MIDI and Art Music - an Aesthetic
Ivica Ico Bukvic
In today's world, terms electronic art and electroacoustic art are commonly used in association with a broad array of artistic genres that employ computer-driven software, commercially-available sound processing, controlling, and generating hardware (i.e. modules, synthesizers, F/X processors, sequencers etc.), or [most commonly] the combination of the two. As a result of a rather diluted and lax application of the above-mentioned terminology, particularly the anarchistic utilization of the word "art," sometimes it is very difficult to discern the real artistic value of a product of this genre. Yet, despite the obvious hurdles, the issue of recognizing the artistic merit is not as complex as we tend to perceive it. There are many, sometimes rather apparent pointers that can help us discern the true quality of one's artistic creation through use of tangible and relatively objective parameters for comparison and evaluation purposes. Such obvious, yet somewhat controversial issue is originality, or what is maybe more appropriately termed as being a conscious artist's effort in providing a unique approach to music and music-making process. Two genres whose correlation contains vivid examples of the aforementioned pitfalls are the so-called "MIDI art" and the "academic electroacoustic art" (expressions that are addressed and defined below).
One of the crucial developments in the evolution of electroacoustic art, whose history arguably reaches all the way into the 19 th century (as early as 1874 with Elisha Gray's Musical Telegraph), but really does not become a contending medium until the mid-20 th century with a breakthrough Karlheinz Stochkausen's work Gesang der Juenglinge, is a relatively recent discovery and standardization of MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) protocol that spurred the production of affordable synthesizers with sequencing capabilities. MIDI, founded in 1985, became an industry-wide standard that enabled synthesizers of various brand-names to interface with each other in a common, rather efficient language. MIDI utilizes minimal amounts of bandwidth [the amount of data required to be streamed simultaneously between two devices in order to have a stable and un-interrupted connection] in order to convey simple note-on, note-off, and other, primarily non-continuous forms of data (although, by convention, there are some continuous-data-enabled controllers, such as pitch-bend, modulation wheel etc.). Therefore, MIDI protocol is not concerned with sound, but rather with controlling other sound-making devices from usually one common source. Applications, which became known as sequencers, were created to be used as the "brains" of MIDI installations. They were capable of controlling numerous devices, initially through utilization of MIDI THROUGH technology, and later by use of multi-channel MIDI hubs. At first, sequencers were rarely provided with synthesizers, and computer manufacturers seized the opportunity to expand the capabilities of their transistor-filled boxes by implementing MIDI and subsequently offering sequencing software (Apple and Atari being the forerunners, shortly followed by the IBM PC compatibles and an array of other hardware manufacturers). Since, MIDI has become an irreplaceable element of synthesizer-based music and much more. Nowadays, MIDI is being used in various settings, such as controlling stage lighting, as an abstract controller in scripting and objective languages (such as PD, Max/Msp, and jMax), in sequencers, as a [rather inefficient] soundfile transfer protocol, in digital multi-track recording systems (hybrids which envelop both the sequencer and sound-editing technology, such as Sonar, Cubase, and Logic Audio) etc.
Thus, MIDI became an irreplaceable aspect of the electroacoustic expression. Yet, its advantages even nowadays are sometimes overshadowed by its limitations - something that is not so apparent to an every-day listener and/or artist. In order to clarify this point, I will briefly reflect upon the development of the "academic electroacoustic art" whose tradition reaches all the way back to the conceptions of the Musique Concrete and beginnings of the electronic studios in Cologne (its origins reach even farther into the history, but arguably its original non-acoustic and non-traditional aesthetic has been forged only after these two prominent studios became active, following the end of the Second World War). This new aesthetic became known as electronic music, being taught mostly inside the academic circles [primarily due to fact that the equipment was often so costly that only larger institutions and companies could afford having one] and presented in concert venues that were often viewed as "alternative" and/or "progressive." Following the age of Avant-garde, most of the academically sponsored genres have suffered from diminished popularity in the every-day culture, often lacking audience, as well as media coverage needed to boost public interest and stimulate mass appeal (this trend was more apparent in the United States, than Europe). With the onset of the last two decades of the second millennium, the electronic music has slowly re-emerged being pulled by the quick absorption of synthesizers and other sound-related technology into the Pop culture, especially with the advent of Techno genre.
Aesthetically, this type of electronic music was [and still is] concerned with timbre (a.k.a. sound color) as an equal or often the most important aspect of music, superseding the two traditionally emphasized musical building blocks: pitch and rhythm. One can simply imagine an abstract landscape (something I like to refer to as being Sonic Landscape), where musical gesture and the sound itself is the primary mechanism for providing the forward drive within the work. There are no conventional cadences, or tonal centers, yet no one prevents an artist from providing one. Without the shackles of traditionalism, this medium truly is an epitome of uncontested freedom, something so inclusive that many composers fear venturing into its void of infinite possibilities. After all, in such a world of all-inclusiveness there is nothing to hold onto and no standards to look up to. While author's intent is not to create any kind of "rift" between the two described approaches to making electroacoustic art by separating them into two "camps" (which is here done purely for comparison and point-making purposes), when compared, the two genres, "electroacoustic academic" (from now on being referenced simply as "electronic music") and MIDI, have very little in common. While electronic musicians like to utilize MIDI in their installations (mostly in the situations where there is a "live" or interactive element or a need for a real-time control of their process), most of them choose to utilize MIDI in limited amounts and for specific tasks due to several very important reasons: MIDI has been conceived as a low resolution protocol, meaning it can produce very unsatisfying results if used for densely populated events employing inadequate equipment (such as "stuck notes" where note-off information gets lost producing an endlessly sounding note, or simply having notes completely lost due to bandwidth over-use or the limitation of the sound-making equipment); MIDI has been conceived as a triggering mechanism for a wide array of commercially-obtainable hardware which subsequently results in a limited array of sounds, thus imposing certain limits and suggestive aesthetic on artist's creative output (arguably most of the synthesizers and sampling equipment nowadays have the ability to import and edit sounds, but in most cases people who use such equipment resort to utilizing conveniently provided sound banks, primarily due to the fact that most of the sampling/editing interfaces are still being provided on an onboard LCD display of limited size and functionality, making the whole experience rather user-unfriendly and therefore discouraging); MIDI's resolution is relatively low in comparison with the CD-quality sound that is mostly used by the "electronic music" artists (while it is somewhat pointless to compare sound data and MIDI data, just for the point-making purposes the CD-quality sound has a resolution of 44100 points/second, while MIDI by convention has 480 subdivisions per "tick" or beat, whose length depends on tempo - so it would be arguably possible to increase tempo to the point where we would have approximately 92 beats per second (or the tempo of 5512.5 bpm! [beats per minute]) in order to attain the resolution comparable to the CD quality, but such sequence would be simply a nightmare to edit, needless to mention bandwidth saturation issues. On the other hand, MIDI musicians could easily find the ways to rebuke these arguments, such as the fact that digital multi-track recording systems can have sound data superimposed over the MIDI layers in a very intuitive fashion and as such do not require ludicrous resolution in order to provide similar results as the other, strictly sound-oriented approach. It could be also argued that certain samplers nowadays provide monitor hook-ups and even mouse and keyboard interfaces which even-out the plane between the MIDI, and "electronic music" approach when it comes to user-friendliness and productivity. Finally, as far as the usage of the preset sounds is concerned, one could easily argue that, for instance Western civilization, has been employing the same century-old orchestral colors in the acoustic settings, without making a big deal out of its relatively stagnant timbral [sound color] evolution, or lack thereof (although such statement would be rather misplaced due to lack of consideration of medium's complexity and context - despite the continuous experimentation with orchestral colors, the orchestral music was conceived and remains a traditional medium that pre-dates mid-20 th century's "Emancipation of Timbre" established by the electroacoustic aesthetics). In return, electronic musicians could further argue that sampling sounds, whether that be a separate trait or an embedded feature within a MIDI-based software application, really falls more into "electronic music" domain than the realm of MIDI. And the argument could easily go on further...
Yet surprisingly these arguments, while mostly founded on facts, are not the main reason why the difference between the two sub-genres of the electroacoustic art is so apparent. What is often omitted from discussions such as this one is the observance and analysis of the culture that has developed around certain technology and practice, because in essence, it is the culture that dictates how the technology will be used as well as how it will be regarded and perceived. Granted, there will always be artists who will employ available resources in a rather unconventional way making themselves exceptions within a generalization. But even such cases most commonly end-up falling into the "electronic music" category rather than being regarded as "extended" users of the MIDI technology. So if we simplify this issue to the point where everything falls into one of these two genres, we could easily start to observe a trend develop. MIDI musicians usually utilize proprietary technology with pre-set features, making very little or no alterations to its settings. Although they do resort to applications that do not fall cleanly into the MIDI category (such as Acid Loops, for instance), the culture and approach to the artistic expression is what binds such software and hardware well within the limits of this genre. The downfall of this kind of method of composing music is that music has a tendency to sound the "same." What I mean by this is that sounds become familiar and recycled (i.e. Techno beats are simply being recycled in most of the songs in a similar or even shamelessly same fashion - wouldn't it be refreshing to hear a Techno piece with a beat pattern developing from sounds of pots and pans, or a traffic jam sounds instead?), and if one starts to attentively listen to different popular tunes heard on the radio, suddenly all music starts to sound very similar, creating the same kind of a flux like the early 19 th century Italian opera with its template arias and recitatives - it becomes simply boring and unoriginal, its main purpose being entertainment, rather than art. This is very apparent in the commercial industry where the emphasis is on quantity and profits with a lot of pressure on the artist to "churn-out" music in a relatively short amount of time (especially in heavily money-oriented the movie industry). Should money play a part in arts and should we argue the point of making art for art's sake? Well, yes and no. My belief that there is no ultimate answer to this question, and quite frankly, if there was one, it would certainly fall outside this article's scope. Yet it needs to be emphasized that money, as a non-musical stimulus, can certainly restrict one's freedom to express themselves, and that should certainly be something worth considering as a potentially negative influence.
"Electronic music," by the same token, often utilizes MIDI controllers [as already mentioned] in order to control live and interactive parameters. So this genre is also reaching beyond its limits beset by the term that describes it. Yet, again we see a trend develop where everything within its scope has a tendency to have a unique approach utilizing the least possible amounts of pre-conceived proprietary musical material that could potentially make the music sound "familiar" and subsequently unoriginal. Arguably, in today's world it is hard to talk about originality, since most of the styles and musical forms have been addressed and most of the exotic elements have lost their exoticism due to their over-use. But at least one can safely argue that the advocates of this kind of creative approach make a conscious attempt to search for new ways of expressing themselves, avoiding use of pre-produced material, therefore minimizing the possibility of creating both mild and strong associations to other works. Thus, with the observance of the cultures that envelop both technological approaches to electroacoustic art, we begin to realize a need for redefining the way we divide these two camps, grouping them according to different sets of parameters: this is not any more a clear-cut issue of "academic electroacoustic art" vs. "MIDI art" we are dealing with, but rather it is a division between artistic vs. commercial. I am aware that this statement could be rather provocative to someone who considers themselves a "MIDI-based" composer, but more often than not, if a serious composer reconsiders what is it they are interested in creating and what their music stands for, they will realize that they have more in common with the "electronic music" side, than the "MIDI" approach (terms which have now obviously become somewhat misleading). Many others might find themselves being offended by my statements. Yet even if you happen to disagree with me, it will be certainly hard to argue the fact that producing "music" utilizing pre-made loops in an application that takes care of even more complex issues, such as bringing everything into the same key, is something anyone could do - something hardly worth being called an art. By the same token, employing pre-set popular synthesizer sounds and effects poses a threat of one's work unmistakably sounding just as any other piece created with the same equipment, thus pointing to an obvious lack of composer's interest in timbral variety or producing a memorable and easily identifiable work. Is making art supposed to be hard? Well, not necessarily. But if you happen to use templates, sonorities, and sounds made by someone else, it would be to the same effect as if I were to use snippets of several measures of different J.S. Bach's chorales, and then create a collage out of them, calling it my piece. Arguably, one could state that even such collage could conceivably have the artistic potential, but further pursuit of this issue would steer me far away from originally conceived topic. I will, however, state that I do agree with the fact that such approach has a potential of being a work of art, but it would definitely have to rely heavily on the context it is being presented in (just as a comedy heavily relies on contextual humor, because without it or without understanding the context, it would be pointless or even tasteless to call it a comedy).
In the end, it is worth pointing out that the value of a work of art is not measured by the tools it has been conceived with, but rather by just how good the final creation is. Therefore, it is not only hard to argue that one approach is better than the other, but it is simply a pointless and esoteric task, and this article should not be viewed as a source that favors one over the other [although there is certainly an unavoidable presence of author's bias that has been personified in the text]. Yet, the fact remains that not only due to the technological differences, but primarily as a result of the cultures that envelop the two approaches, there are certain tendencies and interests that have been imposed upon the artists utilizing them. Thus, through the analysis of these cultural traits, it is rather apparent that the "MIDI art" raises some serious questions and considerations as to where and how far does such art reach before turning into a commercial template-driven puzzle game.
ico @ fuse.net
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