Overrated? Technology

During an interview on the occasion of his 80th birthday, writer Norman Mailer suggested modern technology has made a bargain with us: “I’ll give you more power . . . and less freedom.” Dropping this observation (or in my case, “anecdote”) on one’s acquaintances is a revealing exercise and the irony is not easily avoided — for in few other areas of our contemporary culture has this become more pertinent and compelling than in the creation and production of music.

With more generations having grown up with a proficiency in the techniques of rock, it’s become quite easy to forge a belief in great music being largely about all the cutting-edge gear and the slick chops. A hot tune, therefore, becomes defined by its display of technical prowess on both sides of the studio glass. The truth is, however, that great music has little to do, inherently, with style points and everything to do with essential human feeling. Does it truly touch the listener? Does it fill them with a greater sense of the gift of love or the malady of loss? Does it reflect the truth? Will this even be worth hearing again 20 years down the road?

Such are precisely the criteria by which we can now recognize the classics of the genre — works that have proven themselves against the litmus test of time. Listen, if you will, to the first minute of “I Am the Walrus” and then try dismissing the Beatles/ George Martin collaboration as just music from the ’60s. All of this was done sans the spoils and crutches of modern musical technology, and perhaps that need not be forgotten.

What is sought is a process, or as Howard Bilerman stated, “organic growth”: the right phrasing, the integrity of unadulterated vocalization, the obligato which, even deceptively simple, enhances the emotional experience, a lyrical passage that speaks of enduring issues. It’s about prudent, even inspired, creative judgment(s) and avoiding what Chet Baker described as “the danger of having a lot of technique and no soul,” right?

Assuming agreement, the above is clearly not an argument for sloppiness — a suggestion that primitiveness is somehow preferable to refinement. The unschooled musician, engineer, or producer runs great risks if ignorant of all the options or in accepting the resultant ossification in both thought and presentation; yet an over-reliance on plug-ins and digital manipulation can be equally catastrophic when the correct answer to a creative question may be to take the simple approach.

The need, ultimately, is for balance between the ineffably human and the imaginatively mechanical. This kind of integrated quality is evident in the subtle audio artistry of equilibrists like Bob Ludwig, Bruce Swedien, or a host of others whose insistence on musicality is uncompromised; and for whom technology is always a means and never an end.

Writer Rick Bass said, “Two things — any two things — with any difference between them, whether small or great, will always be carving at one another until some change that is satisfactory and pleasing to the universe occurs.” Hopefully this creative interplay can become more of a prominent characterization in the making of modern music; very “human” beings poised with sophisticated and efficient tools all for the sake of creating and capturing great art. For, as Charles Rosen pointed out, music is a “basic human need,” and thus there is an aesthetic, if not moral, obligation to address the delicate issue of artistic balance; as the necessary result of the creative endeavor is to effect on a profound level.