Kurt Cobain VS Dorks

Like all good ranters I have a few preset rants that I keep ready for Xmas, public hangings, fĂȘtes and the like. One favourite is about Kurt Cobain, darling of the 90’s moppet, uncle of emo and man enough to marry Courtney Love. Cobain was the assassin of the last dregs of 80’s music culture, the Terminator of a decade that had lived past its time. When I need to place the point where all the hopes and dreams of the new wave turned to darkness, there is Cobain and his Good Ol’ Rock n Roll rifle.



Like some assassins he was a torn man; riddled with doubt, a dirty job to do. But he did it and then did himself. I can never fully forgive him, but I can see that it had to be done. What was left of the decade – mutant remnants. Like 808 State, still living the ’88 Summer Of Love 5 years too late. The Thompson Twins. New Order. Time to die.

The 90’s were a pretty foul decade for anyone that didn’t want to groom some stubble and rock out. Our Trent had no hesitation, good for him. Depeche Mode managed to get a bit of beard on as well. The rest of us had to find jobs in advertising. Music took a swerve backwards as a flood of ‘alternative’ and ‘indie’ guitar bands jangled their way through territory that had been explored long ago, settled and populated with malls. I know, I used to work on album covers for major label compilations of “20 BANDS THAT SOUND LIKE NIRVANA”.

The underground needed to go underground. Ignored there it started to glitch and micro-sound. It beeped and farted and took 20 minutes to get past the opening chord. It panned across multiple speakers and was driven by haptic devices. Every now and then Bjork would come and pinch a bit and run back up to the sunlight again. But most of the time it was left alone – a sinusoidal circle jerk.

In time the kids of the parents who bought Nirvana would shuffle through their iPods looking for something that didn’t remind them of dad. That’s just about everything except Nirvana. The underground sensed the time to re-emerge …

And this is where I can mention Max For Live.

I own Live, but I don’t own MaxPD is free and does for me when I need to cable something. I borrowed a machine to figure out if I was going to drop cash for the upgrade. I should start by admitting a bias against MaxMSP – simply that I have never heard a piece of music created in Max that has brought the slightest emotional response. I have never been enthralled or chilled or driven to tears. Max is more for athletics than aesthetics. It is a question of how many rather than how beautiful.

So my interest was to see if by aligning Max with Live the latter might impose some level of humanity – in a few hours of experimentation I didn’t find any. Max appears as ‘Max Instruments’ next to the VST and native plug ins; the examples are based on the old Pluggo patches. Now if Reaktor always sounds a little like a harmonica (I think the slight processing delay makes a comb filter) then Pluggo sounds like an old CASIO 14 bit sampler. A few bits dull of a full house. Playing around with the presets was uninspiring, so I clicked on Edit to see what was in the box.


Inside the box is Max. You’re dumped back in the same old model railroad with no particular influence from the landscape outside – you can relate knobs in Live to routines within Max and vice versa but I couldn’t really see how that was better then using OSC or even MIDI. Nothing inside the environment acknowledged the mental space or discipline of Live – and as that was all I was seeking, I shut the box again. Maybe next decade.

The hullabaloo over this release is in line with a lot of what I’m hearing in the world of digital music these days – all kinds of cleverness, mostly based around hardware controllers. Nothing seems more important than using WiiMotes, LaunchPads, Tenori-Ons, Monomes and so on and so on to control … well that bit doesn’t seem to matter really, so long as you’re controlling with something that involves much waving and punching of blinking lights in grids. These surfaces are interesting and inspire things, but I wonder what happened to the music at the other end.


The complaint raised against earlier electronic music (whether valid or not) was that it was overproduced blank. The complaint here could be that it’s overcontrolled blank – too much attention is given to the linear cause and effect of the controller – on the level of tilting an iPhone to modulate a filter – or patching from Live to Max. This linearity is wonderful for ‘research’ where cause and effect are charted but what does it provide in the way of musicality?

Kurt Cobain could easily demonstrate his self contained multi-modal performative controller device with physics sensing and infinitely variable overtone selection across six ribbon controllers. But ‘playing the guitar’ is much simpler description of activity that cuts out a lot of unimportant guff and gets straight to the important point – how does it sound? And that’s what I’d like to ask a lot of people patching their this to their that – how does it sound? Please don’t tell me in what kind of box you’re going to house your circuit boards – how is that any more a description of music than a discussion of guitar bodies?

Some time this week I’ll be delivered a LaunchPad as it was not too expensive and I’d like to continue to challenge my caution. If it adds to the music more power to it. But if the music I am making is better served by throwing forks at the piano I will turn the damn thing off.