Steve Jobs and Apple: Muse and Destroyer for the Creative Artist

Steve Jobs and Apple: Muse and Destroyer for the Creative Artist

 

I’ve read many eloquent and perceptive writings on Steve Jobs and his legacy that focus on his impact on the consumer, with his revolutions in personal computer industry, the music industry, and the phone industry. But how about creative artists? Jobs and Apple changed the paradigm for those of us who primarily create content as well as those of us who consume it. I’m not talking about changing our toolset—abandoning typewriters, paint palettes, music paper, pens, and pencils. That was happening regardless of Steve Jobs. Rather, I’m talking about how our dependence on the creative tools so central to Apple’s philosophy—an ideology that has inspired the leading software for virtually every creative endeavor—has changed our relationship to our work. For many of us, these tools affect not only how we create, but what we create and, further, how we find ourselves making different choices to accommodate the strengths and weaknesses of these new tools. Yes, they provide great power and even a sense of magic, but there is also a dark side to this brave new world. We artists ride the back of a technological tiger. We steer our aesthetic course, but increasingly realize we’ve become passengers on a hell of a ride, sometimes just struggling to keep from being thrown. Think different indeed!

 

The moderator at a recent music seminar I attended requested a moment of silence to commemorate Steve Jobs, mentioning with certainty that all of us either owned studios filled with Apple computers and software, or used other tools directly inspired by Apple products. (What he failed to mention was that all of us also have brains harnessed to the new paradigms that Apple products have spawned.) These sci-fi black boxes have magnified our powers while changing fundamentally the way we create our art.

 

I suspect Apple products intentionally mimic the famous black monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. That monolith, as you’ll recall, was a highly polished black rectangular cube that captured the essence of simplicity and elegance, a literal tabula rasa. Yet inside it was a universe of stars and the power to jolt mankind to our next evolutionary step. The MacPro desktop, MacBook laptop, iPod, iPhone, or iPad—they too are polished metallic rectangular cubes that promise to contain within them the entire universe with unlimited possibility. That promise is Steve Jobs’ and Apple’s most powerful gift and selling point. Apple software and creative content builds from this notion that the black box should empower you to create whatever you can imagine, with the implication it can empower you beyond what you can imagine, creating content that is beyond your abilities and vision.

 

That is a promise of a different order than previous tools available to artists. We’re not talking here about the pleasure of a beautiful pen, paintbrush, or perfect keyboard, the right tool that frees us to create on a higher level. Nor magnifying our strength and reach, empowering one to do the work of hundreds, or for pennies, providing access to tools that before cost millions. Software that replaces what used to be entire publishing houses and recording studios, etc. are extensions of power, like hands do for brain, and pencils or instruments do for hands. Apple products don’t simply extend power, they offer creative partnership that interacts on the process level, often displaying possibilities that might never have occurred to the artist. Now the tool is elevated to the role of collaborator—that is different.

 

Anyone who plays around with Photoshop experiences this instantly. Select various filters and special effects—even at random— and beautiful unpredictable variations of images immediately spring to life and inspire further choices to explore and discover. Musicians experience similar thrills with software that emulates synthesizers, sequencers, processors, and editors. Simply selecting and tweaking effects radically transforms the sound of the music or the way its ideas evolve. Press just a single note on a keyboard to trigger an orchestra, change the structure of a song, or create never-before-created sounds on the fly. There are applications that edit music like a film, splicing, superimposing, and instantly rearranging tracks, passages, and entire sections. Some applications “paint” music like a visual artist using canvas, brushing swaths of color in designs that can be interpreted with an infinite number of musical scales. These different metaphors not only open the door to creation to people without traditional musical technique or background, but suggest possibilities to experienced musicians that would not have occurred when working with traditional instruments or conception with just pencil and music paper.

 

What makes all these different approaches possible and accessible is Apple’s graphical user interface (GUI), which lets us see and manipulate ideas on a screen as visual objects, using a mouse, keyboards, and now the recent addition of gestures—pinching, swiping, flicking. But Apple’s standardization of menus for each application is also a fundamental breakthrough for universal access to these different metaphors. “File,” “Edit,” “View,” “Window,” “Help,” are in every application, whether it be to create a photo or design a spaceship. Anyone can select from these menus and experiment making choices without technical knowledge of a subject. What a huge encouragement to explore outside one’s comfort zone, to discover new approaches and ideas, and to connect with other forms of art. Want to explore physics, cellular construction, architecture? No problem; just buy the appropriate software and start exploring. Creating a universal platform for all fields of art and knowledge suggests new forms that freely incorporate and combine elements from all of them together.

 

In Understanding Media, Marshall McCluhan stressed that a numbing period ensues from every new leap forward in media. At first, people continue to create the familiar content in the new media. The early instrumental music of the Renaissance was essentially transcribed choral music. The first piano music emulated harpsichord music. The first synthesizer music imitated music of acoustic instruments. But eventually, new media suggest a different content intrinsically suited to their power and potential. Acoustic string instruments began to suggest music with a wider range and virtuosity not possible with the voice, and the orchestra was born, eventually supplanting the choir. Pianos suggest the content of music that changes loudness and uses the resonance of the sustain pedal, and the harpsichord loses relevance. Electronic synthesizers suggest content that manipulates sound and texture not possible with acoustic instruments, which are now in decline.

 

Personal computers appeared in the 1980s and most applications surely emulate the content of earlier media. Microsoft Word produces print media. Photoshop primarily produces visual content of paintings, graphics, and pictures. Final Cut Pro produces movies. Garage Band produces songs. For composers, Sibelius and Finale produce engraved quality music notation, and advanced sequencers and sample libraries produce realistic sounding orchestra music.

 

But it has only been 30 years. Surely a different type of content will emerge, one that goes beyond imitating older media content to incorporate the experimental and collaborative nature of our Apple “monoliths.” Steve Jobs personally articulated a need for all people to be able to create movies—an inherently multimedia experience combining video and sound— with the same ease of email. That is rapidly becoming reality. But artists too are on the verge of a brave new world as they explore a new type of content. The 1990s witnessed a burst of this exploration with CD-ROMs that experimented brilliantly with random access to interactive media, producing thousands of educational and artistic titles. But the emergence of the internet, which was inherently so much slower and limited than CD-ROMs, largely obliterated these experiments. Now with greater bandwidth and the introduction of Apple’s myriad new “black boxes” that redefine and combine our use of record player, telephone, and television, the move towards new artistic content created specifically for the new media seems inevitable, especially as we become accustomed to owning and using hundreds of dedicated small “apps.”

 

Most of the above may seem self-evident. The potentials of Apple’s new media inspire excitement for a new great era in creative thinking. Bravo Steve Jobs. But there is a dark side. It gets ignored or shouted down, but I think about it all the time. It is this: there is the real danger that these wonderful tools control what we create more than we control them.

 

For one thing, the demands of this new media require spending less time creating and more time learning and then relearning. Software is a creative force, constantly morphing and evolving. If we were using one or two pieces of software, this wouldn’t be so serious. But most creative artists rely on dozens of software applications for their work. That means a constant process of downloading and installing new updates and new versions. Continual minor updates contain numerous small fixes, annual updates add many new features in addition to even more small fixes, complete “face-lift” updates every few years require considerable relearning of the interface, and finally, every five years or so there are major computer system updates that affect every piece of software and how they interact with each other. These major computer system updates, such as the recent OS X Lion often require new versions of all software simply to allow them to launch in the new computer system, let alone play nicely with other pieces of software. For instance, a music sequencer typically serves as the host for dozens or even hundreds of plug-ins, each a complex system in itself. It might take up to a year or more for each software company to implement a working update. In rare but agonizing cases, an update never appears. There is the choice of clinging to the older system to still be able to use the familiar software, or to abandon it entirely—and the content already created with it—and march onward.

 

One painful example of this obsolescence was the death of those thousands of imaginative educational CD-ROMs created in the 1990s when Apple decided not to continue upgrading the Hypercard software in OS X in which they were programmed. That artistic content is now only playable by “archaic” Macintosh computers. Because they were inspired and created for the random access features intrinsic to Hypercard, the content of many educational CD-ROMs doesn’t readily translate to other media. Manuscripts written hundreds of years ago survive intact and are readable due to the media of parchment paper and durable inks. But content of digital CD-ROMs created 20 years ago are virtually inaccessible today because they can’t be opened by modern Apple computers.

 

So one real danger is that creative content may become ephemeral. Steve Jobs and Apple made a conscious choice to keep system software fast and streamlined, avoiding bulky and awkward fixes that would make it backward-compatible with earlier software. That decision keeps Apple on the technological forefront, but leaves much creative work stranded.  When Apple announced the release of OSX Lion system software last year, the fine print made it clear that any software not updated within the past five years would not run on it! That should send chills into any creative content artist. It takes a lot of faith to base one’s work on dozens of companies all staying in business to complete upgrades that allow one to continue creating their content.

 

Software companies themselves imitate this behavior. For several years, I composed with Professional Composer notation software. It was discontinued and naturally could not run on after the next wave of Apple system upgrades. So years of music notation entry was lost. The company tried to be helpful. They said that I could open my music as MIDI files in another notation program. But that would only include the pitches and rhythms, none of the correct and painstaking notation with articulations, slurs, and performance notes. That would be like telling an artist he could still open a painting in a new program that would recapture his colors, but without any of the shapes and textures. Big help!

 

Today’s composers who still notate music rely on two software companies that produce Finale and Sibelius respectively. The future of all this music depends on those two companies staying in business and continuing to upgrade their software to work with contemporary computers. That is a hell of a lot of faith in which to place one’s life work. And most of us do this unconsciously.

 

So because system software and product software constantly evolve, they make for a shaky foundation creating permanent artwork. It should be a concern that creative work requiring tens of thousands of decisions might not last more than a few years. But that also brings up another issue. Is the software serving a creator or is a creator serving the software? Since software—the artist’s new tools—is so creatively endowed itself, has the creation of content become in a sense a secondary byproduct that only serves to spur forward the technology of software? In other words, is the artist a tool for the software?

 

“Exhibit A” as evidence of software shaping the artist is what I call “editing syndrome.” Increasingly, creativity has morphed to the process of editing. Selecting, juxtaposing, rearranging, splicing, cutting, expanding, compressing—these terms dominate the current vocabulary in most creative software tools. Art, film, and music software encourages the “engineer” artist—someone who organizes and refines ideas rather than creating them “from scratch.” I’m not here referring to the self-proclaimed composers and artists who write music in Garage Band and create art in Photoshop. The democratization of art is a different issue. Rather, I’m pointing out that the editing process has gone from a tool of refinement to the primary creative act itself. Today’s software is not biased towards the composer using a skill set developed over years to notate an interesting and coherent musical phrase, or an experienced artist using experience and skill to draw a full sketch. Those of us find ourselves often trying to work around the software to achieve the results we intent. Instead today’s creative music software is biased towards the DJ, the mixer, the arranger, the sound designer, and the mastering engineer. These people make editing decisions on pre-existing music tracks, adding effects, mixing, dropping layers in and out of a sonic tapestry, etc. Even the most sophisticated music software increasingly comes bundled with pre-recorded loops, patterns, and fully performed musical sections. Yet the music created using these tools is considered original work.

 

I remember the first time I purchased a sample library of ethnic instruments. It came with pre-recorded loops of African dances. With the push of different keys I was able to trigger different loops and create my own version of the dance. More thrilling was when I went on to trigger different Flamenco guitar licks, and then improvised combining them with the African music. It felt so powerful. The role of editor, creator, performer was blurred beyond recognition. But beneath this confusion and power, I gradually realized that it was changing my own creative bias. I was working towards the software’s power and strength, rather than the software empowering my own style and proclivities.

 

Steve Jobs and Apple have inspired creative software that seems to offer unparalleled control over artistic choices. But the software itself and its interface determine the environment to such an extent that they perhaps exert stronger control over the content than the artist. When I talk with commercial composers—those who earn a living creating music using Apple computers and Apple-inspired software—they share a common adage: “Write to your samples.” What they mean is to spend time listening to what the software does well, and then writing music specifically for that instead of expecting the software to realize what you initially conceive. In other words, suppose you wish to create a beautiful violin melody, but your software has weak-sounding legato violin samples. Their advice is to scrap your idea of a beautiful violin melody. Give that melody to a sampled instrument that sounds better with your software, maybe a clarinet, and if you want to feature violins, discover more convincing samples—perhaps the shorter length marcato violins—and compose an appropriate type of music for those samples instead, probably music more energetic and forceful. This is terrific advice for creating more realistic sounding orchestral music with a computer. But make no mistake about it; it indicates the software placing strong boundaries on your artistic vision.

 

Is that a boundary only for artists trying to create commercial music? I don’t find that to be the case. Sometimes the limits are more subtle, but they certainly exist for the non-commercial serious artist as well. I recently composed a work for piano = in which I conceived four different sound worlds or scale sets. I decided to use four staves for the piano instead of the conventional two. Today’s notation programs have no problem doing that. But when I tried to connect melodies from the top staff to the bottom staff, something I could have executed on paper with a simple gesture of pen or pencil, that turned out to be impossible. I was forced to notate that work in three staves instead of two, a small thing perhaps, but an example of the software bullying its structure on my artistic vision. Concert composers struggle with these types of issues every time they compose using their computer. So much of the artistic pursuit is to go beyond the boundaries of convention and now a big part of that struggle is to wrestle with the software, forcing it to forego its own biases, or capitulating and creating what seems easiest to do in the application.

 

Have you also noticed how Steve Jobs and Apple have controlled the bias of particularly the iPhone and the iPad? They both seem designed to streamline accepting and using content, with an almost magnetic resistance to creating content. The typing keyboard is an awkward affair, many steps backwards from previous devices. The auto-correct feature has produced such frustrating and hilarious results that it has spurred entire books that feature its humorous mistakes. The insistence on only a single central button on the iPhone is pure design elegance just a hair short of Kubrick’s completely featureless 2001 monolith. It emphasizes the phone’s function as device dedicated to selecting and making choices. Of course that fits in with the idea of the editor-creator I detailed above. You can powerfully manipulate images and sound. But the information on these devices flows easiest downstream—to the consumer.

 

I am not some kind of Luddite condemning modern technology. In fact, I am in wide-eyed and wide-eared wonder like many of us over the new possibilities this technology opens before our aesthetic aspirations. Steve Jobs and Apple have perhaps unleashed some of our most powerful unconscious artistic desires and I continue to be an ardent fan. Nevertheless, there’s danger in maintaining an unconscious attitude about the way the technology is shaping our work and our lives. It’s important to look head-on at the time we spend every day learning to use these new tools and solve the problems when they never seem to work. We who are creative artists should consciously evaluate to what extent software is controlling our expression, rather than freeing us to magnify our ability and explore new worlds. We need to individually determine whether literacy and traditional experience still matter, and what it really means to stay relevant when technology leaps ahead every two years. After all, if we create with these computers and this software, we are enslaving our work to its promise to deliver and its implied promise to endure. That’s a software agreement we artists live by but have neither read or signed. 

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Respond and let us all know how you feel Apple products have changed your work as a creative artist, both for the better and the worse!

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