A synthesizer is like an axe

I found this picture of Herbie Hancock on a stranger’s blog.

There was no caption or any other context. So I posted it on my Flickr with a note asking if anyone could identify the computer Herbie is sitting in front of. A couple of days later my friend Mike responded with this video of Herbie and Quincy Jones demonstrating Herbie’s Fairlight CMI in 1983.

There’s so much to love about this clip, from the light pen interface onwards. Youtube doesn’t provide much context, so I don’t know who was shooting this or why. But I’m glad they did. Quincy poetically describes playing a synthesizer as “sculpting a pure electronic waveform.” The interviewer observes that the African blood is streaming through the electronics. Quincy laughs and says: “The funk will prevail.” Herbie laughs too, and then says probably the wisest thing I’ve heard anyone say about technology in music:

It’s interesting, cause you know, these instruments were designed for people to use, for people to use. It’s just a tool, another tool, the way an axe is a tool, an axe can be a tool to cut wood to build a house, or can be a tool to slaughter your neighbor… A synthesizer can be a tool to really hurt people’s ears or interfere with their lives, or can be a tool to make a really nice-sounding instrument that can affect people in a positive way. It all depends on the person who’s using it… The machine doesn’t do anything but sit there until we plug it in… It doesn’t program itself. Yet.

Herbie was acknowledging the angst that a lot of his fellow jazz musicians were feeling about synthesizers and other electronic music gadgetry (angst that hasn’t diminished in the years since.) Herbie titled his album of that year Future Shock for good reason. But ultimately, he’s right, the tools aren’t as important as the people behind them. You couldn’t ask for a better electronic music manifesto than that.

Mike also posted this video of Herbie on Sesame Street demonstrating the Fairlight for a group of kids that included Mohammed Ali’s daughter Tatiana.

Since these videos were made, the price of digital synths and sequencers has undergone the same extraordinarily rapid plunge as all other computer equipment. The first Fairlight model cost £20,000 in 1979. I have no idea what that is in dollars adjusted for inflation, but it’s definitely not cheap. You can have an identical setup on any laptop computer for a few hundred dollars today. What was the cutting edge of futuristic exotica in the early eighties has become ordinary.

The history of technology has this way of making the strange familiar. The tools advance much faster than our understanding of them, or our ability to make the best use of them. Will the funk prevail? It’s up to the musicians.

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