O.k. Analog Undergrounders. Prepare to have your mind blown! If you don’t know Pat Metheny, you should. He’s written the Analog Underground anthem. Hell, he’s written the whole hymnal. As with all things T.A.U. it’s not quite what I would have predicted (no words!), but it is unmistakably music for dancing along the Analog/Digital divide. Take a minute, seven actually, hop over to youtube, and take in an interview with Pat on his latest project, Orchestrion.
I’m no musical savant so when I first caught a blurb on this, I had to go look it up. Yeah, it’s a real word, meaning a machine that produces the affect of an orchestra. Seeing “machine” and “music” in the same sentence is a bit jarring and not something that I’d expect to lead to an Analog epiphany, but reality has its own agenda and we’re only rarely its master.
If you haven’t gone out to the interview, Pat’s latest project is a complete jazz band driven entirely off his guitar. “So what?” you say, “Isn’t that true of any ensemble with a star lead?” Well, yeah, but in this case the ensemble is just him. The rest is all automation. The hot base line, the riding cymbals, the drums, the piano, every riff and run, every improvisation, it’s all ‘bots. Cables, solenoids, and levers wrap around the instruments, poking and jerking and whirring over the bits that generate sound like some mad scientist’s nightmare of a band. It doesn’t seem possible that the result could be anything but alien, mechanical, sterile.
So much for being constrained by the possible, though. The result is another rich example of that mystical expression of the human condition we call music, that howl and whisper, the ecstatic shout and the caressing murmur that life elicits from each of us in one form or another.
How can this be? Music is one of those most human of preserves, like painting, or preparing the family holiday banquet, or poetry, or playing chess (whoops, never mind, we already lost that one to the boxes). No. No. No. NO, I DON”T WANT TO LIKE THIS. But I do. It’s even more than that. Not only do I like this, but I recognize myself in it, both in the sound and approach. I can almost feel the Analog ground shifting under me.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised as I’ve always disowned the Luddite Analog-Only approach to navigating our Digital age. Perhaps familiarity does breed contempt, but it can also be the ground for admiration, or at least grudging respect and such is the emerging partnership between Analog and Digital. Like a smarmy romantic comedy or Hallmark Channel tragedy, we just know the two opposites are going to attract, but not before some either hilarious or tragic conflict and maybe a little of both.
The whole game for the machines and their computer brains is leverage. Extension of our physical and logical clout, baby! The Digital allows a near miraculous scaling of human capabilities. Digital allows us to throw space shuttles into orbit and drive a surgeon’s blade with microscopic precision. It allows us to react in nano-seconds and manage consistent action across decades and even perhaps millennia. We collect millions of bits of type into a massive library on the head of a pin. It is all amazing and wonderful. Why not extend the musician’s finger tips and lips beyond a single instrument?
The risk is, that without some guided intention, all the leverage in the world only falls on us like noise, like an avalanche, like a mysterious act of a malevolent God. It is that guided intention that draws my Analog Underground eye. The scaling up and down of human capabilities, all that leverage needs some guidance to achieve its best effect. Scale, up or down, without sense, without perspective is a woeful thing. Like eternal teenagers, when we figure out how to do something, we’re almost helpless to stop ourselves from actually trying it. Unfortunately, history is littered with examples of how inadequate a moral compass the phrase “Because we can” usually turns out to be. Our current economic crisis is only the most recent example.
All things digital are based on differentiation and step functions. Yeah, given our Digital capabilities we can often tune those step functions well below our physical ability to perceive them in sight and sound. But a funny happens on the journey from our physical senses to making sense, making meaning. For better or worse, it seems that most meaning that means anything emerges from the space outside of the Digitally replicated states, explicitly perceived or not. Something happens in between, beyond those static reference points, no matter how many we stack up and stream together. Low fidelity as mentioned in other posts is one thing. No fidelity is something else all together.
The Digital world gives us ever increasing multipliers on our intentions. Balance would suggest we also become ever more proficient at processing and applying the continuous Analog feedback that daily life provides. Whether we’re paying attention or not, Analog is always putting out a steady stream of on-the-ground leading indicators of result. We may not always be able to summon those up into conscious, articulated thought. They may not be infinitely replicable or rapidly transportable between people, places, and situations, but that doesn’t mean they are not real or useful. A friend of mind has dubbed this “The optician view of morality.” You know, two experiences and then the question, “Better or Worse?” The unique value of Analog is that it lets us play this vital game on an infinitely sliding scale with the middle relentlessly attached to the ends, paying attention not only to the data but, also, to the actual outcome.