorded in the key of B-flat at about 102 beats per minute. Lennon liked the beginning of the first version and the ending of the second, and asked the engineer to splice them together. When the speeds of both tapes were adjusted to match the pitch, the tempos of both were fortuitously the same at 96 beats per minute. The two portions were edited together. This procedure gives Lennon’s vocals an unreal, dreamlike timbre, especially in the second, slowed-down portion of the song.
A sound impossible to create prior to recording technology.
A recording released in 1985 of George Gershwin‘s “Rhapsody in Blue” from 1924. The composer is piano soloist and Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the orchestra. What is odd is that Thomas was born four years after Gershwin died! Gershwin had recorded the piano solo, and Thomas conducted the jazz band to coordinate exactly with the solo recording, which he monitored through headphones. The performance is somewhat strained, since the soloist never reacts to the ensemble, but the aesthetic behind the recording is fascinating. Technology has created a collaboration between two artists who could never have known each other.
In the song “Another One Bites the Dust”, as recorded by the rock group Queen, there is a specific verbal message which can be heard only when the recording is played backwards. Part of the title line, which is sung repeatedly throughout the song, comes out backwards as “marijuana”. This phenomenon depends on the particular pronunciation of “Another One Bites The Dust.” What we have is a hidden message, known only to instigate, which is embedded within the music by means of a quirk of technology. There is a clue that we should listen backwards. Certain musical sounds are recorded backward. For example, we sometimes hear first a gradual crescendo, then a sudden cut off the reverse of a sharp attack followed by a gradual decay.
HOW TECHNOLOGY HAS AFFECTED HOW WE RECORD MUSIC TO HOW WE COMPOSE MUSIC
What does this all mean? For the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates a work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an ever greater degree, the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the “authentic” print makes no sense. But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed for some inexplicable reason. Therefore what we learn to play quite often can never be identical to what we listen to. This results in the pianist or musician needing to alter famous piano songs to something that is humanly playable live.
Anyone who wishes to be a composer in the traditional sense of the term ought to understand the written language by which a composer’s wishes are communicated to performers. But why should a composer working directly with sound, producing not scores but recordings, learn an irrelevant symbolic system? Furthermore, the availability of the appropriate hardware and software has opened the compositional experience to a wide clientele. It may not be possible to learn the art of instrumental or vocal composition thoroughly without mastering notation, but computers make it possible for anyone to experience the thrill of creating music.
A young violinist may still spend countless hours alone in a practice room, improving his/her sound. But how often will that sound be heard without the intervention of recording, broadcasting, or acoustic-reinforcement technology? That violinist need not become a technological expert, but at least must learn what technology is capable of doing and how to communicate with engineers. Any musician who does not know the meaning of words like equalization, digital editing, sampling, reverberation, mixing, etc., is out of touch with his/her art and is, in a real sense, illiterate.
Bruce Brubaker started out in musical life a classical pianist. He focused on classical music such as Mozart, Brahms, Schubert, Chopin, etc. Early on itself he was interested in with new music, contemporary, classical music, including at times complicated pieces of music. More recently, his professional work consists of New Americanism, minimalism, works by Philip Glass, etc. His concerts include improvised elements such as playing on two pianos with another pianist, recombining classical pieces in ways they haven’t planned in advance, thus breathing new life to even well known pieces. With his teaching he still focuses on “traditional classical music” along with a few jazz pieces and synchronising a conventional repertoire. In his experience, Bruce has realises that today’s young pianists are better than any pianists have ever been in terms of their mastery of the instrument. He himself studied a lot at Juilliard and comes from a background of a highly disciplined education.
It is as if composers realised subconsciously that their music would be recorded and thus available to listeners for repeated hearings. As composer R. Murray Shafer has remarked, “The recapitulation was on the disc.” Music in the early decades of last century became considerably more complex than it had ever been before, and the trend towards ever greater complexities has continued to the present (with notable exceptions, to be sure). The density of information in music has increased exponentially. Gestures have been composed that are so compressed that they can be fully understood only after several hearings, and repeated listenings are possible once the music is recorded.
There has been a reaction to the autocracy of repeated hearings. Many composers have structured their works so that each performance is different. For example, they may give performers a series of fragments to be played in random order. This open approach to form celebrates what recording manages to destroy, the uniqueness of every moment in time. Individual realisations of such music do get recorded, in apparent contradiction of their very meaning, and thus they are inevitably heard again and again. Composer Karlheinz Stockhausen once compared the recording of one version of an open form to a photograph of a bird in flight. We understand the picture as showing but one of a multitude of shapes the bird may take. But which is the art work, the bird or the photograph? And which is the composition we are hearing, the abstract open form that we might intuit with the aid of score or program notes, or the fixed, carefully engineered recording?
Technology has become an integral part of most aspects of our lives, including the ways we hear, compose, and perform music. It used to be fashionable to speak of our era as one of transition. Today we can be fooled into believing that the transition is ending, as postmodernist aesthetics have produced superficial returns to earlier styles. However, on the contrary, the transition in the arts will end only when people, artists as well as audiences, confront the full impact of the technological revolution. Whether our music is to be tonal or atonal, chaotic or ordered, harsh or gentle, natural or artificial, these are not the important questions. What our music – the music we perform, hear, and produce – tells us about our technological culture is a far deeper indication of our society’s temperament. The options to explore are endless, as is our ability to individualise each and every piece. Is artistic interpretation of known pieces the new live experience? Will superhuman, perfectly polished recorded pieces trump any live show? The questions continue, technology alters the music we hear, play, record and perform, however, the only certain thing we do know is that we live in an unparalleled age filled with immeasurable possibility.
- Bruce Brubaker
- Symposium Music: The Impact of Technology on the Musical Experience
- John Zorn, Forbidden Fruit, Elektra/AsylunVNonesuch Records 9 79172-2 (1987).
- John Zorn: Spillane (Album)
- Arnold Schoenberg
- Karlheinz Stockhausen
- Walter Everett, “Phantastic Remembrance in John Lennon’s ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Julia,'” 72 (1986): 377.
- George Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue, Columbia Records M-34105.
- George Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue (Album)
- Michael Tilson Thomas
- Queen, Another One Bites the Dust, Hollywood Records HR 61265-2 (1992).
- Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” trans. Harry Zohn, in Illuminations (New York: Schocken, 1969), p. 24.
- R. Murray Shafer, The Tuning of the World (New York: Knopf, 1977), p. 114.
- R. Murray Schafer