Music Machines

I was in the audience of a modern dance performance at City Center in NYC. The dancing was great…very graceful and expressive. The choreography was inventive and the energy of the dancers impressive. The music was modern, contemporary, shifting meters and lots of percussion. A couple of segments featured pop tunes. At intermission I turn to my friend and ask, “How do you like the orchestra?” “Great!” What? Oh no! Just as I suspected. There is no orchestra and the audience doesn’t know that recordings are being substituted for live music. I am wondering how many people here don’t realize the music is not live? And do they care? Are they so accustomed to not hearing the difference? Do kids realize they are listing to machines when they hear and dance to hip hop?

The good news is that machines have perfect time. The bad news is that machines have perfect time. They are precise and do not drag or rush the beat. I know some drummers who practice all day attempting to duplicate drum machine precision and programmed patterns. They can get the sound and the feel of the machine. But. The feel. The feel is that part of the music we often associate with sensitivity and emotion. Phil Collins used drum machines on tunes and we were shocked. He, being a drummer, should know better. However, the sound and feeling he got from the machine worked. Madonna has been very successful in using the machine in her music. Does the listener know or care it’s a machine that’s doing the drum track?

The criticism of pop music being so unpopular with musicians and educated listeners is a result of algorithms. Computers are programmed to pick pop songs to be recorded based on past history. If a past hit used a particular chord progression and groove, the computer is more likely to choose a new composition based on track record. This is nothing new. However, now that decision is done immediately with the use of machines; not with the ears of a producer or musician.

drum machinesSo, back to the feel. What I dislike about the robots doing music is the perfection. So many inventions, discoveries, creative movements have resulted from human error. Mistakes develop into brilliant ideas. Perfect time keeping is monotonous and static. I remember pianists using the “Sideman” on jobs. The Sideman was the first drum machine. It was made by Wurlitzer and encased in a tube infused large cabinet. The pianist needed a ‘cha cha’ they touched the ‘cha cha’ button and you hear the rhythm. Needless to say a lot of drummers were not happy. Not only did they lose work they heard a robot replacing them. It sounded and felt unreal. The machine continues to advance considerably from those early years. How will it develop? With technology’s fast pace and evolution, will the day come that the machine will feel, phrase and groove like the human??

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