Mastering the Mutable
Music, technology and change
Here we reflect on some of the challenges composers and performers may encounter when their creative work is based on quickly evolving electroacoustic technologies, rather than on the comfortable predictability of traditional acoustic instrumentation and related performance practices. The most obvious trigger of these challenges is simply that the contents of our electroacoustic toolkits can change frequently. And, because of the strong interconnections between components of our toolkits (particularly when computers are involved), we find it increasingly difficult to ignore those changes. But we must also consider how this situation offers opportunities to constructively transform artists’ relationship with their tools and resources, and strengthen their creative work. In other words, the constant re-invention of our toolkits can both frustrate us and inspire us, and, in both cases, fundamentally influence the work we produce.
Mastery and Mutability
The term “mastery” suggests comprehensive knowledge, extensive expertise and deep understanding. In the context of music technology, “mastery” might relate to a specific set of skills or more broadly to an overall artistic practice.
We are all probably familiar with the idea that “10,000 hours of deliberate practice” are required to achieve “expert performance”, as articulated first by psychologist Anders Ericsson in 1993 (Ericsson, Krampe and Tesch-Römer) and later popularized in books by Malcolm Gladwell (2011) and Geoff Colvin (2010). That number has become a kind of benchmark in popular culture, with the implication that as long as you spend the requisite period of focused effort towards learning something, you will indeed “master” it.
But that scenario assumes that the rules and tools of the subject being mastered do not undergo fundamental change during the learning period. Imagine a budding chess master who, after countless hours of deliberate practice, is advised that pawns may now leap over all other pieces. What does that do to the hundreds or even thousands of game scenarios that have already formed the corpus of that player’s knowledge?
Similarly, what if, halfway through one’s mastery of the game of golf, it was decreed that henceforth the game would only be played indoors, in climate controlled conditions and on level carpet? Again, so much of the core work already put in by our would-be master would become irrelevant, or even misleading.
And, in both cases, the strategies already assimilated for various playing scenarios would have to be dramatically adjusted.
These illustrations are absurd and unlikely, of course. But in our world, radically re-designed operating systems, new hardware and file protocols, and entirely new software configurations and features are quite common.
Certainly, when the changes are incremental or relatively gentle, we can adapt without significant difficulty. But the more drastic or abrupt the change, the greater the potential disruption of the on-going mastery or expertise development process. Just as significantly, those disruptions may also uproot traditional benchmarks of excellence, and could undermine valuable mentorship relationships.
One might argue that we are never under any obligation to update anything. We could, for example, continue to use the same hardware and software for decades, as long as the system continues to function. But make no mistake: in a time when information about technology developments is available immediately, we will certainly feel pressure to adapt to the new.
As media converge and our tools widen their range of capabilities, there are also broadening demands on each individual practitioner. Artists increasingly embrace multiple modes of sonic art — e.g., acousmatic, interactive, mixed, or live coding. They also increasingly work in media beyond the concert hall or recording studio, such as installations or visual music.
And work that might have been handled in the past by other specialists — such as music copyists, video editors, electronics technicians, and recording or mastering engineers — often now falls under the job description of the electroacoustic artist.
In her book The Real World of Technology (1999), Ursula Franklin notes the shift from “holistic technologies” to “prescriptive technologies”, and from generalist to specialist, both brought on by the gradual development of centralised manufacturing. What I believe is happening now, at least within our limited world of electroacoustic music, is the next step on that progression: we are increasingly changing from specialists to multiple specialists, with requirements changing from deep expertise in a single or limited area to widespread expertise in a great many areas of technical practice.
At one level, this represents a positive integration of control over more aspects of our work. But, practically speaking, it also means more tools, more techniques, and more means of expression for individual artists to master.
In June 2013, I invited a small group of Canadian electroacoustic artists to participate in an informal survey on technology and change (Naylor 2013). I received many insightful comments that resonated strongly with the perspectives of this paper, a number of which are quoted below.
But my attention was especially caught by an unusual overall conjunction in the responses. When asked about the negative implications of change, most commented on issues such as never-ending expenditures on software and hardware, the time constantly invested in learning new tools, the perpetual problems of compatibility and the frustration of technological obsolescence sabotaging older work. And yet, when asked if they felt technology changes too quickly, less than 20% said “yes”.
In other words, for most artists, the many positive implications of frequent technological change appear to more than outweigh the cost, inconvenience, obsolescence of previous work, and additional time required to regain their previous level of familiarity and expertise.
Some of those positive implications can be linked directly to technical enhancements, of course. However, as we will see later, we are also presented with valuable non-technical opportunities as an indirect result of technical change.
Before we consider those indirect opportunities, we will review some of the tools we use to make music, and their relationship to technological change.
Many acoustic instrumentalists spend their entire careers focused on a single instrument, or a single family of instruments with fundamentally similar techniques. The relative stability of most acoustic instruments over time is also significant; their core technology tends to be quite stable, and major technological change or innovation is relatively infrequent.
Most acoustic instruments also tend to function as unified entities, with individual components normally physically attached together. And if components are removed for maintenance (e.g., replacing strings on a violin or pads on a clarinet), they are usually replaced with others similar enough to the originals to require only small adjustments in technique. Finally, most changes are designed more to enhance current practices than to facilitate new ones.
In other words, for acoustic instruments, technological changes do not usually require rapid shifts in knowledge or artistic practice.
Studio Tools: The studio as instrument
We can view systems of electroacoustic and computer technology as “instruments” in much the same way we consider a clarinet or a violin to be an instrument. Here too, a collection of components (physical and virtual) is brought together as a unified sound generation or manipulation tool.
But those individual components are far more subject to change than the components of an acoustic instrument — in part because they are usually designed to interface with a wide variety of other musical, and non-musical, components, and in part because of the inherent transience of software and hardware.
We might therefore view the acousmatic composer’s studio as more of a meta-instrument, composed of many sub-instruments that can each independently change, and which we must independently master. And, given the complex matrix of potential interactions created by the sheer number, variety, and variety of uses of its components, this meta-instrument becomes, for all practical purposes, impossible to master on a static or permanent basis.
In contrast, then, with the stability of acoustic instruments, systems of electroacoustic and computer technology are, in effect, an infinitely extendable instrument that is potentially subject to unlimited evolution.
Live Tools: The laptop as instrument
The laptop, along with its close relatives the tablet and smartphone, is a special case of “studio as instrument”. In some contexts, laptops simply function like a studio, but because of their size, self-contained form, and battery power, they can also take on a role much more like an acoustic instrument than a fixed-location studio would. We can broadly break down live tools into three sub-categories.
Composers whose work incorporates interactive processing are arguably more vulnerable to change than acousmatic composers. In their comments in the survey, several cited frustration with the inevitable obsolescence of entire pieces caused by updates to the software that hosts the processing for the work.
Composer Derek Charke, who has written for the Kronos Quartet and major orchestras, has even started moving away from live processing, to try to overcome what he calls the “limited shelf-life” of a live-processed work. He explains further:
I’ve recently… started to create less and less specific live-processed works, and am dealing more and more with creating sound-files that I know can be rebroadcast the same as I intended, and will survive for subsequent performances. (Naylor 2013)
Live Coding and other Instrument Builders
Instrument building is a long-standing tradition amongst musical pioneers. If we view the computer and its operating system as the “shop”, and the top-level software as the “materials” for the instrument, then we could say that live coders effectively rebuild their instrument with every performance.
That rebuilding may appear relatively easy compared to the years of planning and construction required by an acoustic instrument designer / builder, like Harry Partch. But live coders and software developers must still take the time to adapt to regular changes to their operating system and their hardware — both of which are effectively part of the meta-instrument they use.
Composer / performer David Ogborn highlights another important hazard that developers face:
In general, I think there is the danger that artists get so involved in software development, patch creation, etc. that they don’t spend time using the software to actually make something. (Naylor 2013)
Performers working in mixed modes (i.e. combining electroacoustic materials or interactive processing with live instrumental performance) may also have a “mixed” relationship with technology.
On the one hand, the relative stability of acoustic instrumentation means they can explore their instrument from a very solid foundation. At the same time, instrumentalists who perform mixed works are subject to exactly the same day-to-day challenges as all other artists working with changing electroacoustic technology.
Pianist Xenia Pestova observes that “obsolescence can be a major challenge in works involving live electronics,” while performer and composer Terri Hron succinctly sums up the reality most electroacoustic artists face: “I spend a lot of time learning how software and hardware work” (Naylor 2013).
It obviously requires significant effort to “keep up” with a moving target like music technology. But that begs the question: do we need to keep up as compulsively as we might now do? As communications theorist Paul Théberge noted in 1997, electroacoustic tools can already make “any sound you can imagine.” And there will inevitably still be further technical advancements that simply come with the routine upgrades necessary for hardware and software compatibility.
In other words, we will certainly still experience progress from technical change even if we reduce the energy we expend and the focus we apply to staying up-to-date, slow down in our acquisition of new tools and technical skills, and apply some of that energy to other areas.
In fact, with that approach, I am convinced that the current climate of frequent change offers us three significant opportunities for growth — over and above the inevitable technical developments we all enjoy.
Focus on Fundamentals
Most electroacoustic artists embrace change, but I believe that many would prefer to do so from a reasonably stable foundation. To use a personal analogy: I feel more fully alive when I travel, but I embrace the uncertainty that travel brings more readily when my home base feels secure. Confronted with perpetual impermanence in our toolkits, that sense of stability might come from re-focusing on non-technological fundamentals of our creative work.
Rather than being pre-occupied with technology for its own sake, with the risk of losing sight of artistic goals, we could consciously focus on artistic or creative areas where our expertise is more likely to flourish than decline.
For Ogborn, this is already a reality:
Frequent change of technologies…has the positive impact of ensuring that it is artistic traditions and human emotional and political intents which ‘play the technologies’ rather than the technologies playing us. (Naylor 2013)
The details will be different for everyone, of course. Some may be drawn to a more philosophical or political approach to their work, others may focus on their source materials, and others may simply learn to listen better. But regardless of individual details, the net result can be the same: heightened awareness of both the content and the impact of our work. And that awareness can help us improve what ultimately matters most: communicating artistic ideas in sound.
A solid relationship with fundamental ideas is not quite enough, of course: we still need to create our work. We could choose to make exactly the same kind of work we have always made, despite (or perhaps to spite) the inconsiderate changes foisted upon us by the toolmakers. To return to our travel analogy, we could simply choose to stay home.
But by returning to fundamental ideas and core strengths, we may also be encouraged to re-embark on a journey that most artists used to consider a given — creative exploration.
In other words, once we are liberated from an irresistible urge to learn every nuance of every new plugin that we happen to install, perhaps the creative curiosity that initially compelled us to become sonic artists will also be liberated — and we will transform from reluctant travellers to eager explorers once again.
Jeff Reilly, a composer and bass clarinettist who is also very involved with production for fixed media, offered this instrumentalist’s perspective on exploration, which we might well take up as a challenge:
I perform a lot with people who have an arsenal of electronic possibilities at their disposal. This has challenged me (in a very good way) to find new sounds on my instruments that match the acoustic and sonic range of electronic instruments. The challenge makes me a better player, with more control over my instrument and a wider range of acoustic possibilities at my disposal. (Naylor 2013)
A New Mastery?
The previous two opportunities require active choices by practitioners. In contrast, the final one is more like a reward we receive for continuing to accept and adapt to technical change.
Beyond simply adding to our vocabulary of technical expertise, I believe we are also evolving important new global competencies, such as the ability to respond positively to change, the capacity to think beyond conventional wisdom, and the resources to readily re-synthesize and adapt our skills to meet new challenges.
Returning once again to our travel analogy, we could choose to travel as observers, noting what we see but trying not to let it affect us, or we can allow our travel experiences to gradually transform us.
Eldad Tsabary summarizes that effect this way:
It keeps us on our toes. It forces our creativity in all aspects of art-making with technology. We have to be creative in our organizational thinking, in our audio production, in our programming, and of course, in finding new artistic possibilities from new technological restrictions. (Naylor 2013)
It seems clear, then, that mastering the art — and the application — of flexible, creative thinking should join the pantheon of skills for mastering the art of electroacoustic music.
We started with the rather self-evident observation that music technology changes often, with both positive and negative consequences for artists who hope to master it. With an equivocal premise like that, a celebratory conclusion seems unlikely. But, even while acknowledging the frustrations caused by frequent change, we have also identified several ways in which rapid technological change can be a very positive force.
Beyond useful technical enhancements, we see that technological change permits us to refocus on the fundamentals of our art form, and encourages us to explore new creative territories. And we have noted that, over time, accommodating frequent change pushes us to evolve broad adaptation strategies — expertise that can serve us well in the long term.
One key question remains: will we actually seize these opportunities and incorporate them into our artistic practice? And that is a question we will only answer by the choices we each make, as individual artists.
The author gratefully acknowledges the artists who responded to his June 2013 online survey for their insightful comments and for their permission to quote them in this text.
Colvin, Geoffrey. Talent Is Overrated: What really separates world-class performers from everybody else. New York: Portfolio, 2010.
Ericsson, K. Anders, Ralf T. Krampe and Clemens Tesch-Römer. The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. Psychological Review 100/3 (July 1993), pp. 363–406.
Franklin, Ursula M. The Real World of Technology. CBC Massey Lectures. Revised edition. Toronto ON: House of Anansi, 1999.
Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The story of success. New York: Back Bay Books, 2011.
Naylor, Steven. Private online survey (14 respondents). 7–20 June 2013.
Théberge, Paul. Any Sound You Can Imagine: Making Music / Consuming Technology. Hanover NH: Wesleyan University Press / University Press of New England, 1997.