Book Reviews: Presets - Digital Shortcuts to Sound and Records Ruin The Landscape

    Here in the northern hemisphere, winter is upon is in its various forms (shorter days/longer nights, things freezing, scouring winds, water falling from the skies in one of several annoying forms). If you’re not in a position to flee to more temperate zones, it’s not uncommon that we turn to reflection during those long nights by the fire/radiator with our warm libation of choice – to have the opportunity to think back or think forward or - sometimes - to think sideways.
    You may also find yourself in parts of the world where seasonal gifting is a custom, and part of your evening reflection involves possible generosity to others. In that spirit, I’d like to suggest two books (either for you or someone you love) that were a great encouragement in terms of thinking sideways – pondering parts of my practice and habits that I take for granted. One book has its origins in a multiplicity of voices, while one is a single voice quietly laying out an idea and its implications. In both cases, there is something at the heart of their respective discussions that is ubiquitous - something we think with rather than thinking about.

    On Presets

    Everybody knows what a preset is, right?
    • A preset is something made by someone else.
    • It’s a commercial requirement for your product.
    • A preset is something you either never touch or always modify.
    • A preset simultaneously makes a product sound inviting and suggests its possibilities.
    I left a few things out, didn't I? If what I didn't list struck you strongly, it's probably because our collective idea of the term has moved a great distance from the days when Tom Oberheim made it possible to save the state of our Oberheim 4-voice synth for later recall (I can still remember watching Lyle Mays doing something on his synth live with the Pat Metheny group a long time ago and and trying to figure out how he could reprogram his synth that quickly) - they have come to be placeholders for our own preferences, and the very territory that new software that automates multiple steps along the chain of creation operates in. Stefan Goldmann's book Presets - Digital Shortcuts to Sound is a set of interviews with very different people that provides an opportunity to think broadly about the idea of "a preset" across genres, forms of artistic practice, and across the history of commercial products. As such, it's an amazing chance to think sideways.
    The nine people that author Stefan Goldmann sits down with aren't necessarily the usual suspects. Okay - the book does include one of the best and most thorough interviews with Robert Henke that I've ever seen anywhere, and it also contains what I believe to be just about the only interview with the team that developed the Korg M1 workstation (arguably, the world's second most ubiquitous synth after the DX7). You might find the book worth the price of admission on those grounds alone. But there's a whole lot more going on - Before sitting down to talk, Goldmann provides a great introduction to the intellectual terrain in all its current complexity, and then dives right in. The collection of interviews ranges widely across the terrain - from the fine arts (Cory Archangel) to guitar-based rock (Michael Wagener), approaches to modeled pianos in the classical world (Dinis Scheman), personal histories intertwined with products and approaches (Mike Daliot and Robert Henke), and ways in which presets are used in artistic discourses with which you may be less familiar (Dimitar Kotev and Tony Stevanovski). They're all rich discussions about interesting ideas - and, in an age where the possibility exists (in principle, anyway) that every aspect of music production could one day be subject to presets, it's useful to consider a world where our intuitions, our creativity, our skill sets, and what we think of as our own individual idiosyncrasies fit into all this. Presets - Digital Shortcuts to Sound provides an opportunity to do just that. It's certainly made my finger pause above the edit button more than once....

    Drowning In A Sea Of Sounds

    You could be forgiven to imagining that a book with the title Records Ruin The Landscape would be an impassioned plea against the resurgence of those petroleum-based globs of PVC poison currently adorning your turntable. But you'd be wrong; maybe the second half of the title will help you out a little bit - Records Ruin the Landscape: John Cage, the Sixties, and Sound Recording. Author David Grubbs (yes, that David Grubbs - Squirrel Bait, Bastro, Gastr del Sol, and so on) starts from another place entirely - with John Cage's legendary dislike of recorded music. It was a disdain shared widely among experimental musicians during the 1960s, who thought of the inherent limitations of recordings themselves and the notion that their existence "freezes" a given score or the artistic practice of an improvisor to a specific audible experience constituted a serious problem. That's not really a view that's bound by the ethos of the age, either - one finds echoes of it in all kinds of generative practice, which seeks to find ways of making something that is honestly different every time it is heard (Brian Eno's Reflection comes to mind as an example here).
    That disdain is not without its contradictions, of course - despite his views, John Cage made a whole lot of recordings. Similarly, Derek Bailey appears to have owned either no records at all (or very few), but how many of us know him by virtue of the dozens of recordings that we do have? Were it not for the availability of, say, the entire set of recordings that Miles' second quintet made, how would we understand the whole of the development that followed from Live at the Plugged Nickel (the 9-disc set, of course)? It's difficult to spend time with David's book and not find yourself considering such contradictions, and wondering at the shape of our own contradictions in the present age.
    In addition, the availability of the recordings we now view as revelatory or ground-breaking were - in their own time - either difficult to find, or not released until much later (consider the recent Die Schachtel release of the Gruppo Di Improvisazione Nuovo Consonanze's improvisations, which - with a very few exceptions - never available until now, when we hear them through the filter of time passed). Moreover, what does it mean to consider those questions in the present age, when that intentional scarcity is now replaced by today's seemingly endless stream of music? Grubb wants to make sure that we keep in mind that the access we take for granted today is a recent set of circumstances, and he brings his book from Cage's views (along with artists like Henry Flint) to the present age and asks how that accessibility changes the way we think of experimental music from the time. The book began its life as a dissertation, but it's moved beyond the narrow focus of scholarly study to pose wider questions to a wider audience - any of us who listen, really.

    • Nov 29 2017 | 8:46 pm
      These two books are very well chosen. In middle age, I decided to try and fill in the blanks and did a Masters in creative music tech Grubbs was a favourite source and, while I was doing it, muso journalist brother gave me a copy of 'Presets'. It's really striking to see both books put in the same article!
      Two thoughts:
      1. There's no use complaining about the ubiquity of recorded sound. The world is full, FULL, of recorded sound. It is overflowing and still more is created. It has increased beyond a capacity for fair critical engagement. We are influenced more than ever, perhaps only, by social influences in what pushes us to one record or another. Perhaps, the music we engage with, and that which we don't, says more about our social influences than our artistic interests?
      2. Presets are OK. In non-electronic music, presets are fine; what is wrong with a piece of music written for a penny whistle or a recorder, for example? They're not known for their range of timbres, their modulation matrix. Years ago I saw a sleeve note proudly claiming that 'no presets were used in this recording' well, what's that saying - that only someone who can create a synth patch, and write a great tune for it is, somehow, valid? That is unreasonable because it assumes that musical expression is only valid if the expression creates the medium by which it is expressed. Disdain for a tune because of the sound used to play it, is little more than snobbery.