SYNTHS & SENSIBILITY
When art collides with technology
by Eric Lee — Steelehouse Lead Animator
“Switched-On Bach” was a landmark album released in the late 1960s which played a pivotal role in bringing the synthesizer into popular music. I know this because I am a huge synth nerd. I play them, I own many, and I dream about owning and playing many more. Synths are the musical embodiment of art colliding with technology. Art colliding with tech is also a great description of my job.
In the early days of electronic music, there were groups of tinkering engineers who were using circuitry to make all sorts of beeps and boops in an effort to make music. One particular tinkerer, Bob Moog, was the first to combine a traditional musical interface (piano keys) with one of these electronic circuits and the synthesizer was born! Shortly thereafter, the focus became to use synthesizer in a way that would mimic the sounds and melodies of common, traditional instruments. Books and papers were written on sussing out the right way to bend and shape raw waveforms into something that would resemble the resonant timbre of a piano, the shrill fanfare of a trumpet, or the soft whistle of a flute. Music engineers were even manipulating white noise to emulate snares and hi-hats. “Switched-On Bach” was a proof-of-concept album which first used an army of synths to emulate a full-on orchestra. The result was mind-blowing at the time, but now would likely be mistaken for the soundtrack to an educational Atari game, or something you would have heard accompanying a riveting slide film about photosynthesis in science class.
Still, this was simply the beginning. Synthesizers continued to improve in their impersonations of traditional instrumentation. The tech not only allowed emulation but, by its very nature, encouraged the augmentation of such sounds. Artists began to use the synthesizer to push these traditional instrument sounds further and further into something new and innovative. One could use a synthesizer to begin playing what sounded like an oboe, but then morph and change it until it is something different entirely. This is where the true potential of electronic music began to be realized. You can hear the evolution of the synth’s usage for yourself. Begin with a track from “Switched-On Bach” (this whole album is available for free on the internet archives)! Then, take a listen to something like the Bladerunner soundtrack, where almost a decade later artists like Vangelis were using orchestras of synthesizers in a similar fashion, but with more gusto and understanding of the medium. Lastly, listen to Daft Punk tackling a similar task for the Tron soundtrack, only here they are sampling a live orchestra, mixing in synths and augmenting the orchestra into something that not only matches traditional orchestration, but transcends it altogether into something new and fantastic.
That is the magic that happens when art and technology collide; when artists use technology to connect with an audience in relatable, familiar ways but then begin to push and pull the medium into something entirely different and new. This is the kind of art that really excites me. And this same collision of art and tech is also happening on my own turf - illustration and animation. For years, computer art and animation applications have also strived to imitate traditional media, and by and large they have achieved this. Computer stylii are now ubiquitous and have become adept at playing the artist’s pencil or brush. But just as with “Switched-On Bach”, imitating traditional media is simply the first step in allowing artists to use the tools in familiar, relatable ways.
What comes next is the fun part. The true potential of computer graphics comes from using these tools designed to mimic traditional media in non-traditional ways. The possibilities seem endless. New tools are emerging which leverage traditional practices and techniques of traditional media in ways that can transcend those traditional mediums, birth new forms of artistic expression, and potentially create new mediums altogether! With the advent of VR for instance, art applications such as Google’s Tilt Brush now allow artists to paint in 3D - a feat which originally seemed impossible.
In some ways, electronic music and computer graphic artists have always been able to create something “new”. But just because it is new and innovative doesn’t mean it is necessarily palatable. It isn’t until they connect with the public at large in relatable, familiar ways that they can bring audiences along to experience and ultimately appreciate something new.
This is how I love to work. At once using the techniques and sensibilities I have developed throughout my career alongside new technologies which can augment and push the limits of what is possible with the medium. Creating art which is “new” in more ways than one.