MUSIC TECHNOLOGY IN THE COMMUNITY
‘Has music technology made community music more accessible, more relevant and does it provide new aspirations for its providers and users. If so, How?’
Music Technology has been a vital tool in bringing people together since the birth of the gramophone in the early 20th century, which allowed families to gather round and listen to a record before Television was invented.
Hip-hop was a huge movement that was born because of the lack of traditional musical knowledge in the urban areas of New York in the late 70’s. People got access to microphones, drum machines, samplers and turntables and started their own thing, rather than playing guitars like the rest of the nation.
Beat it – provides new aspirations for young disabled people in and around Leeds, by giving them a stage, inviting them to join their band, and teaching them how to play instruments.
SORM studios in Bradford creates opportunities for vulnerable young people with learning difficulties and mental health problems to record music, which has had huge benefits to peoples lives, including suicidal people becoming happier because of having an outlet to express themselves.
As humans we are very adaptive creatures. If there is something we cannot do, we will find a way to do it. If it is dark, we will invent a light bulb. If our voice is not being heard, we will invent a microphone and a PA system.
Music is a voice, and when our voices are not heard, we will find a way to make it heard.
Peter White is a BBC Radio 4 journalist who is blind. In 2013 he presented a radio series about the history of disability in the UK and came across some very powerful voices from the late 1800’s. Peter found a strong sense of ‘personal discovery’ in making the programmes. He said, “I have never realised disabled people had a history. History was what happened to everyone else”.
Adele Husson was a blind woman from the 1800’s who promoted the idea that blind children should be ‘forced to dress themselves’ – even though it may be tough at first – because in later life, they will become a lot more independent. At first this seems cruel and horrible, but if we think about the context, it has been said by a blind woman, who maybe wishes this had been done to her, and is said in compassion. We can relate to this by thinking about our own lives, and the things we cannot do. If someone had forced us to try something we thought we wouldn’t be any good at from an early age, would we be good at it now?
Another woman from Victorian London – Hippolyte van Lendegem originally from Germany, wrote a book called “Charity Misapplied”, discussing the way people pity the disabled. She wrote that disabled people in London in 1864 were incapable of self- support, because of what she described as “exile schools” miseducating and institutionalising them as young people. She said most disabled people became street dwellers and inmates of workhouses because of this. These ‘dumping ground’ institutions such as the ‘schools for the blind’ gave their users very little food for thought, and had low expectations for their students, leaving them unemployable by the end of their studies, just because they lack one of their senses. She wrote about the “Four-Sensed”, which was one of the first instances of ‘The Disabled Identity’- a concept which has become more and more important throughout history, allowing people to come together such as the ‘Disabled Rights Movement’ of the 60’s and 70’s, inspired by Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘Civil Rights Movement’.
Before the discovery of Hippolyte van Lendegem, it was a common preconception that the identity of disabled people began after WWI, when veterans returned home with various disfiguring injuries. However, the ‘National League of the Blind’ became a Trade
Union in 1899 – actively fighting against the government for civil rights such as being victimized at work. This was the beginning of the idea of ‘Discrimination’.
The real problem that was experienced by Husson and van Lendegem was “pity”. Husson said that people would walk up to her in the street at notify her of how ‘unfortunate’ it was for her to be blind. Peter White said he had the same experience, and said the real problem is the patronising and demeaning attitudes towards disability. To finalise his Radio show, he said “disability doesn’t make us good or bad, pathetic or brave, it just makes us human”.
These old-fashioned preconceptions that all disabled people are ‘stupid’ or ‘unfortunate’ are ridiculous, and offensive. Disabled people should be treated exactly like everyone else, especially when it comes to education. In every music classroom there should be equipment in place that disabled students can use alongside their able-bodied peers. This not only includes them in the lesson and curriculum, but also includes them in their class.
In another radio show entitled “I Don’t Need No Doctor”, Peter White explores the world of professional musicians with disabilities. We can all name a few – Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Django Reinhardt, but we don’t think about the practicalities and realities of being a musician with a disability.
Even though Disability laws require disabled access to all buildings and areas, there are still many live music venues that have zero access, and people using wheelchairs require being lifted on to the stage by hand, with no ramps or hoists – this can be a huge inconvenience. One artist by the name of Robert Wyatt, who is a wheelchair user, said in his interview with Peter White that he had to literally ‘live’ inside the studio that he was recording at for weeks on end, because it was such a hassle to keep going up and down the staircase. However, new technology has created options for people with disabilities that not only solve their practical problems, but also has opened up new opportunities for studio technicians all over the world.
ISDN Line or “Integrated Systems Digital Network” is a digital telephone connection that allows us to transfer High quality audio over long distances in real time. According to
Hugh Robjohns of Sound on Sound, this has already significantly changed the way we record music. Artists can overdub from London to LA in real time, meaning disabled artists can perform alongside their band members at the studio from their home. It also means finished album masters can be approved at once by record companies without having to be at the studio. So if you are a disabled mastering engineer, performer, or need any input over the track itself, you can now do that from the comfort of your home studio.
New technology has also increased the number of portable studios, with laptops becoming more and more powerful, and we can download software such as Logic directly from the Apple App Store from anywhere we can access the internet. People can send stems or tracks easier than ever using facilities such as Dropbox and the ‘Cloud’.
Because of the precision, sustained pressure and physical exertion that playing traditional musical instruments such as guitars or drums involve, people with conditions like Muscular Dystrophy, Cerebral Palsy, Multiple Sclerosis, Stroke victims and people with Spinal Cord Injuries can struggle to play these instruments for long periods of time, if at all.
Groups such as “Beat It Music Group” and ‘The Coalition for Disabled Musicians, Inc. (CDM)’ give disabled people a place to play instruments and be part of a band, in a place where their needs are understood. The ‘CDM’ use a “Tag-Team” technique for drummers with endurance limitations that need to stop playing half way through a song due to ‘chronic pain’ or any other endurance affecting problems.
Music is a difficult thing to be involved with if you cannot play traditional instruments. This results in disabled people being sidelined in situations such as the classroom or the youth club, or any other place where young people are learning how to use traditional instruments.
Because of new technology, there are more ways to get people with different needs involved in music.
Solutions to these practical problems include products such as Leapmotion, which senses any movement of the users hand, and detects whether it is a wave, point, reach, or a grab gesture and reacts accordingly. This has given birth to various other tools for manipulating MIDI and Audio. Aeromidi is a device that allows anyone with a Leapmotion controller (which is around $80) to control any MIDI device – hardware or software – and use it in any way they choose. It detects the motion and much like a Theremin, changes the pitch and velocity of the input signal. Airharp is another instrument that uses this motion sensor technology to create a user-friendly instrument for all ages and levels.
This is a great use of music technology, and it means that even if you don’t have any hands, you can still find something that works for you.
Social exclusion is a huge problem in the world of disabled people, so any solution to this problem is warmly welcomed. This is why companies like AMD and Intel are partnering with products such as Fingertapps, that “create opportunities for families to share experiences for entertainment, learning, sharing a past adventure or just helping to plan what’s happening next week”. This could be very useful for families or groups of people where communication is an issue.
Hopefully, these technologies will become Music Classroom standard, and will allow disabled students attending mainstream schools to participate in the lesson, and even become the center of attention, as these ‘cool’ new technologies will attract the other students. Their newfound ‘coolness’ will change their peer’s perception of them and increase their ‘Social Role Valorisation’ (Wolfensberger). This way, the other student’s positive opinions of disabled people will grow with them throughout the years, creating a more hopeful and understanding generation of tomorrow.
Music teaching in the UK is at a stalemate, where kids don’t want to participate, leaving secondary teachers at the whim of their students. Personally, my memories of being
taught music at secondary school consist of playing with the Yamaha keyboards sound effects and being a nuisance to the teacher whilst generally having a really good time. However enjoyable this may have been, I feel that I didn’t learn as much about music as I could have, if the technology was more suited to the generation it was targeting.
In New York in the 80’s, most peoples parents were old blues and jazz fans, and maybe even played a bit of guitar or piano, but just like now, young people didn’t want to learn how to play those outdated instruments. Most young people nowadays make music on their computers, as DAW / MIDI sequencing software is so easy to access and download. In the late 80’s it was a similar situation, learning to play the piano in a traditional way wasn’t socially ‘relavant’, and one would be held in much higher esteem by peers if they were to learn how to ‘scratch’ or ‘beatbox’. Outdated technologies were a thing of the past, and along came “Hip-Hop”.
Marley Marl on a recent beat making tutorial on YouTube said that “limitations made us what we were, making classic hip-hop in the projects in the living room”. He said him and Eric B were using just a 4-Track tape recorder – no studio – so they had to put only the ‘hottest’ 4 things on those tracks. He quoted Rakim – “It’s not where you’re from, Its where you’re at”.
Technology such as Samplers and Drum Machines became one of the foundations of Hip-Hop music. The Akai MPC60 is an iconic “sequencer – sampler workstation” that allows users to sample from a vinyl or any other source, chop the sample to the drum pads, add drum loops, then record and sequence the whole track. This was a huge step for music and made it more relevant and fun for young people who had never experienced this type of technology before. The MPC60 was modern, it was ‘cool’ and all the big names in Hip-Hop were using one.
However, some would say that sampling got a little bit out of control. In an Australian documentary from 1988 (before the laws were changed), producer Bob Clearmountain suggests that “any kid in their basement could do that with a $300 sampler nowadays, and it just doesn’t seem quite fair because it really is stealing”. A woman named Debbie Gibson in the same video said, “I think that’s wrong because that’s plagiarism”.
Hip-Hop artists on the other hand would tell a different story, Will Smith stated in the same video that James Brown was ‘finished’ and ‘old’, and that Hip-Hop and sampling had made James Brown ‘new again’.
It could be said that Hip-Hop made young people interested in older music, and made people appreciate the skill and finesse of the artists they were sampling. Producers ‘Cold Cut’ say that they may choose a certain sound because it sounds better than any factory preset they have and has a nice ‘ambience’. This natural sound cannot be recreated with MIDI technology.
Nas’ (Nasir Jones) album “Illmatic” (1994) was a very important record to Hip-Hop music, and features Nas’ Father Olu Dara, who is a famous Jazz musician on the track ‘Life’s a Bitch’. Nas asked his father (who grew up in Mississippi) to play a cornet solo that reminded him of his memories of Nas and his younger brother ‘Jungle’ as they were growing up. Politically, Nas’ positive message to the people of his generation was that we should appreciate our elders and respect their music at a time of controversy about sampling.
Erik Parker, one of the Directors of ‘Time is Illmatic’ (2014), a documentary about the production of ‘Illmatic’ and Nas’ life, said in an interview for ‘VIBE Magazine’ that the album “spoke for many of us growing up in that time period”. He also goes on to say “there’s a lineage from Jazz, to Blues, to Hip-Hop. There’s a lineage from the southern experience to the northern experience. The generations are connected, so we wanted to build that bridge in that way”. He said that Nas music wasn’t in a ‘vacuum’ and that it was representative of a whole generation of young people ‘trying to find their voice in America’. Basically, Hip-Hop music is the voice of the community, and music technology allowed it to happen.
On the 16th December 2014, the UK Government put into place a new strategy for keeping disabled people and elderly people ‘up-to-date’ with new technologies such as online banking, public transport and TV.
C3319760 Elliot Newton 12th January 2015 The Digital Accessibility Alliance will:
· Encourage compliance with relevant “eInclusion” legislation such as the ‘Equality Act 2010’;
· Promote universal access for citizens to digital services, particularly for older people and those with disabilities; and
· Generate and promote good practice.
Digital Economy Minister Ed Vaizey said:
“The explosion of digital services provides endless opportunities for all – but the Government is all too aware that disabled and older people can often intentionally be left behind.”
This is a step in the right direction, and it shows users of this service that the government doesn’t want to keep anyone in the dark, and that everyone is equal.
SORM (School of Rock and Media) Studios is a nonprofit organisation that allows young vulnerable people to play instruments, learn how to record music in the studio, and perform on stage at live gigs. This is a program that users find thoroughly exhilarating, and not only does it get them out of the house and meeting people, but increases their confidence and self expression. This is a very important thing for people to learn how to do, especially if they have a history of suicidal tendencies or depression. At SORM, if you cannot play a traditional instrument, they have a “Soundbeam”, which is similar to the Leapmotion controller, and allows users to break an infra-red beam at different points to create different tones, notes and melodies, and can even be used to play drums.
This means people with physically restrictive disabilities can be part of the groups band, “The Outsiders”, which is a band formed by Liz Leach, who also hosts “Beat It” music group. The members of this band are respected members of society, who without music in their life, would be yet another disabled person whose voice is not being heard.
Peter Whites documentary about musicians lead him to an interview with a Deaf Rapper.
Deaf People have formed their own Rave scene, which consists of extremely loud music with high bass energy; so that you can feel the rhythm even if you cant hear. This allows people who want to get up on stage to do so, and perform however they choose, whether its ‘Freestyling’, Rapping in sign language, or even ‘Sign Dancing’. This is a good opportunity for people to perform just like their Hip-Hop idols. ‘Sign Dancing’ is something I have personally seen used in the Pentecostal Church as a form of worship that is inclusive as well as beautiful to watch.
This growing scene is an amazing idea that could potentially transform people’s lives from lonely and desolate, to thriving, socially fulfilling and fun. This use of creativity and adaptation is what makes us human, and it is these qualities that lead me to believe that Music Technology is our best way of finding a voice when we cannot be heard.
Finally, has music technology made community music more accessible, more relevant, and does it provide new aspirations for its providers and users? We have looked at many examples that would lead us to believe that it has. However, there are still areas we need to work on as a country. There is still a lack of these new accessible technologies in mainstream schools, as they can be expensive, and all the money in special needs education is being spent in special schools. If we want ‘Community Music’ to become more accessible and provide new aspirations for its users and providers, we need to see this in mainstream education, not just segregated education. But, this depends on ones definition of Community Music. Mine, is that everyone and anyone is invited to join in.
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