As musicians, we yearn to create, whether it’s through composing, crafting an individual sound or flipping a beloved piece on its head to make something that’s never been heard before. We long to breathe life into new ideas and to share stories that have not yet been told. In doing so, we create something that speaks to our shared experience, something that helps make sense of our world. But sometimes our educational institutions can muddle the realm of creation and recreation, preparing students to replicate that which already exists rather than foster personal creativity.
re/CREATE, an interview series from 21CM, provides a glimpse into the minds of musicians who create sounds unique to their own voice while celebrating the artists and traditions that have most influenced them. Join 21CM and host Joe Brent each month as we celebrate some of the most innovative musicians of our day, who pay homage to the traditions they love while creating music from the heart.
In this episode, we feature producer, arranger, multi-instrumentalist and session musician Justin Goldner in a collaborative project with host Joe Brent. This isn’t the first time that 21CM has featured their work: You can hear Goldner’s electronic backdrop in 9 Horses’ “the water understands.” Inspired by that project, they created a short electroacoustic piece, “More Imperfect,” which pulls samples from Bach and Vivaldi. They also discussed what the future has in store for electronic and acoustic music alike.
Technology becomes more human the more imperfect it gets. How do you balance human and technological elements in your music?
It feels like there’s something very human in the shortcomings of technology. I’m very inspired by Jad Abumrad, one of the creators of Radiolab. He also, as it turns out, [studied] electronic music at Oberlin. He gave a talk about the aesthetics of failure, where he plays these sounds of a fax machine jamming or a CD player skipping and [shows] just how compelling those sounds are.
In the 90s, the state of sampling technology was such that we had these keyboards that almost, but didn’t quite, approximate the sound of acoustic instruments. You’ll hear that saxophone patch or that string keyboard patch that, to today’s ears, is clearly not a real instrument. I’m referencing that because the aesthetics of failure also apply to human beings. It’s actually the imperfections of a human performing live music — when you can’t play the same note with the exact same dynamics every time, the sound of the pick against the strings, the sound of two strings slightly out of tune with each other and the beat frequencies that occur within them — those are the things that tell us that something is real. When you find shortcomings in technology, it almost resonates in a similar way.
Musique concrète has been around since the 1940s. But what’s different now is that musical technology has advanced exponentially. How do you keep up?
There have, of course, been improvements in technology. Probably the greatest change is how broadly available [music technology has] become. … But I think the fundamentals have developed gradually, and they’re not all that different from the fundamentals of playing an acoustic instrument. If you take the oud and the lute, at a certain point, someone decided to put frets on [them]. That was a pretty big leap in technology, but it was built on all of the traditions that had come before. … When someone stuck a pickup in the guitar and started treating sound as electrical current, that was also a pretty big leap. But again, all of these things were built on aesthetics of the past. And in time, new aesthetics developed very gradually around the new technology that [was] available.
You said [earlier] that in 100 years, mandolinists will still be playing the mandolin roughly the same way. I think there’s some truth to that, but I also think that our aesthetics with acoustic instruments have developed in response to technology. For example, you can go on YouTube and hear dubstep beatboxers making unbelievable sounds with their mouths. Human beings have been capable of those sounds for tens of thousands of years, but no one could have conceived of the ways of making them were it not for digitally produced music. People are emulating digital music with [their] biology.
Thank you for being part of re/CREATE.
Thanks for including me.
The above interview has been edited for clarity and length.