Over the course of thousands of years, music hasn't really changed all that much. It still consists of sound shaped by rhythm, melody and perhaps a groove, same as ever. But the tools and manner with which it's made has very much changed—exponentially so in recent years—and, with each leap in technology, it's getting reshaped, slowly but surely.
This is especially true of electronic music, whose sound is most dependent on the tools that are used. As a result, electronic music, and dance in particular, seems to consist of large short-lived bloomlets that morph every few years. It's probably a little unfair to single electronic music out, though; the entire digital age is marked by relatively sharp transformations in every aspect of music.
This much is clear: The manner in which digital recordings laid low the album and the traditional analog studio has been dramatic in its speed and scope. Its advent has changed the music industry like the French Revolution transformed the monarchy, from the compact disc and MP3 to Pro Tools and bit torrents.
Certainly, among musicians, the embrace of new tools has been pretty immediate: Within a decade of the first commercially available fully electric guitar, an entirely new form of music developed, which Cleveland DJ Alan Freed dubbed "Rock and Roll" in 1951. Soon, ways of manipulating that sound—whammy bars first, followed by distortion and effects pedals—entered the equation culminating in maestros like Jimi Hendrix. Similarly, during the '60s, Robert Moog was creating the first commercial synthesizer, transforming the piano into "keyboards," a device quickly exploited by, of all people, Mickey Dolenz of the Monkees on their hit album Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. The synthesizer, with its ability to recreate all manner of instrumental sounds electronically, brought the baroque excess of prog rock—much as the advent of the Roland TR-808 drum machine gave birth to hip-hop and house music.
The latest chapter in this story is being written right now—although not by new hardware. This time, it's software. It's called Ableton Live.
Developed by a pair of German electronic artists, Robert Henke and Gerhard Behles (who create their own music under the name of Monolake), in cooperation with software developers, it's a loop-based music sequencer—on its surface not much different from a synthesizer or drum machine. But, whereas earlier software sequencers were really only for the creation of music, Ableton Live stands as a performance-friendly software that's in turn become an instrument that's shaping the kind of music that's made.
Among the first to embrace Ableton were DJs who were able to replace the huge crates of records they carted to each gig with hard (or, recently, flash) drives of music they could manipulate in much the same way. The change was not immediate; many DJs remained fearful of computer crashes bringing their performances to an abrupt standstill, until convenience won out.
Others soon followed, attracted by the portability.
"On stage we can use it to replace very heavy old-school instruments we use, like electromechanical keyboards, toenail organs," says saxophone player and Les Claypool collaborator Skerik, founder of such bands as Critters Buggin and Garage A Trois. "We can replace those with samples, and make them even more fucked up because they're in that digital world. And then we don't have to bring a trailer and haul all that heavy stuff."
Musically, Ableton's application mirrors that of most electronic music, producing a particular style. As Henke himself noted in an interview on the blog Create Digital Music last year, "a lot of '90s IDM music was way too much driven by exploring technology. At some point, one has to step back and say: OK, now let's actually have a look at the composition and not only at the technical complexity of the algorithm."
Indeed, the music of one of the biggest electronic flashes-in-the-pan was the result of exploiting their own weaknesses. Justice's Xavier de Rosnay was able to use the software to not, in his words, "hide our lack of skill but more to make our lack of skill sound like something we wanted."
"Dance doesn't have frontmen, doesn't have lyrics, doesn't have narration or storytelling," he says. "There's nothing that can make dance special. Sound is one of the last things you can use to make your dance [music] sound special...[especially] if everyone is always using the same software, or the same way of making music."
The problem, of course, is that these styles of sound are quickly copied: Daft Punk begets French House begets Justice begets a whole slew of copycats. And they all end up losing their idiosyncrasy almost overnight. Take, for example, last year's stylistic poster child, chillwave.
"With dance music in 2007, where you have these acts like Justice or Cut Copy, suddenly the new punk rock becomes buying a MacBook Pro and a copy of Ableton Live," says Neon Indian's Alan Palomo. "All these kids developed their chops trying to be the next Justice, and that bubble completely burst because, like anything else that grows and implodes on the internet, you exhaust all the possible variations so that it's no longer relevant. Then you have all these kids who slowly hark back to older sensibilities before this, which was indie rock, incorporating all those musical sensibilities into this new way of writing music."
It would seem, by the way artists such as Toro Y Moi and Nite Jewell have moved on from their murky, shoegazer sound to more of an indie pop-tronica style, that chillwave may have already passed its freshness date.
But the impact of Ableton Live (and future performance-driven software suites) persists. Its adaptability is a big reason. Ableton can be used with other software such as Max/MSP to manipulate external video and/or lighting.
"Electronic music is one of those few genres where the technology dictates direction just as much as the artist does," Palomo says.
Indeed: Daedelus, for instance, uses a minimalist lighted grid-like controller called a monome to control Ableton, which adds a visual flair to what would otherwise stand as a rather staid laptop performance.
"It's amazing how hungry people are for newness constantly," he says. "There's always hunger for some new sound, some new thing, or new trick, basically. The fact that it lights up is no joke...it's funny when you're trying to have a party and people are just staring at this machine, or staring at your hands on the machine."
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Almost like watching a guitarist play.
See? It all comes full circle.
Ultimately, Ableton may be as revolutionary as the synthesizer, changing computerized sound manipulation from a recording process to a performance one, with an incumbent influence on the style of music that's made.
"The problem in the past was that everyone was kind of tethered to the laptop in some way," says Caribou's Daniel Smith. "I feel like now it's exactly the opposite way around. We're in control of everything to the extent that we can be spontaneous and improvise and all those things, and the technology follows us, which is the way you want it to be. Instruments are always kind of designed with that in mind, and it feels like that's the case in electronic music now."