Swapping the Mute’s Vocal Chords: A Modest Proposal for the Future of Music

I have spent the past fortnight obsessively listening to Frances the Mute, the 2003 release by critically confusing band The Mars Volta.

Frances is a long album. It is a strange album. Featuring the frantic guitar work and even more frantic vocal screeches of Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala, as well as a bunch of people who are talented musicians but who I currently don’t care about, Frances the Mute is a concept album about a person searching for his estranged family.

The band’s critically divisive, hence my introductory comment. Some people feel they were the greatest artists from the last decade; others, that they fall victim to the worst auspices of prog rock. People often level accusations of pretentiousness at the band, for two reasons. One, the lyrics, which are often more concerned with aural palatability than sensibility. Cedric focuses on the sounds of the words over the meaning, resulting in phrases like

‘Mascara glass in the molar weeds
Herash, a serpent infancy
His eye patch pushed a gap of sand
Into his shine a sedative’

Which sound nice but absolutely lack meaning. Bixler-Zavala has clearly read the Jon Anderson playbook cover-to-cover.

The second reason people amuse themselves with that word ‘pretentious’ is more deserved: Frances the Mute often features long instrumental interludes which are occasionally interesting but mostly misguided, irritating dreck. There’s at least half an hour in total of useless noodling, atonal noise that presents no interesting ideas.

How do I know it’s half an hour? Because I committed the cardinal sin of moving each song into Audacity and cutting out the flab. The album was still an hour long after that, but it was actually comprised entirely of music, so…no regrets on my end.

But my actions – removing a third of the album and finding I’d lost nothing – were a ticket onto a very interesting train of thought.

Now that music is primarily distributed digitally, to what extent should the audience be ‘allowed’ to change it? I’m not speaking in a legal sense, because no one cares about that sort of shit, but an artistic one. Most of the musical world implicitly says there should be no change, by simply never suggesting the idea. I remember a discussion I had years ago where someone proposed the idea of editable vinyl records. As in, one could add or remove layers of instrumentation from a record using a machine to change the music. Or something similar. I’ll return to this point in a moment.

Point being, I wrote about the Death of the Author two weeks ago, and now I’m thinking about the idea again in a slightly different way. Not changing the interpretation of the art, but changing the art itself. We have parodies, covers, remixes, samples, and a thousand ways to change or reinterpret music, but what I’m thinking of isn’t any kind of official release. It’s another extension of the crowd-funding or ‘crowd-building’ argument I made some time ago – hundreds of small, anonymous players putting a spin on an official release. We might be able to go back to traditional methods of popular musicianship.

Before the invention of musical recording, music was conceptualised as being either ‘written’ or ‘performed’. This was the framework – the contrast – societies used to differentiate one type of music from another. (Written music being your romantic, classical, baroque pieces, medieval/religious cantons, and so on and so on.) Popular music was folk music, which changed with the times – a single European folk song could have several different interpretations and hundreds of sets of different lyrics over a certain stretch of land, because the context was different and there was no set ‘studio’ or canonical version. Much like fairy tales, actually. This was just the way all popular content used to work.

In the early 20th century, many folk songs were recorded for the first time, and stopped changing after that, because the musicians who performed them from that time onward learned them from the recordings as opposed to their local players. So the music as it was became ‘frozen in time’ in a sense.

What I’m arguing is similar to what I’ve argued for journalism; that we can go back to the old method, with a modern twist. Release a record in a format (digital or physical) that makes it easy to change the layering, instrumentation, and the mixing. Imagine – no more karaoke versions needed, because you can remove the vocals yourself. If you want, you can add your own vocals. People could record their own musical layers for songs, upload them to the internet, and others could seamlessly add them to the ‘originals’ if they so desired – for example, it would be possible to add a violin to Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick, or make a Scott Walker piece acoustic. Millions of interesting variations could be easily created with the power of collective participation. Music would become malleable again, and ‘songs’ as we think of them would become skeletons of melody, easily changed by the individual tastes of the listener.

I’m not talking about a cover version. I’m talking about the idea of there being no ‘original’ beyond the basic melody or central idea.

You could argue that written music was already like this, and use something like Debussy’s versions of the Gymnopedies as an example. But what Debussy did to Satie’s (already fantastic) pieces is only the beginning.

I’m also not talking about just being able to switch genres: there are, for example, jazz versions of classical pieces, classical versions of jazz pieces, and so on and so on all over the internet. What I mean is that people will eventually abandon the idea of there being a ‘canonical’ interpretation of the skeleton.

All music would be a kind of combination between ‘written’ and ‘popular’, where the sheet music still dictated the basic melody and dynamics, but the timbre and style would be dependent on the individual performer.

It would be a system similar to ancient poetry – regional variations, interpretations of epic poetry based on the audience and the orator, and a general environment of creativity unmatched in music beforehand, all a result of the internet.

I could see this being the future of music – if not the whole market, at least a part of it. Many people won’t care about variation in their music, so they’ll just listen to what others make – but there will be thousands of enthusiasts to make up for it. So maybe I’ll leave this essay here as a little prediction. And when I’m inevitably wrong, I’ll be able to return in 2070 and laugh at my naivete.

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