time to change the way we view music and the arts

Perfect Imperfection

It’s hard to say what exactly makes music that thing for me. And by “that thing” I mean the thing I can’t stop thinking about from the moment I wake up to the moment I start to fall asleep every day. Growing up, I was all about practicing and perfecting and trying to be the best because I wanted to reach the sky. I wanted to be that person who wore a fancy dress and walked out on stage at Carnegie Hall and had a signature about me. (There was a girl who played first chair in a community orchestra I knew who always wore a light scarf with musical notes on it at every concert. That was her signature)

So I practiced and dreamt and got competitive and improved over time. That’s just it though: I improved over time. There are plenty of runs and shifts that gave me trouble and would have me repeating and repeating until I drove my parents crazy and the notes wouldn’t always be good. Then when I went to perform at the recitals, or the NYSSMA (New York State School Music Association) Competitions, I would be hoping beyond hope that I would remember not to mess up those trouble spots and be so proud when my fingers landed in the right places and the tone was beautifully melodic just the way I would want to hear it in my mind.

Now, anyone outside of New York State probably doesn’t know what NYSSMA is and maybe they’ve never studied formally, but anyone who has tried to learn a new skill or a new instrument in any fashion knows the feeling of achieving something previously unreachable. It’s different for everyone but it’s always positive and surprising because let’s face it, there’s a moment right before the shaky parts where you take a risk. Practice, practice practice or not, spontaneous things happen and circumstances are somewhat unpredictable. The need to sneeze, sweaty hands, short of breath, cramping wrists… you name it. But that’s also why mistakes were never the end of the world. If you knew you could play something or sing something in your sleep, one mistake was just that. And that mistake was just a reflection of that one moment, which would develop your character as a musician for the future.

Even though time rolls on, I’ll obviously never re-live those formative years. With that in mind, it makes me wonder if kids growing up in these recent years will have any kind of mindset similar to what mine (and I’m sure many others) was like. Why am I unsure of this? Contrary to what you might think, it’s not because of any age superiority complex about “kids today.” I believe confidence and pride are infinite and accessible for everyone. It’s the fact that technology keeps becoming more and more about micro-management that makes me believe those “breakthrough moments” might start to die out or at least not be nearly as poignant going forward.

The newest branch on the technology micro-management tree? Auto-Tune Technology for Guitars, also known as the ATG-6 for Guitars.

No jokes here; it’s real and it’s functional. Antares Audio Technologies, the company that created the original Auto-Tune in 1997, (whose latest is Version 7,) has announced creation of a version for guitars that will not only correct pitch and timing, but is capable of doing so with live performance in the moment.

Here are some of the main features and how they impact performance, direct from the product’s description on Antares’s website:

1) “Using [the] new Solid-Tuneâ„¢ Intonation system, an ATG-6 equipped guitar constantly monitors the precise pitch of each individual string and makes any corrections necessary to ensure that every note of every chord and riff is always in tune, regardless of variables like finger position or pressure or physical limitations of the instrument.”

2) “Solid-Tune is smart enough to know when you want to manipulate pitch, so you can play bends and vibrato exactly as you always do. In fact, Solid-Tune Intonation makes it even easier to bend to the right pitch every time.”

3) “Flawless intonation… astonishing tonal flexibility [and] alternate tunings.”

I’ve witnessed these capabilities in action, as performed by the gentleman in the video below, from the website, Harmony Central.

I’m not about to break out into a technical breakdown/review of the product, and nor am I about to open up a flaming can of argumentative worms. However, the central purpose of the ATG-6 being what it is, I can’t help but feel disheartened; especially with statements like these:

“It’s one thing to tune up your strings, but as anyone who’s been playing for a while knows, the tougher challenge is maintaining perfect intonation as you move up and down the neck and finger complex chords. Luckily, this is where ATG-6 technology performs some of its most dramatic magic.

(Cit. Also from Antares’s Website)

Tougher challenge? Dramatic Magic? Really? This might sound a bit more soap boxy than usual, but my gosh, magic was always that mysterious thing you couldn’t believe or necessarily understand and that made you excited and happy. Challenges are hard. That’s why they’re challenges. To me, you face a challenge, you survive it and even more, you do well at it despite circumstances, and that’s magic. With algorithms and electrical circuits pre-determining what will spontaneously alter your errors during the most hectic live show, there’s no drama, there’s no suspense, there’s no moment where you hold your breath and pray your fingers don’t go numb at the last second. There’s just a giant de-bugging cheat code that let’s you access everything regardless of whether you practiced that riff for five minutes, hours, days or weeks.

Since the traditionalists of the arts are trying to be more receptive to contemporary sounds, technologies, composition techniques, and anything else thrown their way, both for survival and curiosity’s sake, and since the arts in general are struggling behind other fields, I struggle myself to see how this seemingly small piece of technology will aid either of those causes. Some traditionalists cling to their views because of the older philosophies that revolved all around hard work for better placement. And the arts are going to continue to struggle or possibly further decline if they can’t incorporate more unorthodox, appealing approaches. So something that makes progress and self-discovery meaningless will not help bring down traditionalist guard, which will in turn not loosen the grip on arts programming and then affect gaining funding…. Not to be doom and gloom, but conceptually, trying to say you can control bends on a guitar is like saying you have perfect imperfection. It’s an impossible paradox. People accept imperfections because the flaws aren’t everything to them. Focusing on permanent correction only shows self-consciousness and lack of either favor for, or trust in, one’s own musical character –the thing that makes people like me. People that have music as “that thing.”

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