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Hypertext Killed the Video Star

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What people are going to be selling more of in the future is not pieces of music, but systems by which people can customize listening experiences for themselves. Prototypes of such systems are already available online, as Curt Cloninger reports.
This article first was published in Pif Magazine (
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"They took the credit for your second symphony Rewritten by machine and new technology And now I understand the problems you can see. Video killed the radio star In my mind and in my car We can't rewind, we've gone too far."
—The Buggles

With each new wave of musical instrument technology, popular music changes. I'm sure the technology of the glockenspiel knocked their knickers off back in the day, causing many a meandering troubadour to trill a thankful and hearty "Hey nonny non." The technology of the electric guitar rocked their socks off back in the day, causing many a 1950s rockabilly crooner to whoop a thankful and hearty "This one goes out to all the rockers in the house!" The beat box spawned disco, the synthesizer spawned techno, and the pan flute spawned all sorts of bad infomercials. But all this is academic.

If an individual advancement in instrument tech can spawn an entirely new genre of music, then imagine what massive paradigm shifts are caused by an entirely new musical medium. Once music became available in recorded form, large orchestras became a luxury. Once multitrack recording became available, entirely new forms of composition were spawned, taking advantage of the ability to overdub and remix, using the studio as an instrument itself. Once MTV infiltrated our homes and minds, the Janis Joplins of the world became much less marketable and the Britney Spears of the world became much more viable. Think about it, when was the last time you saw an ugly solo pop star, male or female? Marilyn Manson doesn't count; he's in a band. Aaron Neville doesn't count; he was already among us.

With the Internet having recently and officially achieved mass media status (more than 50 percent of Americans are "wired" now), it's probably a good time to examine what effect, if any, this new "global, interactive" medium has had on music. Visually, there's no real advancement. We can still see our favorite star shake his/her respective groove thing on VH1 24 x 7, so lo-fi concert stills at aren't exactly rocking anybody's world. The Internet has allowed more widespread distribution of independent music, but this has just flooded the Internet with a lot more crap that no one listens to anyway. No big advancement there.

To realize the big difference the Net has made in the nature of music, we have to look beyond the hype of Napster and MP3s. We have to look at the one thing the Net can do for music that no other medium can. The Net, with its combination of interactivity and programming, enables the "listener" to co-compose the music. It allows for the possibility of what Brian Eno calls "unfinished music."

The following is from an interview with Brian Eno in Wired back in 1995, when the Web was still in its infancy:

Wired: If I could give you a black box that could do anything, what would you have it do?

Eno: I would love to have a box onto which I could offload choice making. A thing that makes choices about its outputs and says to itself, "This is a good output, reinforce that, or replay it, or feed it back in." I would love to have this machine stand for me. I could program this box to be my particular taste and interest in things.

W: Why do you want to do that? You have you.

E: Yes, I have me. But I want to be able to sell systems for making my music as well as selling pieces of music. In the future, you won't buy artists' works; you'll buy software that makes original pieces of "their" works, or that re-creates their way of looking at things. You could buy a Shostakovich box, or you could buy a Brahms box. You might want some Shostakovich slow-movement-like music to be generated. So then you use that box. Or you could buy a Brian Eno box. So then I would need to put in this box a device that represents my taste for choosing pieces.

W: Will you still like the idea of these surrogate Brian Enos when they start generating your best work?

E: Sure! Naturally, it's a modifiable box, you know. Say you like Brahms and Brian Eno. You could get the two of them to collaborate on something, see what happens if you allow them to hybridize. The possibilities for this are fabulous.

The Net does not yet allow randomly generated music in the style of a certain composer, but it does allow the listener to "become" Eno's black box. The original artist creates a series of discrete loops, and the "listener" is empowered to combine these loops in any manner he sees fit. The original artist composes the source material and sets the parameters within which that material may be combined, and the rest of the control is bequeathed to "the listener." This is a radical and astounding change in the very nature of music.

But enough of my yacking. Let's boogie. What follows are my three favorite interactive musical environments. As with all new technology, there's a price. In this case, the price is not money but time. You'll have to download some plug-ins, and that will take some time. As the revival preacher exhorts, "Do you want it? This is for those who want it."

Amon Tobin—Supermodified

The Amon Tobin site itself is a "site" to behold. You'll need Macromedia's Flash plug-in, which already comes preinstalled in most browsers. The entire site looks like some sort of futuristic database biography of Amon Tobin, British techno groover extraordinaire. It looks like the part in every sci-fi detective movie when Lieutenant Edwards "calls something up on the screen," invoking all these semitransparent images and scrolling green text, and then The Chief says, "Wait, freeze that. Scroll back to Sector 12. There! There's our missing data." In other words, the site looks groovy.

If you feel stuck, just start clicking on things. If that doesn't work, just wait. The data we are looking for is accessed by clicking the second tiny square to the right. As you mouse over the square, it cryptically labels itself data2/Supermodifier. Supermodifier, the audio machine itself, is an elegant keyboard interface controlling 16 audio loops. The loops begin downloading one at a time, so you can start tweaking the first of them while the others are on their way. Different keyboard letters trigger or deactivate the loops. Not all 16 loops will play at the same time (depending on the power of your computer), but when the maximum number of simultaneous loops is exceeded, the least recent loop automatically drops out so that you don't have to bother with the details.

Supermodifier is tricky because the software does not synch the loops up. The loops are not all running silently the entire time, merely waiting for us to trigger their volume. Instead, each loop runs independently of the other loops, and we are in total control of when they start. It seems like this would lead to chaos—and it can—but the trick is to figure out which letters trigger the drum loops and then hit all those letters simultaneously. The nondrum loops are rhythmical, but not critically so, so you can just add them "by feel." And some of the other loops are just plain ambient hums or rings, so it doesn't matter when you trigger them.

I'm fond of the combination R-K-H-D (rhodes + saboteur_loop + anvil + rhino_fx), but, of course, you choose your own combinations and start times, and that's the point. The 16 tracks include elements of funk, distortion, ambience, and even world music rhythms. If one combination grates, another will probably soothe. I revisit this machine frequently because it's not just a single piece of music; it's a spectrum of musical possibilities. Each visit unfolds differently, depending on my mood at the time.

As technologically advanced as this genre of "interactive/unfinished" music is, it paradoxically reintroduces the lost concept of live performance. Not everyone is a musician, but with the loops ready-made for you, you really do not have to be musical at all. Supermodifier is every wanna-be rave DJ's dream realized. You are "the man on the mike." You are the master at the helm. Who wouldn't want to sit there for hours tweaking this stuff? Well, maybe not hours, but....

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