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Rock & Roll Fantasies

Peter Gabriel and author Stewart Kranz make some bizarre predictions about the effect of technology on the music of the future

Peter Gabriel

Peter Gabriel. Circa 1978.

Fin Costello/Redferns/Getty

Picture this: Mick Jagger’s feet up on your coffee table. Tiny feet at that, about as big as sticks of gum, supporting a lifelike, doll-size replica of Jagger that sings and prances its way through “Beast of Burden.” What it is, really, is a kinetic hologram—a three-dimensional image produced with a laser beam and photographic plate—and the antics are programmed by a holographic video cassette player plugged into your stereo system. Plus, you can play with the little video doll in ways you never could with the real Jagger. If, for example, you don’t like the way Mick is singing, just boo and he’ll scowl and wag a sassy tongue back at you. But if you applaud his bluesy spiel, Mick will bow graciously and blow a dreamy holographic kiss your way.

Or, for an even grander sense of control, consider this: It’s 1989. Jackson Browne has a lingering case of Malibu malaise and hasn’t recorded any new music since 1985. So, with Browne’s consent, Elektra/Asylum releases a Jackson Browne synthesis cassette (sample title: Running on Memories) that contains the key elements of Browne’s traits as a songwriter, including lyrical vocabulary, vocal style and rhythmic flavor. Put it in your artist-simulator cassette player, select a theme (Romance or Apocalypse, for instance), a vocal range (midtenor or high midtenor) and a tempo, and the machine starts to generate fresh Jackson Browne music, utilizing his favorite arrangements and chord progressions.

When the machine hits a particular lyrical tangent or vocal turn you like, press the Memory button and the recorder will remember your input, incorporating similar ingredients in the next song. Later, if you trade your tape with another Jackson aficionado, your machine will continue to incorporate your predilections on the new tape. Or, finally, imagine this spooky scenario: You go to see the latest art-rock cause célèbre at New York’s Bottom Line and discover that the concert consists entirely of biofeedback-generated music. The performers have linked themselves, via electrodes, to a bevy of synthesizers that translate the rhythms and impulses of the body into percussive, melodic and harmonic sounds, with only the singer allowed to improvise with his natural voice. It gets off to a rough start—the “musician” playing brain waves (melody lines) has a tough time keeping pace with the Jamaican on heartbeat (rhythm section)—but by midconcert the crowd is going nuts. The New York Times calls it a “heroic apotheosis of Kraftwerk-like disco mesmerisms.”

These pipe dreams could be outtakes from The Shape of Rock to Come, a mythical science-fantasy epic about technology and rock & roll gone awry. But in fact, they are the serious speculations of an unlikely duo: Peter Gabriel, a leading practitioner of what is often dubbed art-rock, and Stewart Kranz, a journalist/theorist. The two have been conducting think tanks recently about what rock & roll will be like a decade from now, or, more accurately, what rock & roll technology will be like. So far, they’ve come up with a body of notions fantastic enough to prove worthy of Star Wars and foreboding—and likely—enough to recall Brave New World. But Gabriel and Kranz believe that their collaborative vision of rock’s technofuture will ultimately help make the art form more of a participant sport.

“Ever since I left Genesis [one of the most extravagantly theatrical English rock bands], I’ve been trying to reestablish myself without all the extraneous trappings,” says Gabriel, seated next to Kranz at a tableful of blueprints. When he speaks, it’s in a demure, barely audible voice that contradicts his fierce, jarring persona in concert.”It’s coming down to an arms race in rock, seeing how much we can bombard and numb the audience, and that’s not really very creative. The byproduct is that the economics of the industry are designed to protect the strong, because they have access to the large audiences. What Stewart and I have been trying to do is come up with some ways that will ultimately help new artists reach more people at less expense. That’s the kind of technological progress we’d like to see. Plus anything that grants the audience more opportunity to interact with the artist.”

Kranz concurs. “Today’s audiences are looking for a chance to get involved. That’s what the New Wave and disco movements have tried to articulate.” A jolly, bearded man who sometimes laughs nervously at the seeming preposterousness of his own forecasts, Kranz is the author of Science and Technology in the Arts, a tome about how artists have increasingly turned to technology for expression. “In the Sixties,” wrote Kranz, “the significant part of the aesthetic experience became the moment when the spectator came in contact with the work of ‘art.’ [The involvement] took on the characteristics of a partnership between artist and participant—a partnership devoted to the ideal that pleasure, whimsy, insight and even disgust were ends in themselves.” Kranz and Gabriel see that partnership as the focal nerve of their vision of the future. “The more one can actually participate in what’s coming off the stage,” says Gabriel, “the closer your relationship with the artist will be, and the better the entertainment. A lot of people feel alienated when the artist doesn’t seem to respond to their input. One thing I’m doing at the moment is going out into the crowd with a cordless radio mike. It helps to make contact with people, give them a chance to contribute. Plus it breaks a psychological barrier.”

Gabriel’s conception of the ideal, even typical, concert of the Eighties or Nineties is a variation on Dr. Raduz Cincera’s experimental Kino-Automat Theatre, which highlighted the Czechoslovak Pavilion at Expo ’67. In that exhibit, Dr. Cincera stopped movies at critical points in the plot so the audience could press buttons to determine what course of action the protagonist should pursue in the next scene. Gabriel proposes equipping concert halls with similar apparatus so audiences could tell performers when they were playing too loud, too soft, too long or just right. Say, for example, that the re-formed Allman Brothers don’t know when to cut their jams short—just hit your black NUFF’S NUFF button and blow those long-winded blues away. Maybe Elvis Costello’s a little too stinging for your taste? Well, see that yellow MELLOW switch? Or what about Keith Jarrett—how come that guy never plays anything funky? If enough people hit their FUNK IT UP switches, Keith might do just that.

It all assumes, of course, that the artist is both willing and capable of curtailing his whims or designs to match the audience’s. “Admittedly,” notes Kranz, “many artists today are threatened by the extemporaneous aspects of performances, particularly if they require interaction with the audience. It takes real creativity to respond to a changing scenario within the context of what is a preprogrammed situation.”

Gabriel and Kranz also foresee a total revision of the theater format. Instead of the concert hall/sports arenas that currently spot the tour map—and which entail the expense of large crews to unload, assemble, disassemble then reload massive amounts of equipment—they visualize a network of medium-sized circle theaters, linked together by crosscountry railways. The train itself would carry a hydraulic-powered stage (already set for performances) and sound and lighting systems, plus living quarters for the performers and crew. The “depots,” meanwhile, would be the concert halls—amphitheaters in some climates and enclosed structures or air-filled Mylar rooms in others.

In addition, Kranz and Gabriel have a handful of ideas about improved methods of entertaining audiences before the concert. Kranz favors some kind of alternative-reality anteroom, where willing subjects could immerse themselves in fantasy environments that would “lead them to a humanist understanding of their own internal makeup.” Gabriel opts for an ever-changing, mobile maze foyer that ends up depositing one in the theater round. He also anticipates a time when the most popular bands—which invariably grow weary and wasted from incessant touring—send out holographic clone tours of themselves. They could even be programmed, he suggests, to respond to the audiences’ demands.

But the weight of Kranz and Gabrie’s futuristic proposals rests on the expanding role of audio-video systems in home entertainment, and the increasing opportunity for the consumer to strike a “partnership” with TV and stereo. Already, viewers in several cities can subscribe to two-way cable TV systems through which they can register opinions about the quality of local programming, vote in community opinion polls and consult doctors about health problems. Additionally, several video game components are available that not only offer such diversions as Pong and Gunfight, but also double as computers, history teachers and sixty-tone video paint canvases. All of which, of course, could be stored for posterity on video cassettes.

Here are some of the accessories that Kranz and Gabriel believe could become available for home-entertainment systems in the next fifteen years:

Wall-to-Wall Television—depending on the consumer’s finances and tastes, this item could cover anything from a living-room wall to the entire four walls, floor and ceiling of a video-fantasy cubicle. In other words, if the projections on all six surfaces were properly synchronized, viewers could have the sensation of being in a different environment—anywhere from, say, a wheat field in Oregon to the imaginary regions of deep outer space.

“The technology for full-enclosure television already exists,” says Kranz. “We now have video screens in a few laboratories that are made of one-inch-thick glass with metal wiring that runs horizontally and vertically, and wherever the lines intersect is a point on the screen. It can be any size, and you can have resolution up to a thousand lines. It isn’t just an Advent projector; it’s far sharper than that. “Then, not only could you put the viewer in the middle of a Star Wars battle, you could even make him a participant. By feeding a cassette of himself into the projector, he can watch himself take Luke Skywalker’s place on the screen, or see himself fronting Led Zeppelin. He could live out his fantasies more colorfully and harmlessly and productively than ever before.”

Color-Screen Scoring—maybe you’re tired tonight and don’t feel like any six-wall trips to Mordor, or maybe you’re just curious about how Stokowski scored Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony with such depth and vibrancy. Basically, you have two options. First, you could slip a specially coded audio cassette of the symphony into your playback unit and watch the screen come alive with colors and shapes. Like a polychromatic relief map of the ocean’s craggy depths, a multi-colored profile of the music’s total character would paint itself across the television screen, flushing out a three-dimensional wave form. Your other option is to either sit down and compose a new piece on a synthesizer while it automatically scores itself on the screen, or to curl up on the sofa and paint in an imaginary score on the screen with a remote-control brush, then feed that into the synthesizer for a playback. It’s sort of a cross between a player piano and the video paint sets already available for home units, and some avant-garde composers are already scoring music this way.

Artist Simulators—this is the synthesized Jackson Browne kit mentioned earlier. Of all of Kranz and Gabriel’s postulations, the artist simulator is perhaps the most fanciful, intriguing—and ominous. A computer digests, analyzes and reorganizes the key elements of an artist’s style and then synthesizes new music. According to Gabriel, the machine would not only generate new material, but tailor its output to match the consumer’s leanings, retaining and revising lyrical ideas and musical tricks that please the listener. In a variation on the idea, Gabriel also recommends home mixing units that allow the owner to delete or modify any given track in a finished audio recording, thus allowing him to drastically reshape the artist’s music.

Like push-button theaters that allow audience input, the prospect of synthesizing an artist’s work raises a host of crucial questions about the artist-audience relationship, and about when “partnership” encroaches on an artist’s right to realize his own vision. Some songwriters, after all, may take a dim view of a machine beating them at their own game. Will all these technological advancements turn the artist into a sophisticated marionette?

Gabriel thinks not. “There’s no real worry in my mind that we’ll ever make the artist obsolete. I agree, the idea of a synthesized Neil Young or Bob Dylan song is probably a disgusting concept to many people, but I see its advantages as multifold. For one thing, it will encourage the artist to be less programmable, to break out of old habits because his work can now be duplicated so easily.

“The layman should have a chance to participate in the creative process. The idea of a simulator allows the common man to drop into the very center of the field, instead of getting stuck on the outside as a clumsy, inarticulate, passive beginner. Also, it would help make the artist a little more accountable for his work. The idea of the enlightened expert—the artist—having the divine right to feed the rest of the world his vision unchecked is unhealthy. There are situations where he shouldn’t expect the world to just take what he gives. He has the obligation to respond to what is wanted from him.”

Kranz nods emphatically in agreement. “The people in the audience—whether it be a concert or TV audience—want to play, too, and the technology is here today to make that possible in a friendly, healthy way. This isn’t science fiction, and it isn’t malevolent. Art has always developed by way of technical means, from oil paint to holograms. The artist, in that sense, is a junkman: he’s picking up all these pieces of junk ware and forging them into new statements. Technology isn’t his enemy—it’s his partner.”

In This Article: Coverwall, Peter Gabriel, technology

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