Remember the South Bank Show's electronic music special not so long ago? David Ellis will probably never forget it.
You know, there's a danger in believing too much of what you see in and on the mass media. Like the idea that synthesisers stopped with Robert Moog and started up again with the Synclavier. Or that mixing desks and their operators should be seen rather than heard; that Fairlight composers stare lovingly at waveform plots when they're not conjuring up the latest jingle; that the SynthAxe is an 'ancient electric guitar'; that a large Sony Profeel monitor showing a CX5 display of DX7 parameters can be found in every self-respecting electronic musician's studio; that Dave Whittaker is totally unconnected with the Synclavier's UK distributor. Or that Melvyn Bragg is really interested in electronic music.
If you hadn't already guessed, all that's to do with the South Bank Show's electronic music extravaganza on Sunday, January 27. You know, the one with silly people doing equally silly things with electrical appliances... To be honest, the entire programme was about as compatible with current trends in music and its technology as the idea of a punk with a mohican haircut wearing a crash helmet on a motorcycle. In short, it stuck out like a sore thumb.
Aside from the anachronistic discontinuities between content and intent, what really concerned me was the way the programme insisted on portraying electronic music as a series of cosily-packaged ivory towers. One moment there was Denis Smalley (the LWT Press Release said it would be Roger, but never mind) mixing away in the midst of multiple speakers, courtesy of Lord Sainsbury's benevolence to the University of East Anglia, another moment it was the residential studio belonging to Phil Manzanera et al, complete with spiral ladder, sunken swimming pool, and all the other trappings of the one-time megastar - but without a synth in sight! And then there was Tim Souster, manfully trying to turn his garden shed into a musical TARDIS despite pathetic attempts on the part of the Synclavier at being a varispeeded Revox and Vogon impersonator.
More worrying still was the complete absence of any mention of the way in which the micro revolution is shaping music production. And not just music production, but music making in its broadest sense - from kids composing music on computers in the classroom to all that's happening on the MIDI and home micro scene. It's made all the more ironic in the light of the micro companies' waking up over the past year to this 'do-it-yourself' side of the entertainments industry.
Take Yamaha's CX5M and Acorn's Music 500, for example. Or take the Winter Consumer Electronics Show held in Las Vegas at the beginning of January, where Atari unveiled their truly remarkable ST range of 68000-based micros. Would you believe a 128K machine with an offshoot of Digital Research's GEM icon-driven operating system and built-in MIDI connection for just £350? Better still, a 512K version for £550. There's more: a 1 megabyte 3.5" disk drive for £125, a 10 megabyte hard disk unit for 'under £600', and a music computer called 65XEM for under £250 (watch out, Yamaha!) with eight sound channels courtesy of a custom sound chip which may or may not have anything to do with FM synthesis.
As every E&MM reader knows, this is the reality presented by today's music technology, and it's where the future of electronic music lies. The only problem is that the South Bank Show may have put back electronic music ten years in the eyes and ears of the noncognoscenti public. So, what we need now is a programme - no, a series - that puts the matter straight. In the meantime, let's hope the South Bank Show takes Tim Souster's bizarre idea of 'musical telepathy' to heart, and goes straight back into its cultural vacuum.
Editorial by David Ellis
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