There’s a paragraph in Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age that has always stayed with me. It’s not particularly poetic or profound, it’s just a nicely-put distinction:
Hackworth was a forger, Dr. X was a honer. The distinction was at least as old as the digital computer. Forgers created a new technology and then forged on to the next project, having explored only the outlines of its potential. Honers got less respect because they appeared to sit still technologically, playing around with systems that were no longer start, hacking them for all they were worth, getting them to do things the forgers had never envisioned.
Through movements like the New Aesthetic and technologies like arduinos, raspberry pis and 3d printers, it seems like digital artists and coders get to be the forgers of this generation. The tools they have at their disposal are unique in history. They have the means to leak their virtual art and ideas back into the real world in brand new ways.
Meanwhile, it seems to me that the possibilities for music have been exhaustively mapped. Not mapped in the sense that nothing is surprising or exciting any more, but mapped in the way that, say, the Solar System is mapped. There’s still plenty of new places to explore, and we’re never going to get everywhere, but the chances of encountering something un-imagined are a lot smaller than they used to be.
For a long time, it felt like boundaries were getting pushed at the noisy edges of music. Now, the cycle of kids listening to music their parents hate has been interrupted by the normalisation of this noise and the unbreakable roof of zero db. Nothing is louder than zero. Perhaps I’m wrong, but if you grew up with punk or rave or Digital Hardcore and now your kids are listening to Skrillex, does it sound like antisocial noise? Or does it just sound a bit slow? A bit…tame?
What technology can do for music seems to have plateaued. Because it can basically do everything. But an infinite palette does not necessarily equate to infinite possibility.
I can’t yet envisage a future for music using new technology in the same way that other mediums are beginning to. Trying to force music through this template feels like gimmickry (algorithmically-remixed downloadable mp3s, anyone?) at best, or bad marketing (branded usb sticks! buy this mp3 pin badge!) at worst.
For example, I spent a while last year trying to make an Arduino play 8bit versions of my Polinski material, so I could then build a little self-contained unit of chips and wires to sell on a merch stall. In the end the coding was beyond me. Ultimately though, would it really have been anything other than a glorified greetings card? I’m not sure.
I might not be observing anything particularly new here, but I reckon the time of musicians as ‘forgers’ has drawn to a close. At least for a while. There’s some Big Future History kicking off all over the world. You can use a computer these days to record a protest song or you can use it to create a Tor network relay and help keep countries-in-revolt online when their governments try to switch off the internet. On a planet that already has a billion pieces of music, I’d cautiously suggest that one of these actions is more boundary-pushing than the other.
Musicians-as-honers seems like an okay deal to me though. If nothing else, I suspect that these forgers are gonna demand a noisy soundtrack. Best get on with it.