What is the function of a click track? What is its value? I’ve started to question the value and relevance of particular media configurations of electroacoustic music. By media configurations, I mean the technical setup used in the realization of a piece of music. I want to avoid the term genre. Electroacoustic music is not a genre. It’s a technical label and nothing more. Composers can write electroacoustic music in any number of genres, but more to the point they may employ any number of media configurations. Many are common and recurring, and many have become standard practice at an electroacoustic concert.
Many of these configurations are the by-products of a much more limited technological age. Yet many composers still used these dated configurations. They compose music with material which is fixed. In my eyes (and ears), material which is fixed is inherently at odds with the music that requires a human performer. Nothing about a live, human performance is fixed. It unfolds in real time and can never be directly replicated. A click track, on the other hand, is as fixed as it gets.
To return to the original question: what is the function of a click track? It functions to allow a performer to stay in time with a fixed media component that would have otherwise been deemed too difficult to follow and remain in synch with. The click track controls time. It is a metronome that found its way into the concert hall, and to my surprise it is rarely met with any criticism.
If you’re writing a piece for a human performer that requires such precise timing as to call for an actual metronome during the performance, have you ever stopped to ask yourself “why am I even writing this for a human?” The truth is, you aren’t. You’re writing for computer. Or perhaps to phrase it differently, you’re writing a piece for computer and a human doing their best to act like a computer. You’re writing a piece in which time is controlled completely. You’re writing music which leaves less room for expressive quality than I care for.
What does the performer bring to the table in this real time performance? What do they lose as a result of the media being fixed. They lose the ability to control time. A performer can bring nuance, gesture, phrasing, articulation, dynamics, and more to the realization of the piece. These facets are important beyond measure. But I say that when a performer is stripped of their ability to control time, to control time dynamically, and to control time expressively, that we have removed the fundamentally most important human quality of music performance.
Imagine attending a concert of a Beethoven symphony and seeing the conductor slide on a pair of headphones just before beginning. Imagine a Bach Cello Suite performed with a click track. What if in the moment of performance an instinct exists to slow down as a phrase is approached, or to speed up to accentuate a gesture? The click track would destroy this instinct. These hard won instincts exist in every performer who has ever been subject to a click track, and click tracks are denying them. Take this scenario one step further, and imagine if each and every performance of a work by Beethoven or Bach used the same click track. If this were the case, what would be the value of live music? Click tracks are not expanding the sonic possibilities of music, they are limiting the human element of what we do.
The click track is the most militant example of time being taken away from performers, but it does not stop here. Any piece in which media is fixed presents similar problems on an ever difficult to define continuum. A continuum filled with grey areas. I’ll save that topic for a future post, but in the meantime I’d encourage others to reevaluate the current media configurations being used in the realization of electroacoustic music. Create music in which the computer responds to the human, not the other way around.