Saturday, April 20, 2013

Autotune the Classics

The music industry resounds with the robotic twang of autotuned human voices. Autotuning is a technology applied to vocals so as to either correct a singer's pitch or to distort the singer's voice and turn it into an electronic instrument.

Autotune software was created originally by a guy named Dr. Andy Hildebrand, a classically trained flautist and geophysicist. He serendipitously discovered that he could use the same digital signal processing software he used to help oil companies locate drilling spots as a way of looping music samples and correcting pitch in recordings. (For a complete history of auto tune, see this article.)

I have been thinking a lot about autotune recently, especially as a potential metaphor for artistic, performative, and literary production in the 21st century. Many detractors of autotune worry that the near-ubiquitous "pitch-perfect" vocals of contemporary music will train our ears to only appreciate in-tune music.

Lightnin Hopkins, blues musician and complete badass. "You know the blues is jus' a funny feelin-- people call it a mighty bad disease."  

Autotune's detractors have raised what I believe to be a very important consideration, indeed. Not least of all because I believe the blues to be one of the major cultural contributions this country has made to the world-- a genre of music that resists classical pitch formalism in favor of the emotional outpouring through the voice of the human experience. Another example is Brazilian bossa nova, whose flagship aesthetic message was encapsulated in the song "Desafinado" ("out of tune"). What a terrible tragedy it would be to lose an appreciation for this music because of the obsession with perfect (inhuman) pitch.

But autotune is also used by artists trying to create a new aesthetic, and I want to appreciate this new sound, too. As I think more and more about the adjustments and innovations of autotune in music, I can't help but wonder if a parallel phenomena is creeping into performance and literature.

In particular, I'm curious about all the movie adaptations of classic literature and folk tales that has recently swept Hollywood. From Jack and the Beanstalk to the Great Gatsby, the beloved tales of literature are being transformed one by one into two hour CGI thrill rides.

Image from "Jack the Giant Slayer," a movie adaptation of the English fairytale "Jack and the Beanstalk" 
This all leads me to ponder: if autotune can train our ear to only appreciate pitch-perfect music, can movie adaptations of literature train our imaginations to visualize scenes and events from literature in CGI?

Image from the movie "Snow White and the Huntsman," adapted from the German fairytale "Schneewittchen" 
Although the recent onslaught of movie adaptations is not necessarily unprecedented; filmmakers and Disney have been producing movie versions of fairytales and literary classics for decades. But Disney and now this new CGI generation of adaptations have all propagated the moralized, happy-ending versions of the tales-- eradicating the possibility that children (and adults for that matter) should learn a lesson from these tales.

The moralized, bleached endings manipulate the ability of the story to edify: a dark and sinister conclusion is erased and the moralized versions only permit viewers (readers) to be temporarily entertained, while still be comforted by the imminent return to status quo. That is, what we are left with is temporary entertainment and permanently altered imagination (in the form of CGI). Or am I being to touchy??

And, like I said, Hollywood is not simply making-over fairytales. They are using the latest graphic imaging technology to bring to life Jane Austin, J.R.R. Tolkien, F. Scott Fitzgerald novels... the best screenplays, it seems, comes from the tried and true stories that gild literary canons.
Image from film adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma 
Image from film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit

Image from F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby
For many of these literary classics, it is not the first time they have been adapted to the screen. But the lush visuals possible with today's technology makes them more extraordinary than ever. So allow me to admit: I LOVE THESE MOVIES (okay, not all of them, but certainly the Tolkien movies). Yet, I want to be conscious of the ways in which I allow them to affect the way my mind's eye visualizes characters, scenes, magic, blood, triumph, and defeat. This I owe to myself, and to the authors whose imaginations first glimpsed these fantastic realms.

On a final note, I'd like to add that fairytales were originally part of an oral tradition; this orality seems to place fairytales' origins in a middle ground-- neither literature nor movies-- that makes for an even more interesting angle to the question. ...

Do you think that movies are autotuning our imaginations? What do you think about Hollywood's adaptations of literature? I for one cannot WAIT for the next installation of The Hobbit...and that's ok, right!?
...but what do you, my fair petticoat rustlers, think?

Until next time-- keep rustling!


  1. If autotuning means a kind of homogenization, a kind of blended sameness, then perhaps yes, I think literature and story has undergone a bit of this. I think the question you raise is interesting. It made me think of the production of story. Watching the credits at the end of some of the movies you mention indicates that dozens, hundreds of individuals took part in making this or that film. It's a democratized art form. Ancient and medieval stories maybe were the product of an individual, or a few individuals. There is a sameness I think in today's visual and written stories, in that visual images seem to have taken charge, have become the story teller. Perhaps that's as it always has been, as in the 'show don't tell' advice to storytellers. And I agree, most of the films out there are wonderful to see. I do think autotuning in music is perniciousness, although I was blissfully ignorant of it until you pointed it out here. On the other hand, there's something thrilling about all the tools available now to aid in the creative process. So many possibilities, so many tastes to chase and attract, so many niches. Story is human, and its telling and hearing will flow like water despite rather than because of the channels we set up to contain it.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comment!
    I guess what I was trying to say in the post was not so much that autotuning referred to a homogenization of stories themselves but rather the way in which those who view/read/hear stories may have an homogenized experience of the tale after it has been translated to the screen (for instance, I visualize Elijah Wood when I think of Frodo, and I think anyone who has seen the movies will also visualize the actor and not their own interpretation of Frodo, which could potentially change with every reading of Tolkien).
    I like that you point out the fact that hundreds of people have worked together to create the visual message of movies, a democratized art form. But I disagree when you imply that folk tales/fairy tales are the products of a few individuals. In fact, the reason they are called "folk" tales is because they come from the "folk," meaning not one author, but entire communities. Which means that folk tales are the heritage of entire geographic regions (Jack in the Beanstalk is an English tale, Snow White is a German tale, etc.) and can adapt based on those who tell or listen to them. Storytellers who have disseminated folk tales over the centuries each put their own flavor, embellishments, details, emphasis, even moral to the story, based on how they choose to tell it (the audience can influence the way a story is told, too). This means that every time a different storyteller tells you the same folk tale, you can enjoy a unique experience of it in your imaginations. But if I watch the movie, I fell like I will always see the actor or the mapping of a fight scene the way it happened in the movie. ...That's what I'm concerned about: the experience you have in your mind when you hear/read/view a story.
    The channels we use to convey stories are of utmost importance. While I agree that humans will always produce story, the medium is an inextricable part of our experience with the story-- and I'm concerned that we may potentially be limiting interpretive potential by relying too heavily on the technological prowess of CGI.
    Glad to have you on the blog-- ruffling petticoats!

  3. Just one more quick thing I wanted to point out-- I am not at all opposed to technology as a means of telling stories. In fact, quite the contrary, as you can see in my post about Woodkid's musical/visual narratives and the compelling novelty of his medium for story. What I concern myself with in this post is really the influence that screen adaptations have on the way we imagine stories that, up till now, have been fluid and changing imaginative experiences in which the listener or reader must be incredibly active in order to comprehend. I hope listeners and readers retain their role as active co-creators of stories, rather than rely on the images provided by Hollywood. At the same time, technology is creating, at an extraordinary pace, a whole world of new stories that I love and support!!