Is Music on the Right Track?

How would I know? But here are some crystal-ball thoughts for the future of music/technology, ahead of the “Is Music on the Right Track?” panel discussion (which I’m contributing to) hosted by IPENZ and the New Zealand Music Commission, and focussing on the “future challenges to music, for both industry and consumers, driven by technology”.

  1. The musician-engineer is becoming a standard presence in the musical landscape. This is the musician who designs and builds the tools needed to make the music they want to hear. A recent example: the development of Live, which reputedly started life as a prototype built in the widely used Max environment. The outcome? Loops for all. Ableton has transformed the landscape of electronica, but it still adheres to the musical norms that govern the development of most new musical tools. The multi-track tape paradigm for example, which is the basis for every DAW and is still present in Ableton, requires that we think in terms of channel strips and a metric timeline. Building  accessible tools that don’t adhere to such norms  – Quince is an example – would be an excellent first step towards renewing musical culture. Here’s where mainstream music-making can borrow from the aesthetic and technical riches amassed by experimental musicians over the last century. Couple this with the Web 2.0 culture of ideas/information sharing and we might just be reminded of what left-field truly is and leave behind prosumer technology in the process.
  2. Technology has outstripped us. We’ve made machines that are capable of doing more, or at very least facilitating more, than most of us are capable of imagining. Now we have to catch up. Catching up requires either that we work towards abandoning staid and normative concepts of music, or that we accept our affective and aesthetic faculties are not up to the task of following our sound-making technologies into their future. Either we stay home and play until all the guitar strings are broken, or we accept that our music-making tools are on their own band-wagon and get on board.
  3. Music is an affective technology. In its experimental forms it has outstripped our abilities to listen. Following Adorno’s thesis that music predicts the shape of society to come,  we can  learn a great deal about the world by listening to the music that has gone off our cultural grid (formally defined by the presence of metric rhythm and equal-tempered pitch). If we could all listen to the outer reaches of music, then perhaps we’ll grow within ourselves the empathetic and intellectual tools required to grasp the realities of hyper-phenomena such as climate change, mega-cities, and a planet of slums. Time for another cognitive big bang.


The gift of a Zoom H4N field recorder is making phonographic projects all the easier (even though the noise floor could be lower…), the first being the Nausea series, which I’m uploading to Richard Key’s seminal – for NZ – New Zealand Soundmap project, which I’m very much hoping he continues to develop, post- his Masters project submission.

End of the Road

Just completed the soundtrack to End of the Road (2012), a short film by London Fieldworks for Mobile Republic: Digital Caravans, a touring exhibit by AND. A quick turnaround on this one. 2 weeks to complete it, around all the other stuff that has to be done. Happily this counts as research! The film is in a sense a commentary on climate change, in which a high carbon culture of leisure is implicated (caravaning). The irony being that the victim concentrated on in the film – Nigel Cutting –has a low carbon lifestyle, living in a caravan at the edge of the eroding cliffs of East Anglia (UK). The cliffs themselves have been vanishing for centuries, so are particularly vulnerable to the kind of extreme weather becoming more frequent due to climate change (about which NASA’s James Hansen has had a bit to say recently).

This is how London Fieldworks’ frame the film:

End of the Road is an elegiac reflection on contrasting symbolism of the touring caravan: from a gleaming symbol of leisure and freedom on a choreographed, automated Japanese-style production line, to an emblem of futile defiance right on the edge of a rapidly eroding East Anglian coastline; prey to a process of land disintegration accelerated by deteriorating coastal defences and rising sea levels.

Employing the touring caravan as a vector, End of the Road portrays a dialectic between an image of consumption and deteriorating physical landscape. The film offers the mode of mobile living as a future survival strategy for coastal dwellers within an inevitable climate of forced migrations and managed retreats.

Popular Archeology: Shellac

Thanks to Marij van Gorkom spent more time than she needed to working through the minutiae of my short piece, Popular Archeology: Shellac, for bass clarinet and monophonic audio, in preparing for the concert she gave last night as part of her Sonic Spaces project.  Needless to say, such attention to detail is greatly appreciated and, what’s more, essential in a piece such as this which reduces the huge expressive range of the bass clarinet down to a scale appropriate to the sound reproduction capabilities of a small loudspeaker placed in the bell of the instrument.

The piece itself is very much concerned with the relics found by an amateur audio media archeologist – an Op.37 by someone no doubt once well known, a song with the title “Cherry Ripe” (precious little left to hear of it) – and will expand as other artefacts are committed to digital media. Marij is keen to help with the ongoing excavations.

Nowdrifts in NZ

Richard Haynes did a superlative job giving Nowdrifts its NZ premiere, not to mention Michael Norris’ musically beguiling but performatively torturous De Corporis Fabrica, in back to back concerts on Sat 19 and Sun 20 May (meaning two concerts per evening).

Richard Haynes

This is the first time, hopefully not the last, I’ve heard a work of mine performed four times in 48 hours. Richard didn’t flag, despite playing with a heavy cold, and both his performance and the music itself was appreciatively received (listen to Phil Brownlee’s review on Upbeat). The Page Blackie gallery made for an intimate venue, and though I liked the contribution the traffic noise made to my piece, it wasn’t always well paired with the other works on the programme. Yet, the seamless morph from a high clarinet note to an impromptu soprano performance somewhere outside on Victoria St (downtown Wellington) was a delicious moment that Cage would no doubt have savoured…

Nowdrifts review

Steve Berryman, writing for, reviewed The Body Electric concert which featured my piece “Nowdrifts for solo bass clarinet and fixed media… this piece opened with breath sounds, blowing through the instrument… Delicate conventional bass clarinet sounds slowly emerged, yet the fixed media was always in the foreground and often disguised [Richard] Haynes’ playing. The ending, a low sustained note with an unexpected twist to a short note, was uncoloured by the pre-prepared media and as such it made this solo note even more poignant.”

While it’s unclear if, according to Berryman, Richard’s being “disguised” by the audio material is a good or bad thing  – certainly my intention was for it to be difficult to distinguish between the two – I’m gratified that the ending created poignancy; in writing the piece I was thinking of Lachenmann’s Pression for solo ‘cello, which only slips into pitch after about 5 minutes of often intense noise, the effect of which (the emergence of pitch that is) is affectively intense.