Strrrrrretching “Folk” Music

I Dream of Wires - documentary

I Dream of Wires – documentary

What the heck is music? Really, what is it? I found a good formal definition online. Here it is–

Music: vocal or instrumental sounds (or both) combined in such a way as to produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion.

That “beauty of form,” of course, is in the ear of the listener. I love Bob Dylan, you might hate him. I love the Stones, you might hate them. I love Mozart, you might not be interested in any kind of classical music. I mention these music entities because today’s music form is far removed from our earliest musicians who beat sticks on rocks and played one note on flutes made from the wing bone of a bird. Classical music is complex, multi textured. Rock music is pulse pounding, mainly because of electric amplification. Dylan is an entity unto himself, and his poetic music is also complex and multi layered, both instrumentally and in thought.

These early musicians had not yet discovered how to capture and control electricity, (nor would it have had any meaning for them, anyway), making it impossible for early musicians to be able to play their instruments with any kind of amplification. But they were observant enough to realize their music would have more power if they played it in a cave. The sound would have been contained, and so would the audience. I’ve played in three different bands over the years. We used amps in the first and second band, which was fine. When I joined the third band, it was a startup band. We could take the band in any direction we pleased. In the very beginnings of our little group, all four of us had a say as to how we wanted to communicate. My hope was that we would use no amps at all. I envisioned us playing in very small venues, (like a cave of those early musicians). Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? You could play in a small room for a small audience. The connection between you and the audience would be intimate and gratifying. But in a matter of just a couple of weeks we knew this would be a bad idea if we ever wanted to be heard at all. Things were a lot simpler even just a couple of hundred years ago, where you played your possum skin mountain banjo or fiddle on your front porch and the neighbors just came and sat on your porch with you as you played. They might have even danced as you played! Those simple days are gone now. Now we amp up everything.

The early days of amplification did not begin with rock and roll. It began with jazz guitarists playing through amps so crude that they actually picked up local radio stations! But we know our love for loud music didn’t end with jazz guitarists. (Jazz groups didn’t play loud, but amping the guitar’s natural low volume, in comparison to horns and drums, helped to balance out the combo.) As more and more musicians took to the amp, it became necessary to electrically amplify everything we played, because it was our only hope of being heard. Pure folkies have fought amplification, and I can certainly see why. But if we didn’t have electrical power that allows us to perform on a stage to adoring audiences, or provide the means to record ourselves and then sell our folk music or any other kind of music, for that matter, we would be doomed to permanent oblivion. Our societies, regardless of where on the planet we might live, are large, unwieldy, and complicated. Those days of gathering around the campfire to hear the local tribal singers and musicians are gone. We only hear that kind of thing in a tourist trap, and even that kind of experience more often than not is amplified right out in the middle of a forest somewhere, just so all those tourists can clearly hear the performance above the ambient forest sounds of the frogs and crickets. To have any hope of preserving folk music means we have to use whatever technology is at our disposal. Further, we have to keep the folk music tradition alive by composing new songs. Most folk performers are doing exactly that, and they are playing to the masses through their wireless mics and amps. So we needn’t worry that folk music will ever die. In fact, folk music will be alive and well as long as there are musicians and people willing to listen.

Let’s suppose we are on a starship at some distant point in the future. Let’s choose a specific date. How about the year, 2416? That’s 400 years into the future. What will “folk” music sound like then? We can get a crude preview of what music might sound like this far into the future by investigating technology we had as long as 30 years ago. To see and hear what I’m talking about, go here–

WEBSITE– I Dream of Wires

The above website explains a most interesting documentary called, “I Dream of Wires.”

VIDEO TRAILER– I Dream of Wires

This documentary is about electronic music and the technology that produced it. In fact, this technology, in one form or other, is still producing electronic music, because eventually that early technology moved into our computers and keyboards, and that made making music even easier. With this early form of electronic music, there is no instrument a human plays to make music on the fly. Instead, music is produced with circuit board “modules,” modules which produce the music before it’s performed. Think of a mechanical music box. Wind it up, press the go button, and that music box plays only one song, over and over again. There is a little disk in the box that has pegs projecting from its surface. There are also a number of metal tongues, that when twanged by a passing peg would sound a note. Now think of a complex music box, the kind of box that was an early form of entertainment in bars and saloons of a couple of hundred years ago. Instead of just one music disk, there are several. But these disks aren’t built into the box like the simplest music box. They can be put into the box, just as you might put an acetate record on its turntable, which means you can put in different disks that play different tunes. The twanger setup, much like flexible steel tongues that twang when disturbed, is a fixed array of noisemakers, much like piano strings or guitar strings, but the disks have different peg points, and that makes it possible to have the music box play more than just the one tune simply by playing different disks. Now think of each music disk as a circuit board module. By using different modules, you can play the tune that’s on the module. Take a look at the image at the beginning of this article. Do you see all those modules in the console? Once installed, they all work together, making it possible to control them and play them in various combinations. But instead of being able to play just one disk at a time, like those in a music box, we can run several modules at the same time, making it possible to construct an endless variety of compositions. “Sampling” hadn’t been developed yet. The notes produced didn’t sound like those from a piano or electronic organ or electric guitar. It had its own sound—a strictly electronic sound, and the music from these early machines was sensational! We’d never heard music like this before. These modules were the forerunners of the Moog Synthesizer and all those electronic keyboards to follow.

So how, you might ask, can we possibly call this music? If you go back to the beginning of this article and look at the definition of music, preprogrammed music seems to fit these requirements. The definition mentions “vocal or instrumental sounds.” These music modules produce sound other than from the human voice, so it qualifies as “instrumental” sounds. These modules also produce “beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion.” One might argue with the emotion part since there is no human playing an actual instrument. But the programmer can make subtle variances to each note or passage, which can mimic the human touch when playing an instrument. And so, it’s more than possible this kind of music will gradually replace a dedicated instrument played by humans. In fact, much of the music we hear is produced electronically. We just don’t know it. If you watch the “I Dream of Wires” trailer, you might be taken back to the original Star Trek TV series where we would sometimes hear Spock play his lyre on the Starship Enterprise! It sounded weird and very electronic!

By the way, you can buy the full four-hour “I Dream of Wires” documentary from their website. But you can also watch a free, two-hour version of this great documentary on Netflix. Although I will never take up electronic music, I found this well produced documentary fascinating and fun. Who knows? Four hundred years from now, if we add voice to some cool electronic modules cranking away for accompaniment, we might very well call it “folk” music. After all, who would have thought our folk music would have ever moved from our front porch to some of the largest venues on the planet?

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