Future Music

Beat-swapping Ghostbusters works especially well because of the intense familiarity of the source material - you know where every sonic event is supposed to land, and can feel your brain trying to re-order the pieces even as they arrive out-of-order.

The next stage is for some group of absurdly young, ridiculously skilful musicians to rehearse the beat-swapped version until they can play it live with complete conviction.

This is an interesting emerging feature of modern music, driven I think by YouTube and Instagram: an extraordinary profusion of virtuosity, from Jacob Collier to Tim Henson, alongside increasing theoretical sophistication - the Berklee Imperium! - spread by YouTubers like Adam Neely and Rick Beato. Together with the wide accessibility of digital tools that would have been the exclusive preserve of high-end producers a decade ago, the conditions are right for, well, what exactly?

On the one hand, a sort of Oulipian sensibility, where ingenious mash-ups and ├ętudes intended primarily to showcase technique are the order of the day; on the other, a sort of off-the-hook playfulness, as techniques are absorbed and normalised, so that what used to look scarily proficient becomes part of the standard bag of tricks everybody knows - just as you really can’t impress anybody by two-handed tapping triplet arpeggios on a guitar any more.

For the most part, I don’t much care for the actual music that results; a lot of it seems to be searching for a purpose, or just cheerfully abandoned to purposelessness. Polyphia’s Drake-worship is an interesting exception here: the ambition is very much to bring new sonics, new flair and flex, to the cutting-edge-of-the-mainstream. The odds are good that you will see Tim Henson showing off alongside Rihanna, or someone of similar stature, within the next couple of years - like EVH soloing on Beat It (or Greg Howe and Jennifer Batten, both of whom had stints on stage as Michael Jackson’s stunt guitarist).

Where the dissemination of Advanced Jazz Theory (ok, mostly chord-scale theory with a few exotic additions, like the current interest in microtonality) will take us is another matter. Most music in the R&B lineage (which is where most of the sonic interest in the mainstream is nowadays) is pretty diatonically anchored, with melody lines of nursery-rhyme simplicity and directness. But I’m not sure it would be improved by massively pilfering from the vocabulary of modal jazz.

It feels to me more as if a general de-quantising of music has the most to offer in terms of moving off the grid of established production techniques. One of the very striking things about Burial’s early recordings was that the way they were patched together meant they had a sort of lurching, rolling rhythmic quality - they breathed, in a way that much EDM doesn’t. But this could go either way: Jacob Collier’s use of microtonality is if anything hyper-quantised, controlled by an even more fine-grained quantisation of pitch. What I do see coming is a wave of music tech which either moves away from MIDI or establishes a new MIDI standard which can better cope with non-even-tempered pitch and more fluid dynamic control; this will be driven by the demands of current practice, and will in turn drive new approaches to digital music production.