Why Computer Music?
I've been wanting to write this post for ages.
The subject matter was originally suggested by Matt Woebot (when I had dinner with him in London, a month or so ago). Matt expressed surprise when I told him I had no interest in using analogue synthesizers/effects and seemed intrigued when I described why I try to work exclusively in Max/MSP.
I had a hunch that he was not too clues in to contemporary computer music practice, having been quite shocked by a post in which he suggested that digital time-stretching was an inherently unpleasant sound. As anyone who's heard Greg Davis' Somia will attest, this is not the case.
Anyway, ever since I got back from the UK, a plague of computer-related problems has been visited upon me - with particular emphasis on impediments to the stable running of Max/MSP. This plague has made the whole subject of computer music much harder to get enthusiastic about. It's also been very time-consuming.
Still, this post should have been written weeks ago. Instead, what always happen s has happened again. A substantive blog post gets put off again and again until I end up writing it in a hurry and not proof-reading it - just to get the bloody thing out of the way.
Here it is then - some rambling about the joys of making computer music on a Mac laptop that just doesn't seem to be working as it should. More of that later.
In the mean time, it's time to confess that much of my loyalty to computer music is spurred by sheer stubbornness. Over the last few years, I've witnessed a number of talented friends forsaking their laptops in favour of a veritable armoury of analogue gear. While they're all still doing great stuff, I must admit a preference for what they were producing before glitch became a dirty word. But it's stubbornness really - a lame conflation of swimming against the tide with artistic individuality - that keeps me hunched over the laptop.
That and the more positive fact that I still believe nothing in the world of music offers infinite possibilities like computer software does. Often, this is confused with a surfeit of choice. We are told that people making music on their computers are simply faced with too many options, resulting in some kind of creative breakdown.
But do serious musicians really have any choice at all? It may seem like a romantic notion but it could be argued that most really driven artists spend their lives chasing a single, singular vision (or audition). These people will take what they need from whatever tools they use and they will show the dedication necessary to plumb the cavernous depths of possibility opened up by computer music programming environments like Max/MSP, supercollider and Reaktor.
The term "computer music" - by the way - is used here specifically to distinguish the practices of abstract electronica artists from people who are simply using their computers to make music. For the most part, music software has simply become a tool for making beyond-shitty rock bands sound halfway competent (perhaps these are the folks who get stymied by the surfeit of choice). The way music-made-with-computers has become a debased concept aptly reflects the way those early '90s dreams of Utopian digital communities have degenerated into the horror and ignominy of MySpace.
For computer musicians per se, applications like Max/MSP etc. offer an unprecedented means by which anything is possible - any instrument, any studio, any sound, any music. It's hardly an exaggeration to say that if you can imagine it, you can build it in Max.
Like a lot of people, I found the graphical programming interface offered by Max utterly confounding when I first encountered it. Once I'd figured out what I wanted to do with it; once I realized that I could use it to build whatever performance set-up I wanted; once I realized that - if I was willing to apply myself - I could use it to get that exact sound out of my head and into the world... well then things started to become a lot easier.
I've been working on the same live performance tool for the last couple of years, gradually building its versatility while simultaneously focusing the sound it makes to a more precise representation of the way I imagine my ideal music to be. Often - like now - it's a frustrating process but once everything is working, the experience of using it is wonderfully intuitive and the results pretty much unique.
Ah but the frustrations... Computers don't lessen inconvenience, they just move it about. Which is another great reason that they shouldn't be used to make things easy for rock bands. You can't have a lazy, non-critical attitude to computers or they'll fuck you over.
Real computer music is inherently critical - you might say that the whole project is a hymn to the aesthetics of the critical attitude. Computer music doesn't rely on computer technology the way other genres have come to - it interrogates computer technology from a position of empathy. This may be a non humanistic approach but it's far from being a sterile emotionless one.
Ah but the inconvenience... It's hard to keep up my rabid Utopian fervour when my computer isn't even working properly. So to finish of the post on a charmingly negative note, please enjoy the following summary of my current computing woes. Any help or advice would be appreciated.
Machine Name: PowerBook G4 12"
CPU Speed: 1.5 GHz
Memory: 1.25 GB
I seem to be having a hardware problem which effects the audio on my Powerbook. Unfortunately, I'm having a hard time getting the problem fixed.
Audio applications have been behaving oddly for some time now. It’s always been fine in basic applications like iTunes, DVD Player and VLC but does strange things in specialist music applications. For instance:
Macromedia Soundedit 16
(i) Audio plays back at wrong speed
(ii) Audio input occasionally receives nothing but loud feedback and distortion (this is a system-wide problem, as it also appears when I open the System Preferences)
Tracks do not stay in sync
This was never a big deal as having these applications run reliably was never vital to me. However, over the last couple of months, I've started experience unpredictable problems in Max/MSP, the most important application I use.
(i) Audio cuts out completely and permanently during normal usage
(ii) Audio input occasionally receives nothing but loud feedback and distortion
(iii) Problem (ii) often seems to occur after problem (i)
I tried debugging my Max patches but but the problem doesn't seem to be related to anything in the patches in a logical way. I have been able to improve the reliability of my Max set-up quite a lot by tidying up my patches but the audio still cuts out from time to time, so it's really no good as a live performance tool (I already had to cancel one show because of this issue).
An Apple forum discussion led me to believe that the problems were caused by changing the sampling rate in the Max DSP Status window (especially while Max audio is on). Possibly, this corrupts a couple of the computer's audio library files, which are easy to replace by deleting the following files...
...and restarting the computer. I tried this but it didn't seem to help.
I ran a hardware check with my installation disc. Nothing came up.
I reinstalled my entire operating system and downloaded all of the latest updates. This helped some of the minor problems - e.g. Soundedit now plays back at the right speed - but not:
(i) The Max audio cut-out problem
(ii) The line-in receiving noise problem (which seems to be related to the Max problem)
This was enough to make me believe that I was experiencing a hardware problem, a belief that was validated when I phoned Applecare. The person I spoke to implied that what I'm experiencing with the audio input going haywire is a known hardware problem and told me to take it to an Apple service agent to get it fixed.
When I did so I was told that if they couldn't reproduce the error then they'd just give me the computer back and charge me $70 for their time. I decided not to give them the computer because the problem occurs in such a random fashion that I doubted they would be able to reproduce it.
I've considered buying an external soundcard, which should solve the problem. But why should I? I paid $300 for Applecare and I'm experiencing an extremely inconvenient problem, which I'm assuming other people have experienced. It doesn't seem fair that you can't use your Applecare to get a problem solved if it doesn't behave consistently.
So do I bite the bullet, risk the $70 on the check-up and then most likely spend $700 on a soundcard? Or do I just stop performing live until my computer problem becomes serious enough that someone is prepared to fix it?