Technology and Humanity: what is "natural?"

This is the first of a few essays on the relationship between evolving technology and music.  I've been thinking and writing about some of these ideas for well over a decade now, and thought it might be nice to get some ideas flowing on here.  This one focuses on pro-technology perspectives, and the next will explore a few potentially negative implications...

As my interest in music includes many genres and approaches, I sometimes found myself at odds with folks whose practices/interests aren't so inclusive.  This frequently takes the form of a disagreement over some variety of line beyond which, the other person suggests, music making becomes "impure," "artificial," "unnatural," or some such variation.  Usually these lines are drawn at some particular point of new technology being used to create music.  While I'm still a relatively young fellow, technology has advanced at a rapid gait in the course of my life, and I've heard quite a number of proposals for drawing lines representing good/bad relationships between technology and humanity in music: using effects pedals is bad, using extended-range instruments, using new kinds of techniques, amplifying various acoustic instruments, using turntables or DJ approaches, using samples/samplers, drum machines, loops, using computers for recording or live performance, and so on.  I feel increasingly distant over time from concerns over any of these kinds of boundaries.  Instead I see my time in music laying inside a great continuum of technological innovation and its inevitable acceptance into what we collectively celebrate as the human element in art.

My experiences with music and music technology both came into focus as a young lad learning to play the guitar.  Let's take a journey into the sometimes arcane world of guitar nerdery and see how it can inform the broader set of relationships between technology and humanity:

I got into guitar at the very end of the 80s, a period in which it seemed that all kinds of new technologies were welcomed into the art of guitar playing with open arms.  It was the era of whammy bars, effects processors, custom mods of guitars to make them shred-tastically easy to play, the marketing of 7-string guitars and 5-string basses, unique pickup combinations and switches, etc.  And the music being made with these devices seemed to take full advantage of the guitar's potential as a melodic instrument.  Guitar solos were featured in most pop songs.

When the grunge scene took over the airwaves in the 90s, it brought both an aesthetic change among most young guitar players as well as a regression in guitar's relationship with technology.  As guitar solos disappeared form popular music, guitarists discussed their quest for the perfect tone with the intensity reserved before for the quest for fast sleek guitars or wild & crazy solos.

I was learning about guitar esoterica mostly from guitar magazines in the '89-'94 range, and I picked up my initial value system toward the instrument with an 80s vibe--the guitar mags were slow to drop their coverage of the latest and greatest in hyperguitar, and often featured headlines like "Shred Is Dead--Not!"  Cheesy to be sure, but it left an impression, and it pushed me toward other attendant characteristics of that scene like practicing a lot and knowing how to read music.  Those habits helped me get into music school where my musical mind expanded a thousandfold.

Shred isn't dead at my house.  7 strings, thin neck,
high output pickups, locking vibrato, thin strings,
and low action keep my creative options open.

The guitar mags too eventually caught up with the grunge approach, where emphasis was ostensibly on songwriting, but in effect guitar took a less melodic and mostly supportive role in that music.  And as a supportive device, the mysteries of Tone were investigated with fervor.  Tone in this context was essentially about the sound of a guitar interacting with an amplifier.  The guitars used in the service of Tone tended to be older designs, with heavy woods, thick necks, substantial-but-awkward neck joints, heavy strings, and low-output pickups. And the amps tended toward older designs using vacuum tubes instead of transistors for both preamp and power stages.  Effects were minimal if used at all: pedals can absorb sound too, you see, even when they're turned off, and they add more cable length between the guitar and amp as well, robbing more precious Tone.

I wanted to get "cool" sounds out of my guitar, but I was immediately skeptical of the new quest for Tone.  And I still am, for two almost opposite reasons.  The first was that it all felt creatively limiting: here I was, standing with my newly-acquired multieffects processors, practicing my brains out, ready and willing to make virtually any crazy sound come out of a guitar, and people only want to hear a plain guitar into an amp?  I felt all dressed up with no place to go.

From the nearly-opposite perspective, who actually gets to hear Perfect Tone?  Let's go back to 1995 and consider the likely journey that the sound of your guitar-into-an-amp is going to take: you will record it onto tape, which might add some warm-sounding compression along with some noise.  Other instruments will be recorded and mixed together, altering one another's sounds in the final mix of your songs.  Fans will buy the recording, almost certainly on CD at that time, and listen to it.  And where will they listen?  Probably either on a stock car stereo with tiny speakers, or maybe one modified with huge subwoofers and amps to make bass frequencies comically louder than everything else in the music.  Or if they're taking it home to listen, everyone seemed to have those Aiwa 3-CD changer bookshelf stereo systems courtesy of Wal-Mart, on which the idea of EQ was a "bass boost" button that offered 3 levels of unmusical low-frequency fuzzy wool.  Or you played a live show, where a low-end Shure microphone was propped in front of one speaker on your cabinet and run through a PA system so that everything could be reproduced at 120dB+ for your audience, screamingly loud and often run through more compressors to bring overall volumes up while killing most dynamic nuances.

So much for Tone.  And the principle still applies.  The live amplification scenario remains essentially the same, and the recorded situation has become even worse, where you can assume your recording will be converted to low bitrate mp3s and heard on tiny computer speakers or earbuds.  For practical purposes, the only person that ever hears a guitarist's Tone as (s)he's crafted it to sound standing in front of the amplifier is the guitarist him/herself.  From my perspective, those sounds go through so many more layers of mediation before listeners experience them that I can't justify devoting much energy to their supposed perfection.

Let's relate this whole situation back to relationships of technology and humanity: what is "natural," or even one's degree of concern about the matter, comes down to priorities.  In my case, I may gravitate toward certain genres, sounds, or approaches, but I also like to keep my options open.  Wide open.  I find some aspects of the quest-for-tone interesting and useful in specific musical moments, but generally it's too limiting for me, especially contrasted with interests in melodic and sound sculpturing possibilities possible through a broader embrace of technological enhancements for the guitar.

This raises the larger issue of what we choose to call "technology," and how that definition changes over time.  Generally people seem to view pieces of equipment produced at or before the time they get involved in a particular activity as "normal," while items created or refined after that point get viewed as "technology."  Relating this to the evolution of guitar technology, things like modeling effects and making instruments from materials like aluminum and carbon fiber are among the newest technological innovations for use with electric guitars.  Just before that, other kinds of multieffects processors were new technology, along with refinements to designs of electric guitars like locking whammy bars and high output pickups.  Before that, solidbody guitar designs, made initially to reject feedback at high volumes, and stompbox effects to make a new world of interesting sounds, were the high tech of their day.  Electric guitars themselves, and designing the first pickups and electronic controls were the height of technological innovation before that, preceded by steel-string acoustic guitar designs that could project higher volumes than previous nylon string designs, and before those were instruments like the lute which added the technology of frets to early instruments like the oud.  And the oud itself is a sophisticated, carefully designed device.

So technology as a concept is a moving target, essentially different for everyone.  What I'd like to see is for people to adopt a more open attitude that is able to look forward and backward in time, recognizing technology as more of a process than any discrete object made along the way.  Today, technology-as-a-process includes both new physical instruments and a wide world of "virtual" instruments made possible through computers.  And the "_____ is so unnatural" discussions nowadays tend to circle around virtual instruments.  Even if you don't personally want or need to embrace new technology to make your own music, the same kinds of conditions continue to apply along the same continuum of evolving technology, and devoting time to criticizing art forms for the technology they might employ remains just as unproductive. It's my hope that we can mostly focus on issues of conceptual and emotional expression in music and other forms of art without becoming fixated on our own biases toward technology.  And toward that goal, I hope that we can choose appropriate tools, new or old, that help us best realize our ideas.

Or in the words of Frank Zappa,
shut up and play your guitar.

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