In Random Neural Firings

Recently, a friend (a music minister) sent me two internet links.

Eons ago, people sent messages with log drums. Then came the letter, followed by the telegram, the telephone, jokes-by-fax-machine, e-mail – and now – links. Experts call this “progress.”

These two links were a study in contrasts.

The first link was to a recording of an intricate jazz-fusion arrangement of “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen.” The chart was arranged by a real pro (Greg Mathieson). It was performed by a dozen or so seasoned studio musicians working at the top of their craft. (A printed list of their recording credits would be the approximate size of an urban phone book.) The music was recorded “live to stereo” (no overdubs, no repairs) in a professional studio by one of the recording industry’s true giants (Bill Schnee).  Everything about this music was “old school.” And it sounded great.

What’s more – the chart was so demanding, there was the constant threat somebody might blow the whole recording. The drummer might miss the tempo shift. The lead trumpet might chip a high note. The bass player might goof up the groove. Somebody might squawk out of tune. After all, those are real possibilities when real people play real music. So, when great musicians do their thing and pull it off without a hitch – it’s exhilarating.

The second link was to a You Tube video of a very clever medley of Christmas songs performed at a mega-church by a dozen or so fellows playing i-Phones and i-Pads. Virtual bells, keyboards, drums and guitars cheerfully rang out from hand-held computers – all perfectly in tune. Every one of the smiling performers looked like they came straight from Central Casting for the Hip Urban Mega-Church. The whole thing smacked of an extended advertisement from Apple. And the crowd ate it up. Like I said, it was all very clever.

And 100% fake.

Because here’s the thing: Not one sound produced by this “live” performance was actually “live.” It was all computer-generated samples. The performers were just pressing buttons – the musical equivalent of the pimple-faced kid behind the counter, who presses the appropriate icon when you order a burger and fries. Oh, I suppose there was the possibility a performer could have missed a note (button?), though the arrangement didn’t challenge any musical skills beyond those acquired in beginner band class. I suspect a qualified trainer could get the same results from a group of obedient chimpanzees. The crowd would really love that.

And yet, when comparing the old-school recording to the clever i-Phone performance, there are those in the church who might call the latter of the two progress. “Look at the cutting edge technology! They’re making music with cell phones! Say, why aren’t we doing that? It’s the next Big Thing!”

I call it “too clever by half.”

Hey, I know it’s entirely possible all the guys playing the clever Christmas medley on i-Phones and i-Pads at the mega-church are all super-talented musicians, who spent years developing their technique. It’s not fair of me to assume all the other music they play at this church is as vapid as this “Christmas Variations for Twelve i-Phones,” or whatever it was called.

But it felt like such a stunt – a clever gimmick. I’d be more impressed if it was just a brazen attempt to get Apple to feature your church in a national TV spot. (Not a bad idea, after all.)

But let’s not call it progress.

Showing 2 comments
  • Darrin Gowan

    Thank you, Mr. Sterling!

    I wrote a similar response to the same forwarded link:

    “I’ve seen a couple of these i-Music sets and songs and I think the technology is pretty interesting. Not appreciably different from any synthesizer with the appropriate patch, merely a portable interface. (The tambourine shake and the guitar strum is another level of tech, but simply triggering sounds isn’t particularly novel.)

    I finally figured out what bugs me about this kind of “music.” It is, because of the limitations of the interface, a very selfish kind of performance. Every player must be focused on their individual trigger to play the correct note in the correct time. Except for the tambourine player, you will very rarely see these musicians make eye contact with a) the bass or drum to get the groove, b) the leader of the group for changes in roadmap or tempo of the song, c) the other players to feel the riffs or to stay in tune, or d) any congregant they might be attempting to lead.

    For straight performance, it is a high level of excellence with beautiful and perfect sounds; but for leading worship, it would be a profoundly poor way of connecting with other human beings. We can either hope that these demonstrations remain limited to the areas where they succeed; or that the interface technology progresses to the point where the instrument is not the focus, but the player.”

    Now I want the link to the Matheison piece!

    Best to you and yours!
    Darrin Gowan

    • rsterling

      Darrin – Well said. I cannot imagine the “i-Phone Band” taking really off. I mean, it’s cleaver as all get out – but it’s just wayyyy too limiting.

      And I hope I don’t come off as an old fuddy-duddy about the i-Phone gimmick. (I really think it was just that – a gimmick.) But I do get bummed when I see a gimmick like this get loads of attention (and the You Tube video has a lot of hits) at a time when the bar for musical excellence in the church has reached an all-time low.


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