When I ask myself, What is new in music today? What’s new in sound? I tumble into a dark abyss, fearful I can’t answer those questions, fearful that I have failed to listen carefully to Spotify’s 30 million tracks and therefore will disappoint the few citizens of Earth who rely on me for insights and answers.
So, cheating, I ask my trusted colleague, ‘What do you feel is really NEW in music today?’ Brian’s answer: “There’s still a lot of recycling going on—we’ve transitioned somewhat from straight 80’s synth sounds to 90’s hip-hop & R&B sounds. There are even bits of drum n’ bass beats creeping back into modern tracks…and trap has seeped into almost every new pop song. But nobody is doing anything wholly NEW. So it’s a little hard to see where it’s all heading.”
Okay, fair enough—but not terribly satisfying. Even a recent piece in the Times noted the return of the “boy band” in an iteration known as Prettymuch (really?), 5 cute young guys who sound a bit like Boyz II Men, or even One Direction.
Then B mentioned Post Malone. Post Malone? “A white rapper. Pretty interesting.” And who, incidentally, has had the #1 single on the Billboard chart for weeks. Great flow. And definitely some deep old school beats.
But the mission here is to ring in the new, right? So I gravitate to Björk, whose new album, “Utopia,” is a collaboration with Venezuelan born electronic artist Arca (aka Alejandro Ghersi). I find it haunting and sonically gorgeous. And Björk is a figure who, it’s always seemed to me, could have been created by Tolkien. But Björk is a creation of herself, who creates musical art that seems absolutely uninterested in what might or might not be anywhere near Billboard’s charts. In her recent Times interview the story behind the album is itself a fantastical visual: She “gathered an ensemble of a dozen flutists (Björk’s original instrument), all women, for “Flute Fridays” in Reykjavik. ‘I tried to get as many colors out of the flutes as possible…We went between the churches in Reykjavik, trying to get the right sound.’”
A few writers have said this new work evokes earlier music from Björk, from her “Vespertine” album, for example. Or even a bit like music from Imogen Heap.
Fine. It still feels fresh to me. Magical even.
But I decide to leave Earth and dive into the Matrix. Well, into Magenta, the “Google Brain” project whose mission, according to the website, is “to advance the state-of-the art in music, video, image and text generation" (click here). These Google Brains recently announced NSynth (for Neural Synthesizer) …(click here). The “machine” (my word for whatever it is) has been “fed” (my word for however it ingests info) thousands of notes from nearly a thousand different instruments…and many thousands of songs, allowing NSynth to create new sounds from this vast palette, and new songs as well. In years to come, these new A.A.s (Artificial Artists) will be able to create songs in any genre, instantly. Perhaps tens of thousands of songs, instantly.
At the Google Cultural Institute researchers and engineers assure us that there is no intention to replace the artist, but rather to give the artist more tools to work with, to create with. And this is where my Primate Brain starts to have a problem, as I imagine NSynth coming up with songs that, for example, “sound like” Beatles songs, leading to an infringement lawsuit filed by McCartney. But who to sue? Google? Magenta? The engineer who wrote the code? Would NSynth’s A.I. counterpart on the legal team (the Artificial Lawyer aka A.L.) take the case?
Obviously, technology waits for no man. Still, it’s pretty weird to imagine that, one day, Diplo and Skrillex might seem as quaint as bluegrass musicians from another era.
My Primate Brain and Primate Soul still want to hear the music being discovered and created by the restless, experimenting human artist. Even a song I’ll likely never hear on a playlist, by saxophonist Colin Stetson called “Spindrift” from his “All This I Do For Glory” album. It hypnotizes.
Too heavy? My bad. So loosen your collar, maybe your belt, and listen to this mutation of sound from Reggie Watts’ “Spacial” Netflix special—now here’s an artist who plays with his digital “tools” like they were toys in a sandbox.
The future of music…music of the future—it’s coming to the tympanic membrane inside your head later today. And tomorrow. And the day after next year. For now, I got some shopping to do, and some songs I can’t get out of my Primate Head. Let’s raise a glass & maybe sing along, eh? Cheers!
Lyle Greenfield is the founder of BANG Music and past president of the Association of Music Producers (AMP). Greenfield has been a driving force behind the AMP Awards for Music and Sound, which debuted in New York City in 2013.