ACCELER8OR

Jun 09 2011

The Death of Music

By James L. Kent


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Composer John Cage

We are at a sad time in human history. We have lost one of our most vital forms of expression, music, and we are only now coming to grips with the realization. It is hard to tell exactly when music breathed its last gasp, but most experts pinpoint the time of death within the past few decades, leading up to the melding of all musical genres into one endless Dubstep mash-up. It is hard to believe music is dead, I know, no one wants to admit it. Admitting that music is dead means that we killed it, or more precisely the music industry and digital production technology killed it, and killed it good. But we are the murderers. Music is dead and it is our fault.

You may not understand what I mean when I say music is dead, because you can hear music everywhere you go, or hear musicians perform for large audiences. But what you are hearing coming out of your ear-buds and amplifiers is not music, it is the badly reanimated corpse of a once thriving and evolving monster, now extinct as the dodo, cloned and recycled into a consumer commodity. For those of you who are not convinced that music is dead, here are a few indicators that should sway your opinion.

There are no new musical genres. Some people believe music died in the ’70s and ’80s, when Disco and Punk and New Wave grew out of the remnants of rock and took over the world. Some people believe music died in the ’90s, when Hip-Hop merged sampling and spoken word, Grunge wrung the last gasps out of rock, and computers made it possible to synthesize any beat, melody, or noise within the range of human hearing. In the decades since electronic music took off, existing genres have been run through every possible permutation, every song has been sampled, re-sampled, and recycled. Experimental composers have made music with static, glitches, silence, ambient noise, abstract sounds, and tones that go outside the range of human hearing. It is the end of the road for creating something new. The last new musical Genre created by humans is Filk, a folksy blend of sci-fi and fantasy fan music, and it sounds like a terrible parody of older better music. That’s the future.

There are no new musical instruments. The last musical instrument humans will ever create is the Eigenharp, a synthesizer you can play like a drum, a stringed instrument, a woodwind, a brass instrument, a keyboard, and whatever else you can think up and program. This instrument can produce any sound, and can be played in any way. It is every instrument ever created, and all instruments that will ever be created. Tellingly, this instrument looks exactly like the crazy saxophones used by the Cantina Band in Star Wars. If you have an Eigenharp, you can play every part of any song or symphony ever written in the exact style it was composed. And since you can loop and layer tracks on an Eigenharp, one person can become an entire band, or you can program the instrument to play automatically without the need to thump, strum, or blow. It is a musical instrument that can play itself. The only other musical instrument since the Eigenharp is the iPhone/iPad, which is an extensible platform that can perform a limited set of the Eigenharp’s functions depending on which app you load. And you can produce and mix professional quality tracks on the same device you play as your instrument. And it fits in your pocket.

There are no more musical styles or sounds to sample. Every style of traditional, ethnic, and world music has been incorporated into the modern pop uber-genre. There are no more Afro beats, throat singers, Middle Eastern microtonal scales, Buddhist Ohms, Irish sea shanties, American folk songs, Navajo ancestral chants, and so on, that haven’t already been chewed up, digested, and shat out by modern pop composers. Since the Beatles went to India, no style of World Music has remained outside the clutches of the uber-pop corporate regime. The entire planet has been sampled. Every natural sound, every gust of wind, every bird chirp, every wave crashing on the beach, every siren, every car horn, every gun shot, every power drill, every electronic bleep and bloop… It’s all been done. Hi-Fi, Low-Fi, No-Fi, 8-bit, acoustic, acapella, you name it. There are no more sounds to steal. We have devoured every last morsel.

There are no more sounds to steal. We have devoured every last morsel.

The world’s biggest pop stars are not producing new or ground-breaking music. Every new song sounds like an old song, and the artists that try to innovate move towards deconstruction and atonal noise, because that’s all that’s left. A musician today cannot innovate new musical styles because there are no more musical styles to invent, so the only way to get attention is to be louder, wear a crazier costume, wear less clothes, be angrier, be more provocative, be more controversial, be more “real” than the next artist, or perform some kind of publicity stunt that has nothing to do with the music. In terms of lyrics, songs have covered every topic known to humans, they’ve told every story, they’ve portrayed every emotion. Whatever mood you can think of, whatever strange otherworldly atmosphere you want, whatever lesson you want to learn, whatever ridiculous philosophy you want to reinforce, there is already a song for that. We’ve heard it all before.

And even though music is dead, musicians will insist on dragging the dead corpse around for who knows what reason. You can make the same comparison to visual art. Since the evolution of surrealism, cubism, abstract expressionism, pop art, and op art, every new artist has to compete with distorted frames of reference, no frame of reference, paint splatters, subtle shades of grey, soups cans, and geometric grids, all called masterpieces. If you want to create art that has photographic depth and realism, too bad, Caravaggio already did that at the turn of the 17th century, it’s all been a downhill experiment in postmodern deconstruction since then. If you can find something more innovative than a blank canvas, or a symphony that consists of nothing but twenty minutes of silence, good luck. Art has reached the point in its evolution where the absence of art is the most radical thing you can produce. But when you want to listen to something new, forget about it. All we have now is the memory and the echo of history, because music is dead.

James Kent is the former publisher of Psychedelic Illuminations and Trip Magazine. He currently edits DoseNation.com, a drug blog featuring news, humor and commentary.

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  • By Rob Smit (Leiden, The Netherlands), June 10, 2011 @ 3:23 pm

    I think the phenomenon you describe is the result of the acceleration of everything. A few centuries ago a new musical style could last for decades, or even centuries (i.e. Gregorian chant), because it took an awful long time for something new to be communicated around the world. But now something new can be communicated worldwide almost instantly, and the result is what you describe in your article. But is it necessarily bad? I don’t think so. It is the consequence of acceleration, and for anyone growing up with iPhones and YouTube it is normal. But what will happen to music (or art in general. or society in general) if everything keeps accelerating? Accelerating across earth, across the solar system, across the galaxy … Across cyberspace, across human mental space … Interesting times are ahead!

  • By tre3rd, June 11, 2011 @ 12:06 am

    that is very defeatist. You sound like a grumpy old man reminiscing about the good old days. Yes everything is recycled resampled and wat not but that is nothing new even classical artists drew inspiration from other sources. Nothing is really ever completely “new” but there are some really innovative artists out there you’re just not looking hard enough. technology may automate the process more and more but call me crazy I bet as the tech improves we may see computers exhibit levels of creativity that rival humans in the not too distant future. Also for something groundbreaking and out of the box check out reactive music pioneer rjd2. The future of music is still alive and well its just evolving

    P.s stop listening to the radio…

  • By Evan Martin, June 11, 2011 @ 4:49 am

    No more musical instruments???? Instruments are a form of technology (indeed, one can trace the evolution of computers directly from the parallel components of ancient instruments such as the automated pipe-organs of the Roman Empire which inspired the automated loom) and, apparently, you have forgotten that technology has NOT stopped advancing and evolving. Just as computer graphics will continue to get more and more amazing as processing power and mathematics and coding improve (from force dynamics modelling and texture rendering to Mandelboxes and who-knows-what other 3d fractals to come) so too will new and ever-more complex, richly textured, nature mimicking and emotion-eliciting sounds and poly-rhythms be generated from the ever-complexifying technologies of sound-synthesis. In fact I would argue that music has finally been liberated from its material confines of horns, strings, reeds, whistles, the limited abilites of the human body (speed, precision, etc.) and limited cross-cultural access, and that we are on the brink of a completely unprecedented abundance of musical diversity and novelty.
    And to say we have exhausted the resevoir for sampling is to say we now fully comprehend and appreciate all present and past forms of musical expression, which is obviously an astoundingly Western-centric thing to say.
    Also, as a sample from the electrojazz tune Your Country by J.Viewz says, “I think you can have all the greatest technology around you in all the world, but at the end of the day, it’s the human being that makes the music,” and you are basically claiming here that the human spirit has exhausted its inspiration and drive to generate beauty, and that is phenomenally misguided and fantastically false.
    I have very deeply appreciated all your incredible work for 17 years now, James, but I have to be honest and say that I am very sad to learn that you have taken such a defeatist and cynical attitude towards art and the future. Why certain psychedelic people have such a block in understanding what electronic dance music and the psychedelic trance really is, I’ll guess I’ll never know.

    (I hope I’m wrong in interpreting this piece and that it is actually a tongue-in-cheek form of satire.)

    “Music will always improve. That is how we stay in controll.”
    -Bruce Haack

  • By Gordon, June 11, 2011 @ 9:26 am

    the latest big genre seems to be electro. It started about ’06 and is now in mainstream pop songs. you may say that its just a form of house which is just a form of disco.. But then you could say rock and country are just forms of blues. There is more to come but yes, the audio spectrum is now almost fully utilised. That does not mean that nothing new can arise.

  • By aldger, June 11, 2011 @ 1:11 pm

    He is right. There have been no original music genres created for over a decade because everything has been done. Try and name one new artist in the last ten years that has done anything original without copying or rehashing previous genres. You can’t because they can’t. Everything has been done…

  • By Joe, June 11, 2011 @ 1:32 pm

    Dub step, mash-up of 100’s of singers, Facebook choir song with 3,000 people

  • By Erik, June 11, 2011 @ 1:44 pm

    Thanks James for being brave enough to admit what is really going on with trends in music (or not going on I should say). If you take the harmonies, melodies, and rhythms of any music after the height of Jazz (Miles, Bill Evans, Coltrane, Bird,etc.), it all boils down to a reduction of what has come before.

    I improvise and although one could say I will never exhaust all the mathematical possibilities of a solo on even one tune, the style that I play in has been invented, done, re-done, and destroyed 50 or 60 years ago. Sometimes I feel like a traveling museum of music on display. Really the same can be said of any performer (especially classical/concert music). And since there are no new Mozart-like or Bach-like geniuses on YouTube, we drag the corpse. Then we beat the dead horse with drumsticks.

    Some advances have been made in terms of harmonic synthesis so that we hear a new type of musical sound, but the pitch it plays and the rhythm/chord it plays over have all been done before. Like you said James, even microtonal scales have been explored to the point where the resolution is so small between pitches that our ears can’t tell where one note ends and a higher or lower note begins.

    This indeed sounds dismal until we realize that humans should be congratulated for their roughly 500 years of innovation, and give it up and pass the torch. To who? Well, as others have commented above, to AI. Humanity’s greatest hope for high art (aural or visual) will be in the hands of technology.

    In the not too distant future, computers will make beautiful music the likes we can never appreciate with our limited range of hearing and limited brain power. Also virtual world design will become the new ‘canvas and paints’ for visual art. Nanotech will replace sculpture, architecture, etc, etc.

    I believe our artistic mission is to pass on our wisdom to AI and teach software what we have learned, expressed, and experienced through the arts. Then give computers about 10 years and we will all be left behind (unless we merge with them to keep up). 🙂

    Thanks again for the interesting article.

  • By Elwood Herring, June 12, 2011 @ 6:19 am

    I’ve been saying similar things for years. I’ve been experimenting with various music styles for decades now, and I’ve come up with some interesting sounds which I claim to be like nobody else’s. There are still a few “unexplored” corners where someone really adventurous can create interesting music, but it’s getting ever harder. See my website or google my name and bend an ear to what I’ve come up with.

  • By Watcher, June 13, 2011 @ 12:27 am

    Wow. For a new transhumanist blog, this is an incredibly lame way to launch. To say that ANYTHING is ‘dead’ is to cling to archaic definitions and closed-view mindsets. You’re clearly attempting to grab people with edgy opinions and controversial proclamations, but you just look laughably uncreative and outdated.

    The tools for creating new music are exponentially expanding. I once had a friend in a band that made music using whatever he could, from cowbells to sliding a spoon across a cheese grater, and he produced extraordinary music.

    It’s not music that’s dead, it’s your imagination.

  • By Khannea Suntzu, June 13, 2011 @ 1:36 pm

    This is sheer madness. I am inundated with music. I have more new music than I can listen and old music than I can catch up with or discover. I am in a cloud of ever experiencing sound experiences and it is your narrow intolerance of what constitutes music that is to be dismissed here. I can’t even unwrap torrents fast enough and keep up if there were 100 hours in the day! I can joyously fill my days with just Gaga remixes and mashups!

  • By Listener, June 13, 2011 @ 6:51 pm

    What you’re describing is the process that begun with the invention of “reproduced”” music, which never has been and never will be music. The shrill, boomy, distorting, over loud boxes we listen to are to blame, not the content.

    I’ve quit listening to the crude air pumps a long time ago and concentrated on quality: I only accept live sound. I’ve walked away from concerts where the organizers had brought in electronics to, in their words “improve” and “balance” the experience by “augmenting” the acoustics of the room. That is nothing less than to claim to improve the Absolute, the physical perfection of Reality! That, not some place between galaxies, to me, represents the largest void in the universe.

  • By oldtimer, June 13, 2011 @ 9:26 pm

    And sales numbers reflect this
    http://www.businessinsider.com/these-charts-explain-the-real-death-of-the-music-industry-2011-2
    A person buys just over one album per year. I guess even books are doing better than that. Or perhaps not.

  • By yann, June 14, 2011 @ 3:39 am

    As usual with this kind of debate, the author says nothing about music. He just informs us of his own definition of music, wich is useless to the rest of us.

  • By Life, June 14, 2011 @ 12:58 pm

    ” It is hard to tell exactly when music breathed its last gasp, but most experts pinpoint the time of death within the past few decades”

    That you based an entire article on “it’s hard to tell, but some unnamed people have wildly differing opinions, so I’ll roll with that” is quite pitiful for a site that purports to speak to the cutting edge.

    You don’t deserve my attention.

  • By TJ, June 14, 2011 @ 9:14 pm

    You’re an idiot. There’s a HUGE stack of music produced in the past 100 years. More discoveries there, alone, than you could ever swim in. But, fishy, you’re complaining that the ocean’s too small for you?

    Tell you what: if you know there’s something missing, pick up some instrument (or make one, dozens have been made in the past 5 years) and get busy. Oh, and take the silver spoon out.

  • By christian, June 15, 2011 @ 2:55 am

    hola soy de mexico! la música no a muerto. y si va a morir sera junto con toda la humanidad lo que si esta pasando es que se esta perdiendo la cultura musical por muchas razones como la industria “pop”. parece ser que usted tiene mucha información en su cabeza y si los caminos del arte se hacen mas chicos.pero para mi que usted quiere hacer escándalo, bien sabe que no vamos a dejar de usar instrumentos clásicos solo por tener un ipad! el contraste se hará mucho mas alto en la cultura,, y el futuro no es obscuro. yo veo el futuro del arte como una experiencia de fusión de las artes, de fusión de los sentidos… es evolución, y en la evolucion no hay un punto muerto!!! solo usted!!jaja la esencia del ser humano de ser viviente.. abra que ser mas inteligentes y mas selectos también…CUANDO TODOS PENSEMOS COMO USTED ESE DÍA MORIRÁ LA MÚSICA!..usted ya no piensa como un artista!!!!!!!!…. ñ.ñ

  • By me, June 15, 2011 @ 3:54 am

    Music? Replace a few words and you describe the state of all western culture… but then again, doesn’t urban legend say that the patent office supposed to be closed in 1899 when everything that could be invented had been invented.

  • By brood, June 15, 2011 @ 8:29 pm

    What a pointless and lazy article. Since when did ‘the worlds biggest pop stars’ have anything to do with musical innovation anyway? Pop means popular. It takes time for new genres and innovations to become popular. There is some amazing stuff happening right now, you obviously don’t have a clue how to access any of it. Which puzzles me because you obviously(unfortunately) have an internet connection.

  • By Musiclover, June 29, 2011 @ 12:45 am

    I listen to that stuff you all point to, from time to time. It’s not worth anyone’s time. We internet-savvy (mostly young) people listen to that noise because WE are unable to find any real music. It’s not the author who is wrong WE are, but we’re blind to our blindness – or deafness.

    To all you people who say that a lot “new” has been invented in the past decades (which the article points to), you’re simply not correct.

    It’s not even rehashing of old things. It’s just less and less and less of anything that even remotely reminds one of music. You have to go decades or centuries back to find some originality. Much of it remains utterly unmatched today.

    All the drum beats you hear have been done thousands of years ago already. Adding digital chirps and stutters does nothing to it.

    Don’t get me started on chords and melodies. In fact there’s not much getting started about, because there’s practically nothing of interest there.

    Nearly the whole planet today sounds like everything is done by simpletons or simple automatons. Musically we truly live in dark times.

  • By BrianM, June 29, 2011 @ 10:05 pm

    I can understand and even empathize with your point of view, however, music is far from dead it is simply ever evolving with all other art forms. I find that each indicator you suggested was view with such a narrow minded view of what music is that you miss the potential and opportunity musicians and composers have available to them.

    1) “There are no new musical genres.” In comparison to previous genres like jazz, blues, & rock the life cycle of new genres has dropped drastically, this is due to the simple fact of how we can communicate and share music on a global scale. Ideas are rehashed, different instruments cross classical genre borders, to even the concept of rhythm can be changed. Genres constantly arrive and fade out and the lines have become so blurred with the vast selection of music that categorizing music by a genre has become difficult. It does not equate to not having new genres, simply the opposite that it has almost become a place where a single song can create its own genre.

    2) “There are no new musical instruments.” Again by looking at a classical unevolved view of music we have not seen the creation of new brass instruments, or woodwinds. Art in any form will utilize the technology available to be innovative. Working as a musician and in music production I have spent more recent years learning to play new instruments be it a virtual synthesizer on a laptop, circuit bending an old Casio piano, or my daughter’s old speak & spell, or even other innovations combining light sensors with sound modulation (http://bleeplabs.com/rgb/). Music has simply evolved beyond its classical definition of what music is, what it should sound like, how it is to be composed, how it is classified, or how we make it.

    3) “There are no more musical styles or sounds to sample.”
    In a sense you are correct you could create a simple piece of software to run through the entire tone range audible to humans, changing frequency pitch, length…. However, what you fail to grasp is that through the unique combination of that vast array of sound is what is truly endless. Sure sounds may sound similar, use identical samples, but for interest sake look at Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, he released a large collection of his music broken into samples with the available sequencing for people to work on creating new music. There is a spectacular array of new material to come out of “recycled” or “re-sampled” music. Does the fact music come out of this circumstance negate it’s own identity as music? I surely hope not.

  • By Valkyrie Ice, August 5, 2011 @ 5:18 pm

    “Music is dead because now everyone can make music.”

    Reminds me of Syndrome from “The Incredibles”

    “Once everyone is super, no-one will be.”

    This is an elitist rant in my opinion. “I used to be special, now everyone is able to do what I did, my special-ness is gone, and I am whining because I can’t lord my uniqueness over anyone anymore.”

    Highlevel interfaces for low level production. Adobe did it to art, sampling is doing it for music, and so many other advancing technologies are developing similar abilities for almost every “specialization.” We are encoding our knowledge into our tools, and having to listen to those who once prided themselves on “having talent” complain about how those without talent can now do everything they once did.

    It’s a status seeking behavior, a pecking order “distinction”. “This made me “better” than everyone, and now we’re equals! BOO HOO!!!”

    Yet another “Great Leveler” is operating, making music available to all of us in infinite variety. And all the author can see is that music has lost it’s ability to act as a marker in the endless game of status.

  • By DJ, August 14, 2011 @ 4:55 pm

    Interesting. But look at what music is, what it’s made of and why we create it. That has never changed throughout eternity and never will, because it emerges from a fundamentally human need. Musical genres and instruments are nothing but different ways of experiencing music, and expressing our culture. And that’s what is happening now. We create, listen to and experience music totally differently in the digital age. The world has globalized in every way – it’s only natural that music would do the same. That’s not to say I’m not appreciating my record player more and more every day…

  • By Michael Garfield, August 15, 2011 @ 11:58 pm

    James Kent gave up on music the same way he gave up on interpreting his psychedelic experiences as anything more than pretty hallucinations. I praise him for his blog’s cultural nexus, but don’t know why we listen to anything he has to say.

  • By Michael Garfield, August 16, 2011 @ 12:17 am

    At risk of drawing fire for personal promo, please have a listen to this and tell me how it’s not at least a little new:
    http://michaelgarfield.bandcamp.com/album/a-million-anniversaries-cyberacoustic-guitar-for-lovemaking

    A few years I wrote an article about how evolution (in nature or culture, to use that naïve distinction) is often about “exaptation” – old traits with new uses. That’s how fish figured out to walk on land with legs adapted to holding onto rocks under water, for example, or how feathers evolved for insulation ultimately led to gliding and then flight. And it applies to music, as well, because the more complex our cultural space becomes, the more rapidly new uses will be discovered for old innovations.

    Here’s the article:
    http://guitarinternational.com/2010/09/17/exaptation-of-the-guitar/

    That’s what I’m gunning for with my music: to bring traditional acoustic soul forward into this boiling froth of contemporary cross-pollinating musical idioms. I’m just some schmucky kid, and if I’M making music that critics deem original, there have to be millions like me out there doing even braver and more inspired work. Point being, as cultural creatures we’re always building on what came before…this article is itself entirely unoriginal, as it merely rehashes the same cantankerous complaints that the woeful retroromantic elite has been leveling for hundreds of years.

    So seriously, James. Maybe the problem is that you misunderstand the evolutionary process, or maybe the problem is that you don’t know how to LOOK for novelty. Either way, the defeatist tone of this post speaks more to a poverty of perception and imagination than it does to any true state of affairs in the world.

  • By Michael Garfield, August 16, 2011 @ 12:22 am

    Yeah, holographic audio is pretty lame. So is co-writing music with bonobo apes and improvising alongside jazzy artificial intelligences. So is direct brain-to-music translation software. So is the resurrection of house concert culture and street music. So are the Reactable and all those Microsoft Kinect-based gestural music interfaces.

    So is defeatism.

  • By Michael Garfield, August 16, 2011 @ 12:25 am

    A few years I wrote an article about how evolution (in nature or culture, to use that naïve distinction) is often about “exaptation” – old traits with new uses. That’s how fish figured out to walk on land with legs adapted to holding onto rocks under water, for example, or how feathers evolved for insulation ultimately led to gliding and then flight. And it applies to music, as well, because the more complex our cultural space becomes, the more rapidly new uses will be discovered for old innovations.

    (The article is called “Exaptation of the Guitar,” if you want to search for it.)

    That’s what I’m gunning for with my music: to bring traditional acoustic soul forward into this boiling froth of contemporary cross-pollinating musical idioms, and to improvise that music as a living response to the sense of place, in a cybernetic expansion of folk music.

    (The album is “A Million Anniversaries: CyberAcoustic Guitar for Lovemaking,” if you’re curious. Please do listen and tell me it’s not even a little new.)

    I’m just some schmucky kid, and if I’M making music that critics deem original, there have to be millions like me out there doing even braver and more inspired work. Point being, as cultural creatures we’re always building on what came before…this article is itself entirely unoriginal, as it merely rehashes the same cantankerous complaints that the woeful retroromantic elite has been leveling for hundreds of years.

    So seriously, James. Maybe the problem is that you misunderstand the evolutionary process, or maybe the problem is that you don’t know how to LOOK for novelty. Either way, the defeatist tone of this post speaks more to a poverty of perception and imagination than it does to any true state of affairs in the world.

  • By Valkyrie Ice, August 16, 2011 @ 9:42 am

    Well said Michael.

  • By Lancelot Link, August 25, 2011 @ 5:06 am

    “There are no more musical styles or sounds to sample.”
    Writing must be dead, too – this article only has old words that have been written before.

    Also, the only REAL music is the kind I prefer. Everything else is worthless, especially the swill YOU like.

  • By Greg M. Schwartz, September 13, 2011 @ 8:29 pm

    James L. Kent’s editorial about taking more drugs was brilliant, but this one is way off base. Music is absolutely thriving in the 21st century, but you can’t look to “pop stars” to show you musical evolution and cutting edge rock n roll. Sounds like you missed the jamband scene, try listening to the people are the best musicians. Like Phish:
    http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/145044-phish-super-ball-ix-watkins-glen-ny-july-1-3-2011/

    and a whole bunch of other great bands have made this past decade a golden age for great music:
    http://www.popmatters.com/pm/archive/contributor/266

    http://www.jambands.com/
    http://www.jambase.com/default.aspx

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