The future of music and the future of design
January 16, 2009
November 11 2008: MIT electronic music guru Tod Machover’s talk here on Tuesday was searching and provocative. Opening with the startling fact that although almost universally armed with iPods, we are less able to make music than ever before. While music belongs to all cultures, our capacity to produce it actively is dwindling. He led us through a number of design projects by MIT students and collaborators united in their objective of giving the expressive power of music to everyone. The highlight was the performance at TED of an alluring musical composition by a young man, Dan Ellsey, with severely disabled gross motor function. Machover’s counterpart in the evening’s debate was the veteran record producer John Kennedy, who described music as “probably the most popular consumer product in the developed world”. True enough, but no starker contrast could have been drawn between one speaker who favoured production as the future of music, and the other who favoured consumption.
My prejudice towards the personal and civic value of production inevitably leads me to report more of Machover’s thoughts than Kennedy’s. On the subject of stars and heroes and virtuosi, Machover accepted that every society naturally wants to help exceptional artists succeed, but that in our own, an unhealthy gulf exists between great artists and everyone else “just making things” and very visible on My Space. Not only now, he argued, but in the renaissance time of Byrd and Downland, their “genius” flowered in a rich culture of lots and lots of people able to make music. Similarly, Mozart and Beethoven were the best of a deep strata of musicianship. His final analogy was cuisine. We need, he declares, a new “ecology of music”, in which we have access to the 3-star, the takeout order, the home-made dinner and the quick-fix sandwich. This ecology depends on awareness – on teaching kids where music comes from “because if you made something yourself, in the right context, you really learn something about the value of doing it well” – and on stars and experts who “keep the level up” with their insights and skills.
I’m pre-occupied with amateurism at the moment, wondering in what ways, increasingly dependent on a dwindling number of larger and larger suppliers: Disney Pixar, News Corporation, Tesco, EMI – it’s possible to compete with them, personally or as a community, by self-supply. Maybe this is why, for me, Machover’s argument for production as the future of music so roundly defeated the one for consumption. But what keeps exercising me is that design simply does not have a powerful legion of amateurs like, say, music or history or sport. Charles Leadbeater’s pamphlet on the Pro-Am economy starved me for references to design; I had to settle for the statistics on wood and metalwork and embroidery. Amateur design is crafts, DIY, homemaking, cake-icing or hapless typography of the “Lost Kitten” genre. The gulf Machover identified is more problematic in design. Is there any such thing as “keeping the level up”. Is there even a “level” of the non-professional in design?