By MATT WEST
Cramped inside the small room is a full symphony orchestra patiently anticipating a cue from their conductor’s stick. Dan Lee is putting the final touches to a film score he is composing for a locally produced movie and has all of the musicians at his fingertips … literally.
Lee’s conducting stick: the start button on his electronic keyboard. The orchestra: a small sampling machine. A Macintosh computer and a series of music software packages will accompany the orchestra. Needless to say, the musicians are ready.
“It’s not to the level a live musician would be,” Lee said, “but then again it doesn’t make mistakes either.”
Lee is one of a large breed of music composers who use electronic technology for its convenience, affordability and boundless capabilities. More than ever, musicians are turning toward this technology of synthesized sound to produce the world’s music.
Critics have raised a question that dates back to electronic music’s beginnings: can electronically produced and/or manipulated sound truly be classified as music, or does its lack of a “human element” restrict the medium to a realm of its own?
“It’s too cosmetic,” said Douglas Bush, director of organ studies in the BYU College of Music. “Electronic music allows us the chance to be absolutely technically accurate in every detail, but I’m not sure that a machine or an amplifier can speak with a spiritual dimension, because it is inanimate.”
“I’m interested in art where I can sense the spirit of the person creating it, or the spirit of the performer,” he said.
Originally, the absence of a performer was one of the attractions that early composers had to electronic music.
As early as the 1900s, inventors from Russia, France and the United States began producing equipment that produced electronic sound. But not until the 1940s and the introduction of magnetic tape recorders was electronic music given any attention in the music world.
Karl Stockhausen of Germany was the first notable composer to use electronically produced sound in his compositions, and he helped music listeners accept sounds not produced by voices or instruments.
French composer Pierre Schaefer is attributed with the revolutionary concept of using natural everyday sounds from recordings in music — an early version of dubbing.
Composers were intrigued that they could control every aspect of their music without any dependance on performers. This lack of performers, however, was a serious hindrance to its acceptance since the public responded more easily to live musicians.
Today’s society, raised on recordings rather than live performances, may be the reason this is not a significant stumbling block, especially in popular music.
“I have no desire to be a proper musician,” said Tom Rowlands of the Chemical Brothers, in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine. “For ages, when I first went into the studios with my little machines, you’d have this … guy behind the board going, `This isn’t real music.'”
The Chemical Brothers are one of a series of British techno bands that led a current popular music trend dubbed “Electronica.” And Electronica has pierced virtually every aspect of modern popular music: from mexicali-tinged rock ballads with a consistent synthesized drum beat, to driving techno tunes with overdubbed voice samples acting as “lead singer.” Radio listeners can’t listen to a popular music station for more than 10 minutes without encountering some form of electronic music on the airwaves.
“I feel like it’s more musical than other types of music, because there is so much more you can do,” said Ranita Purcell, lead singer for the local pop-techno band Agnes Poetry.
But it’s not just popular music that has seen this latest trend: even film and television scores, traditionally orchestral, are being dominated by electronically produced music. Soundtracks to such popular films as “The Raven” and “The Saint” are almost completely electronic, and television action series and sports broadcast music are now almost strictly synthesized.
“(Synthesizers) give you a bigger pallet to paint from,” Lee said. “And we’ve come a long ways. The ’80s were like painting with crayons, now we’re closer to color copies.”
And newer, more refined technology is constantly being developed. But where will it end?
“As close as samples come, it will never replace real people playing real music … they’re always going to be more expressive,” Lee said.
Perhaps it’s not the crayon, but the hand that moves it.