Jun 09 2011

The Death of Music


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, a drug blog featuring news, humor and commentary.