Jojo Mayer: Exploring the Distance Between 0 and 1 at TEDxZurich (Full Transcript)

Jojo Mayer


(Drum improvisation)

Good afternoon. What I just did was I played a short improvisation that’s built on a very simple electronic drum beat, which is usually not performed by a drummer but generated by a drum machine or a drum computer.

And the reason why I choose to do this obsolete task for you is the short story that I would like to share with you. That story goes back kind of like a long time. As we were talking about apes, it goes actually back to the apes, because – at one point, when the first monkey was drumming on his chest, he did it because he wanted to communicate something, and there is a theory that humans started to communicate with speech around the same time as they started to communicate – started to play the drums.

And the first drum rhythms were probably a simulation of speech patterns, and also because the amplitude of the drums can reach a long distance, it became one of the first or possibly the first telecommunications instrument, and it was used by many cultures to communicate with faraway entities such as gods and spirits. And up to this day, we use drums and rhythms to communicate but not necessarily to summon fellow tribe members for a hunt or to signal troops on a battlefield, but the reason we use drums or what we use it for is to communicate cultural aesthetics and values.

Now – for instance, up until the 20th century, drums and rhythm didn’t have a central function in Western music, and as soon as the frantic rhythms of industrial machinery and the urban life itself were introduced, drums and rhythm went from the fringe to the core of Western music culture. And the catalysts for that were mainly three new technologies, which was: the drum set, jazz, and the ability to record sound. And when those three new technologies came together, they set up this big bang of a rhythm universe that kind of expanded the triad to the entire century. And every decade kind of spurred new drum beats and a new rhythm set; sometimes they became signals for the beginning or the end of an entire era.

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For instance, there was once a drumbeat that was a signal to an entire generation of kids to go wild and rebel against their parents. Kind of sounded like that. (Drumbeat)

Now, about 25 years later, there was another drumbeat that was a signal to their kids to go wild and rebel against their parents. (Drumbeat) So, a drumbeat, it can build, but it can also destroy, and this interplay between culture and counterculture always fascinated me, and I always loved the proximity of new innovative, fresh, and revolutionary music.

So when, decades after the introduction of audio recording, digital technology became the next big revolution in music, drum machines, computers, and sequencers also became a part of my musical vocabulary. And – although those new tools changed the landscape of how we produce music and offer a lot of possibilities, still up to this day, or a human performance with those digital tools.

So – in a way, to deal with those limitations, electronic music somehow embraced the limitation of electronic synthesized sound and made it a central doctrine of the stylistical expression. So, drum computers became a simplified abstraction of a real drummer. So, in a way, they created a new but genuine expression with a fake, which is, kind of like, what art is all about.

Now in the early ’90s, something happened that changed my life as an artist but especially as a drummer when I came across the mind-boggling rhythms of a new electronic song genre called “jungle” and “drum ‘n’ bass,” which I will play for you a little bit later on. Those beats were so radically different and new that I understood that they were no longer abstractions of a real drummer, but they came purely out of the syntax of drum machine programming.

So, at that point, the vocabulary of drum machine programming had surpassed the vocabulary of real drummers to articulate and express the digital age that had arrived. And at that point, I became completely obsessed with the idea to reverse-engineer those electronic drumbeats and play them live on an acoustic instrument. And mainly I did it because I love those beats so much that I was trying to find an opportunity to kind of consume them physically. So, in the process, I became something like a musical John Henry. And because I was trying to replicate a machine that could outperform – that could perform statistical density and accuracy that was just simply beyond my human capabilities.

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So, in other words, to play this music is actually very difficult. And in the process to acquire the idiosyncrasies of drum machine programming, I constantly got confronted with my human limitations. But in the process, I managed to acquire enough technical understanding, or maybe even more important – stylistical abstraction that I could create the illusion that I could play like a machine. So I actually also created a real expression with a fake, just the other way around this time. And when I passed this threshold, something interesting happened; the human restriction – or the human element that was restricting me actually liberated me, and I could add the element of my emotionality and spontaneity to that genre.

And when I first performed this in front of an audience with my band live, my band NERVE, the response was quite intense, so I had an idea that I was onto something, and eventually, I figured that something was pointing to the difference in the creative process between programming an automated musical performance or performing music live. Because electronic music, to a big extent, it’s still a premeditated medium, while playing music happens in real time.

And when it comes to playing music, improvisation has always been the most fascinating aspect to me as a performer, and the most rewarding one, too. And improvisation kind of became the key for my current conclusion, so to say Drum machines and computers and all digital media are binary machines or systems, which means they compute tasks by deciding between “yes” and “no,” or, in digital language, that relates to “0” and “1.”

Now, when we program an electronic piece of music or an automated piece of music, then we also enter a decision-making process, but the speed of those decisions doesn’t really have an outcome on the quality of the finalized product. It’s just the faster we can make those decisions, the more empowered we feel and the more fun it is to do that, the more in the flow we feel it – that’s the word.

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Now, when we play music in real time, especially when we improvise, that same decision-making process gets condensed to fractions of seconds and to a degree where we can no longer compute decisions consciously anymore. Now, when that happens, we enter that magical zone that could probably best be described as an out-of-body experience. And that’s the place where it’s possible to surrender our intentions and let intuition take over. And this is a zone where – it goes beyond “yes” or “no.” This is really a place that examines that distance between “0” and “1,” which is a zone that a machine cannot compute yet.

So while we live in a world where digital technology is driving our evolution, reverse engineering digital culture has pointed my attention to that difference between “0” and “1,” or that distance between “0” and “1,” which, so far, has gotten me the closest to comprehend the inexplainable source of my creativity and human existence. And all of this is what I’m hoping to communicate when I will perform another short improvisation for you, which is based on digital culture.

(Drum improvisation)

Thank you. Thank you very much. Drums were supposed to be loud. That’s why they were built so we can communicate to far entities. But drums can also be quite quiet and romantic. So I will try to do something like that.

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