October 19, 2006

Molding Two Tenses: The Future of Music

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I’ve often lay wakeless late at night, wondering, amongst other important things, “What is the future of music?” As far as I can tell, it’s blurry. Some say electronica — at once, a utilization of technology and the renewal of the classical method. For others, it’s psychadelic folk, a sound that reverberates soulfulness while giving the irreverant parts of the human mind freedom of expression. Amongst the conversation, I would take the easy way out, that is, the synthesis of the old and the new. In a word, the future is electroacoustic.
When I sat in on the New World Electroacoustic Music Organization’s annual festival in New York City over Fall Break, Joe Waters, the organization’s founder, told the audience that electroacoustic music is exactly that: Any acoustic sound that utilized electronic progress. What he didn’t tell us is that acousitc instruments can include guitars, triangles, and hand drums, but also the human heartbeat or the movements of the human body. The relation each musician at the festival took with the electronic varied, but a clear pattern emerged. Electroacoustic music not only combines acoustic instruments with technological innovation, but rather provides music with new meaning and possibility.
Sometimes the horizons established by electroacoustic musicians comes in the form of activating more senses. Last Thursday, at Cornell Cinema’s Williard Straight Theater, the Portland group Small Sails performed a set that required both visual and aural attention. The expansive set-up of electronic mounts, guitars, keyboards, marimba, and drum kit turned out to be for only three very talented members. The music they produced was more than enough — but their concept is even more impressive. While their selections developed, images of water flowing through sand on a beach, faces smiling, or grains blowing across a plain changed with them as colors soared across the giant back-drop until the music — and the visuals — came to an abrupt end. The hour-long set seemed to pass in a few minutes, and the group of us who saw it together seemed to leave more thoughtful than we came in.
Electroacoustic music found another suprising advocate just days later at a concert sponsored by the Fanclub Collective. One of the openers, Devin Davis, used an electronic set-up to diversify his solo act. Davis, beyond playing a guitar and harmonica at the same time, layered his music with the loopers he accessed with his feet. The musicians I know use loops mostly to compound one instrument, but Davis created entire songs — with drums, guitar, harmonica, and multi-part vocals — by himself. Davis is clearly a talented musician, and since he used electronic progress with his purely acoustic set, definitely deserves a space in the electroacoustic spectrum.
Then again, there’s not much going on today in music that wouldn’t fit. What’s interesting is how technology is expanding the definition of musicianship and raising questions about it too. For example, are DJ’s that show up with gigabytes of music on a laptoprun through sequencing software performing live? Are mash-ups anything to get excited about? While their answers remain debatable, I can’t help think of what Yellow Swans guitarist Gabriel Salomon told the crowd that gathered to watch his duo’s noise-rock performance a few weeks ago: “You guys should check out the acoustic guitar. It’s a beautiful thing. You can carry it around, in a box, wherever you go, and it doesn’t need to be plugged in or amplified. It practically plays itself.” While electroacoustic may be music’s deserving future, I can only hope that its roots remain intact.

The New World Electro-Acoustic Music Festival took place in New York October 7. The Small Sails performed their music with images October 12 at Cornell Cinema. Devin Davis opened for Tilly and the Wall October 14 at Alice Cook House.