Looping Around in Music Tech

Over at Slate, Matt Novak has a piece about a brief panic created in 1932 when it was announced that a humanoid robot named Alpha had lunged toward its inventor and shot him with a pistol. Novak uses the episode as a meditation on the general theme of society’s fears of technological change, and pulls from what Adam Gopnik terms the “Ever-Waser” school of thinking which points out that when people cry out against changes brought about by new technology, what they feel nostalgic for are often technologies and practices that themselves roused ire when they were introduced:

An advertisement in the June 5, 1930, Bradford Era of Bradford, Pa., decried the Hollywood movie machine that an established industry is now trying to protect: “300 musicians in Hollywood supply all the ‘music’ offered in thousands of theatres. Can such a tiny reservoir of talent nurture artistic progress?” The irony, of course, is that today the music industry is battling to protect recorded music. Protectionist policies to save the old business models of newspapers, movies, and recorded music mimic those of history.

I generally sympathize with the Ever-Wasers, who often add a bit of perspective in conversations that otherwise tend towards glorification or demonization. But that perspective doesn’t solve everything; telling an artist, author, or executive that her business going under has ample historical precedent is pretty cold comfort.

So, while I like Novak’s approach, I think it’s good to not let historicizing and generalizing take over all of our discussions about technologies that are often nuanced and distinct in their own right. Right after reading Novak’s article, I was happy to hear an interview with a cellist and vocalist named Ian Cooke who talked about the role technology plays for him as an artist, rather than pontificating about the effect of technology on the economics of the industry in general.

Cooke often performs as a one-man band, using a loop pedal to record one track with his voice, Cello, or other instrument and then add layer upon layer until he has a full-fledged song. He’s by no means the only artist to be using a loop pedal these days, and when asked about how he achieves his on-stage sound he said “I feel so lucky to live in the time that I do, where this technology’s available and I can accompany myself.” Check out the middle of the interview to hear him demonstrating – it’s a nice and simple demonstration of how a piece of technology can open up new possibilities for an individual performer.

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