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Columns > Jesse Jarnow - Brain Tuba

Published: 2002/04/22
by Jesse Jarnow

BRAIN TUBA: We Have The Technology

What makes a musician successful is usually a unique and original voice.
Often times, at first, the voice might be interchangable with what it is
saying (Kurt Cobain, for example). With work, though, the musician can
develop it into something that is capable of telling myriad stories across
decades of work. The voice might be made up of any number of things. Bob
Dylan’s voice, for example, remains intact through the different characters
he has inhabited over the years, but it derives from vocal inflections and
certain types of characters. Beck’s voice, whether singing grooving
party music or lo-fi folk, remains in his images of urban decay and
semi-ironic puns.
For any musician who creates music for over 20 years, the underlying
technology of his craft will undoubtedly change over that period of time.
This naturally raises the question of whether or not the musician should
take that change into account when making new music. In recent years,
electronic music has begun to stretch its tentacles into almost all popular
genres, for good or ill. It’s not a problem by any stretch, but it is
remarkably interesting to look at how older musicians have reacted to the
change. It might be instructive to compare and contrast three albums made in
2001 by artists who have been making music for, at least, 20 years and have
decided to integrate electronic elements into their latest releases.
Future 2 Future by Herbie Hancock, m by John Scofield,
and Reveal by REM use technology in very different ways to varying
degrees of success. Hancock, for example, basically employed producer Bill
Laswell to create him a house setting on which to lay his trademark warm
fusion keyboards. Scofield integrated breakbeats and other elements into his
groove-jazz. REM, meanwhile, expanded their sonic palette to include
electronic washes and beats. The records turned out very differently. A
logical place to begin looking at this can be found – surprise! – in the
albums’ respective beginnings, in how the musicians make their entrances.
m is the easiest to describe, so we’ll begin there. The album
fades in on a sitar drone. It is quickly joined by what is clearly some
preemptory noodling. With a muted thump, processed drums kick in; a funk
guitar begins waka-chocking; live drums snap into place; and then John
Scofield begins soloing on a song called "Acidhead". Almost immediately,
there is a clear and audible distinction made between the electronic
elements and the "real" John Scofield. They sound separated. And, even if it
was unintended, it is clear from the way both are introduced that we meant
to hear them as a disconnected entities. The cleavage between sounds remains
across the disc, and certainly makes the material feel a touch superficial
at times.
The Herbie record is a little trickier. It begins with a low-frequency
electronic wash, followed by some sorta Indian invocation, the entrance of
tablas, and a submersion into an electronic soundworld. Somewhere in there,
Hancock enters in the background, playing one chord over and over again. It
is a low status entrance, musically reticent but willing to go with the
flow. The album was co-produced by bassist/producer whiz Bill Laswell. It
is, in that sense, a "real" electronic disc.
Hancock’s contributions increase as the disc progresses, but – in many
places – he feels a bit lost, like he was nothing more than a sample for
Laswell to use in the greater construction. In the sense that all of
Hancock’s playing serves the final product, there is a lot to be admired.
But it doesn’t always feel like a Herbie album. In many places, his voice – the thing that made him worthy of attention to begin with – melts away into
the flow. That’s fine, it might be a better album for it, but it doesn’t
feel like Herbie’s really the one making the artistic contribution. It
would seem that this is neither good nor bad. In any event, it doesn’t feel
like a fully confident, articulated step.
Reveal, too, begins with a wash of strings and electronics, a
digitized voice (ala Kid A), and then "The Lifting" begins. The
electronics don’t disappear, though. They are a fully integrated part of the
writing. The band allows it to influence the way they structure and conceive
of their material. It is, in a word, mature. The important thing is that
sounds have the same personality as the band — gently fractured,
shoulders sorta stooped, a mite confused. It’s almost like the technology is
entirely transparent.
It also, perhaps, leads to the central question worth asking: on what level
is the artist willing to engage the technology? And that, like most things,
is a question of status. When Scofield enters with his guitar – patting the
listeners on the collective back and telling them not worry, that it’s just
another way of doing things – he is playing high status to the breakbeats.
The result is something along the lines of pig Latin or the likes: the words
and meaning are exactly the same, the outward pronunciation is just
different. In some ways, it is like saying "these new technologies are just
new effects for saying the same things".
The difference between approaches is exemplified by The Grateful Dead’s use
of MIDI during their later years. At times – when Jerry Garcia, for example,
would substitute a flute sound for his normal guitar tone – the band played
with the technology as if it were a mere amusement. Other times, when the
band plunged into full-on Infrared Roses/space-like weirdness, they
exploited their MIDI controls with a greater deal of respect for the idea
that they could be used to restructure the way they created their music.
Herbie almost plays low status to the technology, surrendering entirely to
the noise and letting Laswell create frames for the analog keyboard sounds.
He doesn’t trivialize it, which is important, but he doesn’t full take
advantage of it either. REM, on the other hand, use it in mixed ways. "I’ve
Been High", for instance, sounds as if it could have been conceived for just
organ and voice – and it would even work quite well in just that setting – but the band has added a digitally muted beat behind the music. The beat
fits the character of the music so perfectly that it opens the song up
entirely. It does so because the band respects the nature of the electronics
without letting them overpower what they are trying to achieve. It is a
fluid status transaction and is beautiful.
Jesse Jarnow thought about it for a
minute and decided not
to.

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