New Romantics

One of the last times I stopped by the Cambridge outpost of Tower Records, I was greeted by boxes upon boxes of the Duran Duran compilation Greatest at $2.99 a pop. A fine waste of three bucks, even if every song runs on a minute too long. (Except “Notorious,” which has become my favorite single ever, at least until the end of this week.)

I liked Duran Duran when they first made it big in the 80’s, but not because of the hair, or the clothes, or the videos—nope, it was for the sampling keyboards. By the time they recorded Seven and the Ragged Tiger, their third album, they were deploying sampled keyboard riffs like nobody’s business, and to me, budding mid-80’s musician, that was the height of coolness. Not anymore, though; the last time I went browsing through new keyboards at the local gear shop, the sampling models were few and tucked into the back corner, crowded out by digitally recreated pianos, digitally recreated drawbar organs, and even digitally recreated analog synthesizers. What happened?

What happened now has its own entire showroom next to the keyboards. Turntables happened; hip-hop brought them into public consciousness as musical instruments, and within a decade they had supplanted those keyboards in the pantheon of cool. Even when samplers were being used, they weren’t being used for the orchestral hits or rapid-fire brass riffs that had already become clichés, they were being used to lay down loops and recognizable pre-recorded bits in imitation of turntabling techniques. Which is kind of weird, when you think about it—I mean, a turntable is essentially a low-tech version of a sampling keyboard, with a lot less control and a lot fewer options. Everything you can do on a turntable is easily imitated on a keyboard, and the keyboard can do a lot that would be well-nigh impossible via vinyl.

And therein lies the answer, and the reasons behind it actually bode well for the future of classical music, oddly enough. Turntables are cooler than sampling keyboards because they’re low-tech and harder to play. Why? The lack of advanced technology makes the techniques of turntabling easily understandable by the listener and/or viewer. And the difficulty of those techniques makes the act of turntabling a hell of a lot more impressive to the audience. Here’s a video of DJ Q-Bert scratching—you can see how he’s doing what he’s doing, but he’s doing it way, way better than you can, and that’s what makes it entertaining. It’s the old 19th-century Romantic virtuoso thing all over again.

It’s also why those old, 19th-century, technologically backward instruments have survived into the 21st century. One of the main rules of virtuosity is that the mechanism has to be in plain view, and the technique has to be easily grasped by the observer. We could probably engineer, for example, a piano that makes beginning pianists able to play Alkan. But that’s not the point; the point is to be able to be amazed by someone taking a physical action that anybody could do and doing it at a level that almost nobody can achieve. Hence the persistence of performers who are willing to devote their lives to gaining mastery over a particular piece of equipment, and of audiences willing and wanting to actually leave the comfort of their own homes to see that mastery in action. In music, at least, the better mousetrap isn’t always better.

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