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The Art Of Repetition

They say everyone's got one good song in them, it's writing a second that determines whether the first was luck or not... But just how good a guide to the quality of music is the ability to repeat it?

FOR MANY "OLD pros", the distinction between musicians and the charlatans currently attempting to pass themselves off as musicians is the ability to repeat work to order. Not only can the traditional pro musician play in a variety of styles, sight read music and turn their hand to playing at least two instruments, they can structure their music and performance in such a way that they can be reproduced at will in any situation, from the recording studio to the stage. In contrast, the new wave of "non-musicians' has limited musical technique, little or no grasp of music theory and tends to rely heavily on electronic playing aids like sequencers - consequently the music is difficult, if not impossible for these 'musicians' to reproduce without the assistance of their machines. Fair comment?

Claims of new-found "musical expression without musical training" seem to cut no ice with the old-school musician. But does a musician have to be able to reproduce his work to order for it to be acceptable? There's no doubt that the ability of a "classically-trained" musician to employ his or her dexterity and understanding of musical structure to perform in a variety of situations is an enviable skill, and it's an ability sadly lacking in many contemporary artists. But this aspect of repeatability around which much controversy is based troubles me.

It's true, you can stumble on combinations of musical events that make exciting music without understanding why. And a sequencer is perfectly suited to helping you work with music in this way. In this context the sequencer is being used as a substitute for an understanding of the music being made. I'd argue, however, that there's a direct comparison to be made between this and the use of a sequencer in "enhancing" playing technique.

But more than this, I'd question this perception of the value of "repeatability". Isn't the quintessential aspect of a performance its uniqueness? Isn't that what we pay for when we go to see someone play live - that "moment of divine inspiration" in which the band (collectively or individually) surpass themselves, driven by the "moment"? And we've all seen musicians attempting to reproduce solos that have worked well on record in a live situation - and failing miserably. Yet Mark Knopfler insists on playing his studio solos live...

But spontaneity has a greater role to play in music, and art in general. To keep this discussion within fairly close limits let's just mention improvised jazz and performance art as an indication of its importance and variety - neither of these art forms are readily repeatable, yet both are valuable and acceptable.

Chance composition methods have been closely associated with electronic music throughout its development. Although music composed using such methods (anything from dice to computer programs) are open to analysis after the event, the nature of their composition dictates that the composer relinquishes control of at least part of the compositional process to the laws of chance. It could be argued that the composition itself is a performance in its own right - and as such, it is an unrepeatable one. Subsequent replaying of the music is just that - there is no question of recreating the conditions of the original composition in the name of performance, only the finished recorded work remains.

Until now anyone adopting this approach to their music (artists ranging from Brian Eno to Tangerine Dream) have worked largely with multitrack tape rather than computers and sequencers, but computer sequencing offers a more flexible medium at considerably lower cost. And until now the styles of music have tended to adhere quite faithfully to the esoteric/experimental vein. But the explosion of computer sequencing has meant this approach has been adopted by musicians working in many other areas - and it's here that the controversy appears to have arisen. While an unstructured approach appears acceptable in experimental music, it seems to become offensive when applied to more mainstream music. But does it actually make the music any less (or more) valid?

ON A SLIGHTLY different note, you can't have failed to notice that a software supplement accompanies this issue. The reason for our compiling this is to help guide you through the jungle of software that's grown up since computers got a firm foothold in musical circles. The sheer numbers of sequencers, editors, librarians and so on, make it difficult to know what there is to choose from when, let alone make the best choice for your needs. This guide is designed to help put you in the picture.

This supplement is the first of a pull-out-and-keep series that is designed to help you get the most out of hi-tech gear, MT and your music. Keep watching, and remember who your friends are...

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Music Technology - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Music Technology - Jul 1990

Editorial by Tim Goodyer

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