Saving the Vibrations

Part of the story of the decline of music is narrowing leisure time, and part of the story is exploding media options. Lost in that story is the way that following live music has become a hobby, like football, instead of a primary mass media phenomenon, the way that movies still are.

So we have these communities of live music aficionados: people who go to festivals because of the band(s) they want to see (not the other way around); people who save money every year for those few special concerts; people who can tell (and look forward to) the subtle differences between the performance and the recorded version of their favorite songs.

These are not the majority of concert-goers. Large-grossing pop concerts are highly-produced affairs that feature entire staffs of electronic-media technicians, with programmed lights, special effects, and also, yes, lots of prerecorded music.

What we’re losing in this situation is more than just extemporaneousness, or audience connection. Kids gazing in awestruck rapture at the living charisma and celebrity power of Katy Perry are definitely more connected to her than to any random local band they might happen to stumble in on some other weekend. Great performers are great performers.

And, yes, the vise of irrelevance has been slowly closing on the heads of sidemen and instrumentalists for some time. Much has been written on the subject of what the vocalist-worship of shows like American Idol and The Voice has done to a generation of music consumers.

But, in this musical-technical-dystopia, we’re also losing something else: the vibrations.

You see, a computer telling a digital-analog convertor to produce a sound wave of a certain shape, pushing an electrical signal to an amplifier, causing a magnetic field to fluctuate a speaker cone back and forth — that’s just not the same as an upright bass player plucking a string. Or a vocalist vibrating her entire head and chest cavity.

Perhaps this, alongside the celebrity/hero-worship aspect, helps explain why vocalists seem the last bastion of popular live music performance. Only Adele can make Adele’s voice sound the way it does. Then again, people have recently thrilled to CGI holographic performances “from” deceased artists.

holographic tupac

People can listen to EDM and follow the Resonance Project, without ever really considering (or maybe without even experiencing) the true richness of musical harmonics produced by, say, a live symphony orchestra, or a slightly-out-of-tune piano.

In an age where people are increasingly interested in vibrations and the power thereof, we musicians are in danger of losing our hold over the public imagination in this regard. This is especially true of Western Music. Classical and Jazz are the two most rapidly asphyxiating genres of music in the US, for example, and are two of the most notably acoustic.

If we musicians (and particularly instrumentalists) want to survive the digital-media onslaught, and maybe even transform the troubling directions in which music seems headed, we should be venerating and hawking and pushing and dancing to live acoustic music as much as possible. We should be seeing more chamber pop. More percussion. More string quartets. More bluegrass. Dare I suggest more folk music and jazz? These forms are possibly too inward looking. We should create the next genre out of their vinegary froth, as some groups already are.

We want people to eventually abandon the recorded form, or at least make the studio recording as archaic as jazz is now. “Was it recorded? Yeah, but you really had to experience the vibrations of the space — it was live acoustic, man. You just had to be there.”

Postscript: my trio (shameless plug) sometimes has to pull out digital instruments and equipment, but we rehearse 100% acoustic unamplified, where we make the air vibrate with our instruments and our bodies.