Timbre is the New Harmony

It’s always dangerous to predict future musical trends. That includes my personal direction. But I will say the funk piece(s) in the Penny Rusha suite was a kind of historical exorcism. It was a way of starting my climb out of a three year hiatus with the familiar. You could say, in the context of the fourstones mold of ’70′s porno soundtrack feel: it had to be done.

Meanwhile, for the more noisy, ambient sensibility I’m tracking a sometime collaborator and buddy ztutz. A few years ago I got to see him create sounds in Ableton – he mainly used Operator and other FX, would preview them in headphones and then “release” it into the mix, tweaking the thing along the way. But here’s thing: forget the process, the sounds were amazing.

I used several drones of his I found in my library for the Penny Rusha suite. A 5.3 MB FLAC stem from the Out of Step Ableton project that demonstrates this is here.  His sounds/drones/tones were so incredibly musical, they told a story, like what you expect from a great melody but they were really just one pitch or mash of pitches. That plus the modern clip automation power of Ableton led me to a thought experiment that asks: is timbre the new harmony?

The idea goes something like: between be-bop and 12-tone classical, we have reached the highest form of innovation using the Western scale that will ever be. You can’t stack the chords any higher or permute them to any more voicings. With be-bop you can’t play the notes any faster and when you slow them down, you just find the same bunch of melody fragments we’d had the 50 years before and you thus find that like chords, we’ve run out of melodic permutations of the 11 notes in the scale.

That’s leads to some awesomely clanky music ala Varese, the thoughtful silences of Cage, the maximally exploitive minimalist passion of Robert Johnson and John Lee Hooker (and thus Rock ‘n’ Roll), the poetic monotonic chants of Kingston Rub-a-dub (and thus Rap) and the soundscapes of the likes of Riech and, tada, Eno.

While there is a large degree of all-Boomer-all-the-time marketing forces keeping us stuck in Beatle-mania cum Motown (thus American Idol), the late night talk shows are never at a loss to book a two-guitar, bass, drum and vocal ensemble because all the movements I mentioned above were all dead-end fadish variations of the same notes and chords we’ve been pounding on since before Hayden.

All except for the last, the soundscaping. In recent decades it occurs to me that, thanks to the rise of  NI, Reason and Ableton, there have been several sub-genres of electronic music that are primarily based on timbre (see: Dub-Step.)

Just to be clear, I actually like Lady Gaga and I’m totally digging Frank Ocean and several other new-ish people. What I’m suggesting is that if you chart the musical innovation from 1940-1970 and then compare it to 1980-2010, I think you have to conclude that creative uses of classical and blues based idioms, which is basically everything based on the Western scale, ran aground after that first period.

Electronic music that finds its emotional connection in tweaking timbre seems like very, very furtive ground to me. And I think the current crop of timbre based genres are just at the beginning of what’s possible. They are the equivalent of being handed the world’s biggest painter’s palette and using it to draw a middling gray line down the center of the canvas. All the tools mentioned above begin with the same symmetrical canned  waveforms: sine, sawtooth, triangle, square. But they all also include waveform editors! Dragging the mouse around allows you start building your sound from all numerically possible variations. This, as opposed to being locked into 11 stops along the otherwise infinite frequency range between a pitch and it’s octave double above it.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while. Right before I set aside all original music output three years ago I secured the domain name “timbregroove.org/com.” At the time I was thinking about a music creation tools that totally focuses on timbre and what that would look like, as opposed to DAWs based on virtualizing pianos and tape recorders.

If timbre is the new harmony, then innovation and newly found emotional impact will continue to flow from exploring the infinite variations of possibilities and the default scopes will be views onto the FFT window not a guitar tuner.

In the news: I’ve started posting the stems to the Penny Rusha projects over here.

  1. “furtive ground”

    That’s a good one. Genius even if you meant “fertile ground”.

    And the rest seems plausible, music futurist.

  2. (shaking fist at spell checker… then… hmmmmm… !!!)

  3. I love the full Varese. It’s a great thing.

    But my money is on harmony continuing to exist in recognizable form for more or less all time.

    The reason is that it’s such a flexible vehicle for playing with symmetry. You can walk on the semi tones, diatonic scale, arpeggios, and/or octaves. And you can zoom out or in with them (out being e.g. from arpeggios to octaves or from semitones to the diatonic scale.

  4. Totally agree Lucas but isn’t that just the margins of innovation? I was asking about where the edge is, where the next “big” area of exploration happens. As big and revolutionary as be-bop seems to have been (which btw, didn’t replace anything, just pushed the envelope way out there.)

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