Vanishing Bandwidth for Music
Being born in 1950, my teenage years coincided with the 1960’s. Music was without question the dominant art form in my life. Rock concerts were the most exciting events.
When my father took me to hear Martin Luther King speak at Wesleyan in 1963, I was blown away by his thundering voice, but even more by the choir of black women behind him as they linked hands and sang “We Shall Overcome”. The crowd, including my father and I, sang along.
As we teens lost our innocence with sex and drugs, rock and roll was the constant soundtrack as it poured from car radios and transistors, or stereos in dark, incensed dens of basements and college dorms. It was not uncommon to spend hours just listening to music. It took up a lot of our bandwidth.
Today, innovations like the ipod make music more accessible than back then. Paradoxically, that convenience is bad for listening because it has encouraged multitasking. With PCs, iPads, Blackberries, and video games competing for our attention, music is just another thing to add to the mix of reading, texting, web-surfing, eating and walking. Music is still there as the soundtrack to our lives, but it’s been turned way down – not in volume, but in our consciousness. As the memory capacity of all of our gadgets continues to grow exponentially, our human capacity for attention remains fixed. It’s a zero sum game.
Since the ‘70s, music has also gradually been getting squeezed out of productions for which it’s background. As George Lucas and Steven Spielberg added special effects to the filmmaker’s pallet they also beefed up sound effects. Both grabbed more of the audience’s attention, leaving less for music.
During the same period, rock bands performing in arenas discovered that playing and singing alone were no longer thrilling enough for audience members, especially those stuck in the back rows. They spiced things up, adding lights and fog machines. Alice Cooper brought an electric chair on stage. Even at concerts, music was getting less attention. The music, though louder than ever, began shrinking in content, becoming simpler as guitarists who’d spent their youths mastering lightning fast licks discovered that simple power chords were more effective in echoing stadiums. Then came MTV. Now fans expected bands to look great on camera, to dance and even act. All of which made the notion of just sitting and listening seem boring.
Music shrank, not only in the genre of arena rock. Though Hip Hop had a serious verbal message, it had little melodic content. At the same time, Indie Rock tended to shy from obvious melodic hooks. Though very different, both musical forms were weak on melody, but strong on attitude. Which made it ideal as soundtrack music for multitasking personal mood music. These minimal forms of music became a personality accessory. Wearing earbuds made you feel that privately you were this certain kind of person who wears these pants and listens to this music. Blasted from subwoofers in a car, you could let the world know as well. The melodies and hooks music had once provided – the story of the music – were no longer necessary, because the story was your life itself.
It took background music producers a while to recognize music’s diminished role in the world of digital media. Until fairly recently, music for movies, commercials and corporate presentations wasn’t essentially different from regular, “listening” music. While each of these media tended towards it’s own musical style – big orchestral for films, upbrat for ads, and cheesy library music for corporate things – it was still music, with melodies, arrangements and development. The best of it, like Bernard Hermann’s scores, could stand on its own.
Filmmakers were first to realize that music needed to shrink. This was because they could afford CGI and the best sound effects. In the blockbusters they made
there wasn’t even much room for dialogue between all the car chases and explosions, let alone ubtlety in musical arrangements. Movie music began to take on the broad gestures of arena rock. Film composers realized that memorable melodies and gorgeous arrangements were not only unnecessary, but actually detracted from the all important visuals.
As the minimalist music trend moved down into advertising and corporate work, Hip Hop became popular as background music. Mix out the rap and you had a track that didn’t compete with dialog or visual/sound effects.
Production Music Libraries picked up on this trend. In recent years, rhythmic music beds without a hint of melody, or even just consisting of bass and drums, have increasingly predominated. Loop CDs – inexpensive collections of percussive loops, from live drummers to programming with processing and ethnic instruments, have made the process easier for composers.
But this poses a problem. This new kind of background music stays out of the way, but it also tends to be mind-numbingly repetitive. Music has gone from too much content to too little. It’s been tough for us music lovers, giving up the pleasures of counterpoint, development, voiceleading, and even harmony and melody, like being gradually forced onto a diet of bread and water after a lifetime of gourmet meals.
Which brings me to the new releases from Manchester Music, two new CDs of ambient music: “Chill Zone” and “Ambient Energy.” The quality and diversity of sounds on these albums reflect the 12 young composers who created them. They’ve scored national commercials and independent films, received numerous awards, include three women (unfortunately rare among music library composers), and a wide representation of cultural backgrounds. Here they’ve pulled off the considerable feat of creating music, which despite minimal melodies, retains interest through unusual, sparkling sounds and cleverly evolving arrangements.