How Technology Affects Art

I’ve been thinking lately about how technology affects the quality of art being made.  Now art is not monolithic.  Just because digital recording became the norm doesn’t mean that analog gear isn’t still used.  Just because photography was invented obviously doesn’t mean that there stopped being painters.  But I am talking about trends in general.

I have mentioned numerous times that I have spent a lot of time listening to The Cure lately.  I want to use two of their songs as an example.  I am going to post YouTubes, but it would be much better if you could listen to higher quality recordings to really get the details.  First I want you to listen to Play For Today from their album Seventeen Seconds, which at the time was a low budget recording (However you are listening, I would recommend headphones):

Now I want you to listen to a song called Sleep When I’m Dead from their album 4:13 Dream album.  This is a song that was written much earlier in their career, in what many fans feel was the best period of their career.  I purposely picked this song because it was written at an earlier period.  Although there are probably reasons this didn’t make a record, I wanted to get the argument that Robert Smith isn’t as good of a song writer as he used to be out of the way.  I’m not trying to talk about taste in writing or performance, merely the technology to capture each song.  (I personally like all periods of The Cure, though I have slight preferences for some.)  Anyway, here is the song:

Now it is impossible to know what creative decisions went into recording each song.  However, what is going on in each song is part of a bigger trend in music, so that I don’t think you can just base the sound of each recording to the taste of the artist.  I would also imagine that the budget was much bigger for Sleep When I’m Dead, given the fact that The Cure has gone on to be a band that can play stadiums.

On the earlier song there is much more clarity to the way it sounds.  Each instrument is discernible no matter how loud or quiet they are in the mix.  There is also much more depth of field.  When things get it seems like they are farther away.  In a lot of modern recordings when things get quieter, part of the instruments seem lost in a way that does not happen naturally in reality.  The newer song has less clarity and less depth of field, despite probably having a bigger budget for recording.  This is also despite the fact that technology has progressed.  I’m not doing this to knock later period Cure.  Too many times fans of any band develop sentimental attachments to artists that don’t allow them to view their newer work clearly.  I personally prefer the older song out of the two, but I am happy to hear any new material by an artist that I like.  Plus, there are newer songs by The Cure that I prefer to certain older ones.  It just comes down to the material itself.  However, I feel that the way the earlier material was recorded gives it a better chance of flight.  It has more sonic ambience and atmosphere in just the recording itself.

Anyway, I’m using music, but this really could apply to many art forms.  Although there are certain movies that look great when they are filmed digitally, there is something about the way film looks, which is a longer and more expensive process, that often wins out on average.  It always, at the end of the day, comes down to the choices that each individual artist makes and how they use a medium that matters most.

Technology often makes things easier and less expensive.  This is good because it allows more people to express themselves.  The downside to technology is that sometimes less of what is made, as a percentage, reaches a certain level of quality.  It is easier to record than ever before, which means more recordings are being made.  This is a good thing.  However, even average quality recordings of earlier time periods usually have a higher standard that average quality recordings today.

I’m not trying to make a point necessarily.  There are people on both sides of the argument.  Both have valid points.  I only am trying to get you to think about how technology can affect art both good and bad.  Technology in art, as it does in life, can often make things better and worse at the same time.

The Astounding Art and Photography of Bill Lanier

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Lanier Studios

Tonight I was extremely lucky.  I was invited to photographer and artist Bill Lanier’s house to see hangings of his latest work.  This is some of the best work that I have seen in awhile.  While his stuff is based in photography, it is really more complex than that.  He takes his photographs, which in and of themselves are striking images, and has them printed on aluminum, which causes all kinds of optical illusions to occur.  At times they appear to have the depth of a holograph and at other times it is hard to tell if they are photographs or paintings.  Standing in a different light or at different angles from his work makes them take on new characteristics.  There was a picture he took of blue bonnets that looked like a painting from across the room.  When I got closer to it, it was so vivid due to the textures, that I felt as if I could almost stick my head into the photograph.  There is true magic at work here.

Most of his work features scenes from Texas, of which Bill is a native.  However, he has also taken photos of other locations as far away as Morocco.

One of the keys to his work is also that he welds and cuts his own frames.  In certain pieces this is essential as the contrast between the image and the frame adds a new dimension.

There is a lot of art out there that becomes fascinating once you learn about it.  If you are even slightly educated in painting, for instance, different pieces start to come alive as your knowledge increases.  With Lanier’s work you don’t need anything but your eyes to appreciate it.  It’s not that one can’t view it on many different levels or intellectualize it, but it is visceral enough in person that it creates a true emotional impact.

The above link will lead you to his work.  However, like most art, pictures do not do it justice.  The images themselves are powerful, but the texture of the images, due to the way that they are printed and framed, again add dimensions that are truly astounding. I can only hope that Lanier exhibits this work soon so that more people can see it in person.

Bryan Ferry’s Avonmore

Bryan Ferry has a new album out called Avonmore.   The album sounds like somewhere in between Roxy Music’s Avalon and his 80’s output, however it does feature enough modern touches to no be stuck in the past.  I have always liked Bryan Ferry, from his early Roxy Music days until now.  Although I don’t think anyone thinks Bryan Ferry sings as well as Bryan Ferry does, which is actually part of his charm, his voice has always been distinctive enough to be interesting to me as a listener. 

I know that there are some of you who probably view his music as too slick, but if you think of music as being visual it has the ability to create it’s own world.  I can’t help but think of some kind of futuristic film noir when I put one of his records on. His music would fit perfectly in the Alan Rudolph film Trouble in Mind.  Even his lesser songs have interesting textures and atmosphere.   He has consistently done his own thing outside of the trends of the day.  Even during the glam era, Roxy Music were much stranger than most of the competition.  Their album For Your Pleasure is a beautifully unique oddity. 

If you are someone that likes latter period Roxy Music, or his early solo career, then this album will please you.  He is still out there painting his own universe, for which I am grateful. 

Comparing Songwriting to Drawing

I like to think of a song as a pencil drawing.  It is the most important part of the drawing, because it defines what it is you are looking at. But with good musicianship and the production, the colors and the frame, it can be made to resemble many different things.  You could draw a picture of a cowboy, but then you could color it in with strange colors and make it a psychedelic cowboy.  Or you could color it is with traditional instruments, make it rustic and dust worn, and it could be a traditional country western song.  You could put it up with no frame or you could put a frame up around it that makes it look as if it should hang in some expensive gallery.  That’s what musicianship and production do, they take that thing that is either great or not on it’s own, and make it presentable to more people.  A great song, like John Lennon’s Imagine, would be great in any form, whether just as a sketch or as the final product, produced by Phil Spector.  Meanwhile, you take something like Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, and although there is some song craft going on there, most of the true magic is in the production and the musicianship.  They are taking a simple drawing and making it into a piece of art through attention to detail.  Meanwhile I just looked at the Billboard Top 20.  Most of that stuff is like someone pissing on a canvas, putting it in an expensive frame, and then telling you it is is a portrait of Jesus.

Music as Painting

Music is very visual to me.  I imagine it is to a lot of people.  When I hear different kinds of music it is almost like going to an expansive art museum and seeing works of art from all different time periods.  If I hear Morrissey’s exquisite Vauxhall and I, I can imagine a marble statue sticking its tongue out in defiance.  Hearing death metal I picture the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch or The Raft of the Medusa.  Put on the Durutti Column and the works of Vincent Van Gogh might spring to mind.  Country records make me think of sepia tinted photos.  Although there might be one kind of art that you prefer to relax in your living room with, why would you ever want to deny yourself the stimulation and diversity of a large art museum on occasion?

Although I love the discordant music of the Public Image Ltd. album Metal Box and the daguerreotype like imagery of old folk music, nothing appeals to me more than a really well written melody.  Something like rap, although is some rap I like, with its absence of melody appears monochromatic to me.  Meanwhile something like the Beatles just explodes with color in my imagination because of the intricate melodies that they construct.  This is obviously subjective, but I am trying to get you to think about how your brain processes music and how that affects your taste.

Also when listening to songs I think about how the writing is visual.  Is someone telling a vivid story that comes to life?  Is another person using abstraction and creating an expressionistic painting with words and melody.  Is a really bad country song doing nothing but creating the equivalent of a really bad truck commercial?

There is a condition called synesthesia where people see colors when they hear music.  People also at times associate certain numbers or letters with color.  Synesthesia is a condition where different cognitive pathways lead to involuntary experiences through other senses.  I have read that some people literally see colors, but I have never experienced anything like this.  I definitely associate certain tones and sounds with colors though.  An A chord will always be a shade of green and a D chord will always be a sort of orange color to me.  Although certain people see various degrees of color, people that experience this don’t agree on what color a sound or number is.  There is even a famous story of two composers arguing over what color a certain chord was.

This is obviously something that is either engrained in you or not.  However, I think if people could try to view music in a visual sense it would open up different experiences and different kinds of music to them.  There are so many amazing worlds to explore in music.  Why limit yourself to a Hallmark card?