This past weekend, my friends Judy and Marc threw a party to celebrate their recent wedding. Judy’s band so+so would often play with mine around town, and as such, I thought it would be grand to write a song to honor their nuptials.
The entire project was relatively frictionless, a rare bird in creative endeavors. Knowing the bride and groom somewhat well, the vibe and style of the song was simple to suss out—90’s indie with some of that upbeat early Promise Ring flavor for the intro and chorus with reggae-style up-strumming for the verses. Boom, the bones are done, all that remained to wrestle in Judy’s bandmate Erin for lyrics and vocals.
Feeling more playful with this song than my usual stuff, I decided to give Garageband’s drummer feature a whirl, though up till then I would have scoffed at the idea. Separate from a programmable beat map or drum machine, the drummer is a track you can add that generates audio in whatever style you choose and reacts somewhat dynamically to the music you’ve already laid down. I chose Rock (SoCal, for those vinegary Sublime vibes), the drummer “Kyle,” a few beats and what parts of the kit to focus on as well as the loudness/complexity of the performance. The computer did the rest: fills, transitions, all components seamlessly accounted for and dropped in after just a few moments. It took a fraction of the time I spent on beats for previous songs, without any meticulous clicking on ones and threes and transferring the amateur rhythms in my mind to a rigid grid. It also sounded fairly natural, and for all of that I am left reeling. I had a demo ready in a single evening and sent it on to Erin.
We hammered out the complete song in a couple of sessions, with Erin putting in some pro effort singing in a bachelor-pad bathroom. It was a smooth collaboration that, perhaps counter-intuitively, still freaks me out by how easy the percussion was. A gift from our hearts crafted with love and frets and software, but it still kind of felt like I cheated. It’s not like my needs are demanding. I’m not trying to reinvent rock n roll with these compositions, just add some rhythm to my Hot Snakes rip-off riffs. But rather than feeling overwhelmed and disenchanted by my limitations, I had serviceable drums set in minutes.
Still, I cannot claim to have hand-crafted this element of this song. As critic Edward Smith recently wrote about procedural generation in videogames: “How facile must your appreciation of art and people be that you think their work can be recreated by a fucking computer?” There’s an argument to be made about the element of human soul missing from a piece when a computer plugs the gaps for the creator. I’m not sure that I would feel comfortable writing an entire album with Apple’s drummers at my disposal, but on the other hand, I live in a big city with no space for a kit and little access to drummers, so I gotta make do.
In many ways, I agree with Edward; how can a composition deliver a powerful experience if key elements were left to a heartless, emotionless machine to decide? I hear the voice of David Lynch denying that cinema can be appreciated through an iPhone, I wonder what Ian MacKaye might think, and I ponder the rights complications if I were ever to commercially release something with this. Erin and I credited “Kyle” on the CD jacket because we thought it was funny, but what happens when Apple wants their cut of the royalties? Could a computer ever truly be a creative partner, or contribute such dynamic and integral contributions to a song as Sara Lund, Janet Weiss, Zach Barocas, or whoever your favorite drummers are?
On the other hand, it’s not like I dictated to Siri “please write a song for my friends and their wedding and oh yeah order me some pad see ew while you’re at it.” I also did not fell the tree that ultimately became my guitar, or solder electronics within my amp. Writing songs is not always about the reinvention of music, plenty of hokey folksters got away with strumming a couple chords and stabbing fascists with their melodies.
I did however tell “Kyle” where to go and give vague directions on what to do, and maybe I just got lucky that the he hit on what I was thinking within two clicks. I was the one to orient the computer, to set a path within my vision and execute it. Incredible producers and DJs have been bending samples and sounds to their whims for decades and are no less creative for it, “Kyle” and his cohorts from Cupertino are merely the next tool in the box. It still takes someone to wave the wand, to have a vision, and push everyone involved to meet her at her level. Erin and I performed our song for Marc and Judy at this party, and in spite of the odds it warmed over friends and family alike. It would have happened without “Kyle,” but it wouldn’t have been as pretty.