Rebirth of Reason


The Rise and Fall of Melody in 5.1 Surround Sound
by Joseph C. Maurone

In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand describes a scene in which the music of Richard Halley is heard on the radio in an altered form, where it has been cut and rearranged into a distortion of the original. The melody had been hacked, and the carefully constructed form had been disintegrated. Rand wrote this decades ago, and I am not familiar with the examples that would be typical of that time; however, she anticipated a very real trend in today's musical landscape, the art of the "remix," which is a result of the decline of melody alongside the rise of technology.

Anton LaVey tells us a little joke at the expense of technology in music:

"Q: What is the difference between army food and stereo?
A: One is canned spam, and the other is panned scam."

"The birth of stereo brought about the death of real musical appreciation." LaVey claims that while hi-fi stereos added realism to recorded music, stereo only added aural "tricks," but less realism. He argues that music is heard binaurally, but the sound source is usually monophonic. Stereophonics refers to the source of the sound, which is really just a doubling of the sound source. Sounds can be panned around the spectrum; envelope filters increase the width and pitch of a tone; tones can now slide from one pitch to another without a break; but melodies cannot be built this way.

The argument is thatówith the ever increasing technology of stereo and now surround soundówhat's suffered is the music, and more specifically, melody. Keyboardist Keith Emerson confirms this claim. Emerson is known for his piano chops as well as his experiments with the Moog synthesizer, and his experiments led him to claim that while certain sounds produced by synths can be interesting, they are not up to the task of being useful in melodic structure, so he found himself using the recreation of acoustic instruments to perform melodies.

Bill Martin, in his book Listening to the Future, refers to the current trend in contemporary use of electronic instruments of "layering," or "verticality:"

"In postmodern music, the key is not linearity or the counterpoint of temporal development, but instead a principle known best in terms of ... verticality ... the key is vertical stacking. As with postmodern architecture, the idea in this stacking is just that, in principle, any sound can go with any other sound. Just as, however, even the most eclectic pastiche of a building must all the same have some sort of foundation that anchors it to the ground, vertically stacked music often depends on an insistent beat." Martin sums this up as, "Cage with a beat."

Martin remarks that this detemporalization of music is not innovative, because the verticality approach "accepts the idea the music ... is now simply a matter of trying out the combinations, filling out the grid." These are not composers or musicians, but "people who are clever with technology, who paste together the material generated by the 'content providers' [read: real composers]."

This idea of verticality is an example of Rand's description of art that brings the mind down from the conceptual level to the perceptual level. In this case, melody is broken down to its elements, and the emphasis changes from the integration of tones into melodies to the tones themselves.This would seem to justify accusations of "pomo" wankerism!

(Another example of "grid composing" occurs when a composer juxtaposes one musical style with another, creating a hybrid. This can, I believe, lead to interesting possibilities, but there must be a vision behind it if it is not to be mindless juxtaposition for the sake of exoticism.)

Are LaVey and Martin right to condemn these techno tricks at the expense of melody? Or are they simply Luddites afraid of change? And if one accepts their criticisms, is it possible to reconcile the Objectivist celebration of technology with the appeal to traditional forms of melodic structure in music?

Objectivism is not against employing new technologies. Prime examples are Roark's unconventional buildings, which caused the old school of architecture to make baseless claims that they were unsound, or that they didn't meet the classical standards. Hank's "Rearden Steel" in Atlas Shrugged faced the same reception. But the key fact to remember is that form and function are intertwined. The new material enabled the construction of new forms, and the new forms required new materials (for example, a skyscraper could not be built of wood). In the case of music, synthesized sounds can go beyond the mere imitation of existing acoustic instruments, so it's possible that they will lead to new forms. The non-melodic tones can be considered more akin to percussive non-melodic instruments like cymbals, drums, and such. Yet there are more than that as well, so it may be that those sounds can have a role to play, if only a limited one.

If the form and function of music requires the organization of sound to invoke contemplation and emotions, the new sounds will have to follow the same basic laws of physical perception and cognition. This may mean that the younger generation, like Roark and Rearden, may be able to perceive their benefits more readily than the older generation raised on acoustic instruments. As Rand (and Robert Jourdain, incidentally) point out, it is not the ear, but the mind, which needs to be conditioned; so it may be that the traditionalists are too set in their mindsets to see the possibilities. But let it be said that Howard Roark was not expelled from school for refusing to study the principles; nature still has to be obeyed to be commanded. And the warning to the postmodern advocates of technology, who stand on the shoulders of Cage and Varese, those "liberators of sound from the clutches of the Western white male heirarchy of form," is not to abandon the principles of what defines music. (A very urgent warning at a time where technology has enabled anyone with a computer to engage in the musical equivalent of "paint-by-numbers.")

Let the next generation play with the new toys, but let them also learn the principles of melody, rhythm, and harmony in composition, lest they produce mere clever sounds with a drum machine and some computerized farts and stutters.

Of course, all this begs the question: Does music require melody, harmony and rhythm? Are all three required, or can we muse with only one?
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