Art-O-Mat /Mark Kaufman
by Aaron Miles

Adaptation and innovation: these are the harbingers of the most important musical revolutions. For instance, jazz broke free of European confines, reveling in improvisation and celebrated imperfection; meanwhile, the blues spurned the rock and roll revolution. As rock grew, punk told formality to piss off. A few minutes later, urban African Americans utilized consumer electronics, records, and voice to create hiphop. Simultaneously, the avant-garde, dance, and pop producers also began messing with digital sound technology.

Today, from Neptunes to Menomena, it's the digital revolution that's all up in our speakerboxxx, creating more possibilities for musicians to do their duty-pleasing booty and giving the people what they need. The revolution isn't televised, but when you plug in, it is good, brothers and sisters... it is very good.

And digital music tools--from laptop improv programs like Ableton Live to big-studio pitch correctors to help Britney stay in key--offer nearly infinite possibilities. Sounds and arrangements can be endlessly manipulated until the artist's subjective perfection is achieved.

Portland composer, graphic artist, and Audio Dregs label owner E*Rock came up on punk rock. With digital composition tools, however, he now creates and releases beautiful electronic music. He says, "Once I started [working digitally], producing new sounds and building songs changed. There is no such thing as a perfect beat--but you can create something close to the ideal." Instrumental limitations also disappear. "You're not limited to the 12-note classical progression, and you don't have to be trained." With digital media, innovation not only gets faster and more precise, but global collaborations are possible through the click of an email: just attach an mp3, and voila! You're writing a song with someone in Bermuda.

"A lot of stuff people do is about collectiveness," says E*Rock. "It benefits everyone who's making music and opens up this memepool of musical ideas."

When composing with digital media, songs can sound like the perfect, machinelike robot music that rock Luddites like to hate on--but it's starting to sound more "human," too. Elliott Adams (local DJ, event promoter with Othertempo, and sometime Mercury contributor) observes, "People freaked out on that old techno shit: 'Why does this sound so crazy and mechanical and perfect?' Now, [all kinds of digital music] have organic instrumentation going on. The novelty of the medium has worn off, or it's seen as retro--you have punk or electroclash stuff where they want to sound real robotic, but it's all tongue in cheek."

Still, mass disco record burning is a thing of the past--and thanks to the crossovers and pioneers in this land of innovators, the feud between rockers and techies is evaporating. Is there reason to hate on digital music and its potential mathematical perfection? Perhaps, but hope lies in humans' abilities to celebrate their imperfections--to love our annoying sacks of flesh and the art we create. The carrot of absolute control and perfection that technology holds up is alluring. So are buns of steel. But life is imperfect and random. It's not meant to be perfectly composed, and sometimes the buns get a little droopy. "Any technology is dangerous if you don't see it for what it is and what it's doing to you. There has to be a public discourse about it," says Adams, sounding rather prophetic. Let the discourse happen, and let music reflect the people.