Machines as Collaborators

BY STEPHEN HOLDEN

FOR YEARS PURISTS and innovators have squabbled over the artistic validity of each new pop-music gadget. Swing fans still find it hard to accept noisy electric guitars anti amplified rhythms. And to many in the rock generation electronic pop has come to symbolize a spiritual hollowness and superficiality.

During the years of disco fever that capped the rock era the synthesizer— a keyboard instrument that uses oscillators to imitate other instruments—was so ubiquitous as a cheap orchestra substitute that its name became synonymous with canned pop junk. A sharp reaction against disco only momentarily stalled a revolution that in the past five years has seen the synthesizer surpass the guitar to become the primary pop instrument.

The music of every generation has been profoundly shaped by changing technology. Although we think of crooning as “natural” pop music, in fact singing intimately with a large orchestra works only with a microphone. It was not until the rock era, however, that large numbers of people took an interest in the relationship between music and machines. Whereas the younger generation recognized that high-volume rock could be cathartic, older people found it threateningly loud. Once in full bloom the sixties rock culture ignored a basic contradiction in its chosen art form— that it depended on technology just as much as warfare did. Some rock stars, like Jimi Hendrix and Peter Townshend, of the Who, expressed their frustration by assaulting their instruments. Hendrix, rock’s most influential guitarist, made warlike music with musical firestorms of feedback.

The gentler studio psychedelia of the Beatles presented a different contradiction. Under the tutelage of their producer, George Martin, they used electronics to create lovely sound collages that seemed to express a yearning for a nineteenth-century idyll. The bucolic dreamscape of “Strawberry Fields Forever” was a refuge safely removed from the technology that created it.

Since the late sixties pop music has slowly and inexorably embraced mechanization. Gadgets have even become the basis for a new kind of pop romanticism. Through the seventies dozens of “art-rock” bands, from Pink Floyd to Yes, used synthesized psychedelia as a springboard for escapist musical “trips” based on science fiction and medieval myths. English art-rock groups usually treated the synthesizer as a deluxe organ whose aural twinklings were supposed to suggest astral voyages.

Lighter “synth-pop” styles were developed to create a flattering image of ourselves as components in a technological utopia. Disco and exercise records tantalized us with daydreams of being sex and sports machines. The hits of Olivia Newton-John, Electric Light Orchestra, the Bee Gees, Village People, and Abba all portrayed the world as an electronic music box. Even the nastier sensibilities behind this kind of gadget music have been essentially playful. The German group Kraftwerk—one of the first to use drum machines and electronic filters that turn the voice into a metallic drone—poses as cartoonishly inhuman lab technicians. Giorgio Moroder, the producer whose soft-core disco fantasies with Donna Summer introduced electronically sequenced bass lines to dance music, is a cynical humorist with a knack for carnival shock effects.

THE NOVELTY OF robotic sound effects and exercise rhythms has finally worn off to the point that serious pop musicians can begin to use the new vocabulary to suggest more complex and realistic relationships between humanity and the natural world. In the seventies musicians as dissimilar as the pop-soul hero Stevie Wonder and the eccentric English aesthete Brian Eno developed electronically inflected tone poems that avoided cheap aural gimmicks.

A blind man obsessed with “seeing” through music, Wonder used synthesizers to imagine the colors of the sun. Synthetic instrumentation became an integral textural ingredient of works structured like sweeping murals which bore a humanitarian message. Wonder’s most spectacular impressionistic work, his flawed but interesting “journey Through the Secret Life of Plants” soundtrack, conjures up a magic garden, in which the notes unfurl like tendrils.

Brian Eno’s “ambient” pieces, using found music and slowed-down tape, refined a new kind of mood music that seemed to float on spontaneous atmospheric currents, gently entering and receding from one’s field of perception. His influential collaborations with David Bowie and the Talking Heads helped to cut through the studio formulas by which pop records were laboriously constructed, instrumental track by instrumental track, over carefully laid-down rhythms.

In the past three years the English singer-songwriter-keyboardist Thomas Dolby and the New York performance artist Laurie Anderson have had hits with records dependent on electronics. Dolby’s “She Blinded Me With Science,” a spoof about the “science” of erotic love, became a top-five hit in America, and Anderson’s “O Superman” went to the top of the charts in England.

On The Golden Age of Wireless, his debut album, made in 1982, Dolby used a “wave computer" to generate a synthesized pop of unprecedented fluidity. The songs on the record are filled with images of aviation, navigation, meteorology, and long-distance communication. Dolby’s recent album The Flat Earth is a still richer mixture of electronics, sound effects, and pop-jazz. It is a cinematic travelogue that moves from Africa to Hollywood, each cut evoking a discrete world. “Screen Kiss,”a languidly morbid vision of Hollywood, glosses melodramatic movie music; “Dissidents" uses a mixture of jittery funk, the sounds of clacking typewriters, and strains of the Internationale to describe the anxiety of a political fugitive. Dolby’s musical postcards, conceived with video elaborations in mind, add up to a far-reaching exploration of the modern world.

Laurie Anderson, who came to pop from performance art, also wants to create the world whole. She plays the electric violin and the Synclavier, a musical computer that can mathematically remember and reproduce any sound programmed into it. She is not a singer so much as a poetic monologuist speaking in different voices, some electronically treated, others natural; her musical settings run from abrasive scratchings to pastoral reveries. In “O Superman’ Anderson invokes the embrace of various saviors, from “Mom and Dad" to Superman, in a mechanized chant over an eerie tape loop of “ah ah ah.” The record is full of dark presentiment of nuclear catastrophe.

both of Anderson’s albums, Big Science and Mister Heartbreak, are collections of monologues that weld simple chants, slogans, puns, literary fragments, aphorisms, and computer language into tales that communicate by insinuation, “big Science, Hallelujah, Yodellayheehoo,”she croons in the title song of her first album, summoning in four words resonant and disturbing images of American might.

On Mister Heartbreak Anderson frames her version of the Creation with the life and death of an Everyman named Sharkey. Parodving the Adam and Eve story and bringing in quotations from MobyDick and The Tempest and allusions to Thomas Pynchon, she compiles transparent images of man’s evolution from an exotic species of tropical creature to a supposedly civilized being. At its loveliest, the music on Mister Heartbreak evokes a South Seas Garden of Eden.

Anderson’s subject is knowledge itself. What do we know? How do we separate superstition from fact? What does language really tell us? by infusing classic myths with contemporary jargons, from mathematics to pop culture, Anderson translates those myths into pop fables that are seductively elusive and deeply skeptical. Her language is grafted to melodies that repeat the simplest phrases with a mesmerizing insistence. Anderson’s songs deal with the fundamental ambiguities of perception, but having brought them up she leaves us to ponder them alone.

STEIE WONDDER Thomas Dolby, and Laurie Anderson all represent a return to the Wagnerian idea of the solo artist as heroic commander ot the spirit. It’s an idea that, paradoxically, technology has revived. With the latest synthesizers anyone who wants to can be a oneman band. Inexpensive drum machines can perfectly reproduce rhythmic signatures that studio musicians have spent decades refining. Conservatory training and recording-studio experience are not essential for making sound effects. On the Synclavier it is theoretically possible for a composer to write and play his own symphony for a hundred-piece or a thousand-piece orchestra.

At the very core of Wonder’s tapestries of black life, Dolby’s global adventures, and Anderson’s mythical playlets is the unspoken assumption that if we don’t master our technology it will destroy us. The rock generation was the last generation to imagine that it could pay no attention to the machines it depended on for survival. Brought up to believe that science would magically solve humanity’s problems, it set about exploring the boundaries of permissiveness in the coming utopia, which would be both created by and protected from machines.

The post-rock generation knows better. Wielding electronic instruments, video equipment, and computers, its brightest young musicians are showing us a world in which machines are unavoidable. They are as imperfect as people and cause as many problems as they solve. Electronic music insists that art and science must not be mutually exclusive. These artists’skillful manipulation of so much hardware shows us that we can master technology—and that the better we understand it, the better our chances to save ourselves.