Distributed Creativity

This is a version of a paper I gave at the Forum for Innovation in Music Production and Composition at Leeds College of Music in May 2011 with PhD student Adam Martin. It’s a whistle-stop tour, but hopefully not too fragmented. Although I don’t directly draw them out, there are some resonances with recent posts: the relationship between architecture and music, the impact of the internet on production, distribution and consumption, the relationship between technology and people.

Some Kind of Introduction…

The idea of the ‘studio’ isn’t (and probably never has been) a stable notion. The studio as a fixed, stable, architectural entity, made all the more solid by associations with famous musicians (Abbey Road the most obvious example), has been seriously challenged by the miniaturisation and subsequent mobilisation of technology. We no longer need hefty bits of equipment and expensive rooms to make good quality music. By diluting the need for a specific physical place, we can really get to the core of what studios are really about – creativity.

Some examples…

  • Damon Albarn produced The Fall using an iPad whilst on tour;
  • Apogee are currently marketing JAM and Mic – single-user interfaces optimised for ‘iPad, iPhone and Mac’. Notice the strapline – ‘Studio quality input…’;
  • Beatmaker places powerful audio processing in the palm;
  • Eric Wahlforss made his 2003 album Soulhack ‘on an odyssey which started off with a counterfeit interrail ticket thru Europe’ (Did he really make the album on a train? He could have…) It’s probably worth pointing out that Wahlforss is also a co-founder of SoundCloud;
  • June 2011, Sound on Sound reports on the ‘iOS revolution’ in music-making.

Some theory…

-/ Creativity (and by this I’m thinking specifically of music, using technology) is  a constellation of approaches (as it always was). But now its fragmented, fractured, varied and dispersed characteristics are all the more in focus (Albarn’s process is as important as the product).

The physical location of the studio offers something to grab on to, a representation to help fix our understanding of how music might get made. But when this location is no longer needed, when the train platform might temporarily become a location of creativity, we need to understand creativity as something more dynamic, something less physical. (I’ll come back to this in a later post).

-/ Return to Abbey Road – represented as a monolithic place; fixed, constant, specific (characteristics cemented by the monolithic Beatles). However, the exact nature of the studio (the shape and size of its rooms, the relationship between spaces, its acoustic properties, the sounds that come out of it, its socio-cultural status) comes about as a result of very particular circumstances. We can describe Abbey Road in terms of the equipment it houses and its architectural dimensions, but this isn’t enough. Instead, we need to understand the place in terms of the relations it affords.

Bruno Latour‘s Actor-Network Theory (ANT) extends the possibility of relations to ‘non-human’. Relations are between people and people, but also between people and technology, technology and buildings, buildings and people. Objects are important in creativity (particular mics, computers, drums) but the network of relations these objects afford offers us more nuanced insight into creativity.

Some Definitions…

The studio is a context that affords relations between human and non-human actors for the purpose of creative action involving some form of reified or intransient sound.

The key term here is context, as it’s this element which has undergone accelerated change over the past decade. A context can now be the hotel room, the train carriage, the converted attic, wherever. The catalyst for this change is the miniaturisation, mobilisation and democratisation of technology (obviously within certain economic limits – I’m not invoking a technological utopia, more a comparison of access to technology between 1961 and 2011). By specifying the diversity of contemporary creative contexts, we say something about historical specificity – these contexts come about because the technology of the time affords a particular relation. And this has an implication for how we can understand the ‘traditional studio’: it is a historical relic.

  1. The traditional studio environment is just one instantiation of a ‘locus of creativity’ in an ongoing historical flux (one that continues to overlap with other instantiations);
  2. The term ‘studio’ is better understood as its core function as a locus of creativity. Admittedly a bit clumsy, the phrase broadens the scope of creativity to all locations where creativity (actions in the pursuit of rendering sound intransient) can take place.

A bit more theory…

-/ The idea of a single author of a piece of art is entirely a myth. Georgina Born invokes the work of social anthropologist Alfred Gell to describe art as inescapably distributed. Art works are embedded in the society of their origin; the creators of these art works respond, whether positively as affirmation or negatively as resistance, to conventions (or memes) that circulate. No matter how precious an artist may be in attempting to protect their personal expression, such a thing depends on a wider network of socio-cultural norms. In this broad sense, all creativity is distributed.

Music production inherently resists the very European notion of a lone author (musicians, arrangers, writers, performers, engineers, separate mix and mastering engineers, roadies, labels, distributers, designers…). Contemporary music technology simultaneously consolidates these roles whilst facilitating increased and more deliberate distribution. Such distribution can be explained via the idea of dispersion: 1) temporal and 2) spatial.

1) Temporal Dispersion:

  • Social – the fluid flow of data means that multiple artists can be working on a project at the same time, regardless of proximity. Creativity can by synchronous and simultaneous, but remote.
  • Historical – once music is rendered as data, the historical life of the musical idea can be reinvigorated. It can be accessed and reworked at a point in time remote from its origin – it remains available.

2) Spatial Dispersion:

  • Geographic space - anywhere can become a locus of creativity. Such mobility challenges the potency of specific geographic locations.
  • Sonic space – Both musical ideas and acoustic properties are encoded within a sonic artefact. Sonic place has been historically significant and audible (think of Elvis at Sun) and this has been a draw – people would go to particular studios as a pilgrimage to recreate particular sonic characteristics. Digital technology emancipatesconvolution reverb allows those places to be recreated remotely. Paradoxically, the places are celebrated while the need for their actual existence is diluted.
  • Social space – SoundCloud, DropBox and others like these stretch social space by removing the need for copresence – social space becomes physically unbounded.

The ‘social’ theme occurs in both temporal and spatial dispersions. Though tightly bound together, there is a subtle difference: socio-temporal dispersions imply that timescales of creativity are no longer necessarily linear; spatio-temporal dispersions imply constellations of locations, rather than creativity taking place in one single place. They are essentially two ways of explaining the same effect – that creativity can be distributed and dispersed.

Some Kind of Conclusion…

The paper was intended to interrogate some assumptions about what a studio is and how musical creativity takes place. There was some resistance to the point of doing this – ‘we all know what a studio is so why do we need to redefine it?’. True, we can name and describe particular studios (and the paper isn’t about undermining their historical significance) but this resistance misses an important point: people are creating music in increasingly diverse ways. To ignore the changes in the way creativity is taking place is to miss an opportunity to extend understanding and practice.

The most significant outcome of all of this, for me, is that the provisional nature of music is celebrated. As Born writes: ‘digitized music encourages an open sequence in which the closing down of a musical object and its circulation are followed by its potential re-opening and re-creation’. This is the core of musical creativity in the digital age – music as an open sequence.

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  1. By Distributed Creativity on June 1, 2011 at 9:02 pm

    [...] Distributed Creativity · Mark Slater on the nature of the studio [...]

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