"Music Confounds the Machines"

T Bone Burnett

Everyone's talking about the great speech T Bone Burnett gave as the keynote address to AmericanaFest yesterday. If you missed it, here's the transcript (posted with permission from the Americana Music Association):

I have come here today first to bring you love. I have come here to express my deep gratitude to you for your love of music and of each other. And, I have come here to talk about the value of the artist, and the value of art.

When Michaelangelo was painting the great fresco The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, he came under intense criticism from various members of the church, particularly the Pope's Master of Ceremonies — a man named Cesena — who accused him of obscenity. Michaelangelo’s response was to paint Cesena into the fresco in the lowest circle of hell with donkey ears and a serpent coiled around him devouring, and covering, his nether regions, so to speak.

Cesena was incensed and went to the Pope demanding he censor Michaelangelo for this outrage, and the Pope said, “Well, let’s go have a look at it.” So, they went down to the chapel, and when the Pope stood in front of the fresco, he said to Cesena, “You know, that doesn’t look like you at all.”

See, the Pope didn’t want to jack around with Michaelangelo. Michaelangelo was making things that were going to last for hundreds of years. His stuff was going to outlive the Pope’s ability to do anything about it, so the Pope bowed to the inevitable. The Pope was afraid of a painter. 

The painter could create another dimension between Heaven and Earth. Flat ceilings seemed to come down into the room in three dimensions. He painted rooms where priests and the church could sit and be transported to- and engulfed in- a higher realm, learning ancient stories- thoughts kept alive over centuries. And he did it by mixing together things he found laying around on the ground- sand and clay and plants. He was a fearsome alchemist.

Art is not a market to be conquered or to bow before.

Art is a holy pursuit.

Beneath the subatomic particle level, there are fibers that vibrate at different intensities. Different frequencies. Like violin strings. The physicists say that the particles we are able to see are the notes of the strings vibrating beneath them. If string theory is correct, then music is not only the way our brains work, as the neuroscientists have shown, but also, it is what we are made of, what everything is made of. These are the stakes musicians are playing for. 

I want to recommend a book to you — The Technological Society by Jacques Ellul.

John Wilkinson, the translator, in his 1964 introduction, describes the book this way —  “The Technological Society is a description of the way in which an autonomous technology is in the process of taking over the traditional values of every society without exception, subverting and surpassing those values to produce at last a monolithic world culture in which all technological difference and variety is mere appearance.”   This is the core of the dead serious challenge we face.

The first nuclear weapon was detonated on the morning of July 16, 1945, at 5:29 and 45 seconds.

At that moment, technocrats took control of our culture.

Trinity was the code name of that explosion. It was an unholy trinity.

Technology does only one thing- it tends toward efficiency. It has no aesthetics. It has no ethics. It’s code is binary.

But everything interesting in life- everything that makes life worth living- happens between the binary. Mercy is not binary. Love is not binary. Music and art are not binary. You and I are not binary.

Parenthetically, we have to remember that all this technology we use has been developed by the war machine- Turing was breaking codes for the spies, Oppenheimer was theorising and realising weapons. Many of the tools we use in the studio for recording- microphones and limiters and equalizers and all that- were developed for the military. It is our privilege to beat those swords into plowshares.

We live in a time in which artists are being stampeded from one bad deal to another worse deal. No one asks the artists. We are told to get good at marketing. I have to say- and I think I probably speak for every musician here- that I didn’t start playing music because I sought, or thought it would lead to, a career in marketing. 

And, as we are being told that, our work is being commoditized — the price of music is being driven down to zero.

I am working with a group called C3, the Content Creators Coalition run by Roseanne Cash and Jeffrey Boxer to develop an Artists Bill of Rights.  Jeffrey is here today to meet afterward with anyone who wants to get into this. The first right artists have is the right to determine what medium they work in. The second is the right to set the price of their work. 

Every person worthy of the name artist, from Rembrandt to Paul Cesanne to Picasso to Jackson Pollack

From William Shakespeare to Tennessee Williams to James Baldwin and Jack Kerouac

From Bach to Stravinski to Mahler to John Adams

Every one of those artists made art that to be understood, the world had to change.

They did not adapt to the world, the world had to adapt to them.

The technocrats suggest we crowd source.

I suggest we not. 

The very thing an artist does is figure out what he likes. 

The technocrats — the digital tycoons, the iTopians — look down on artists. They have made all these tools and they think we should be grateful — subserviant even — and use their flimsy new tools happily to make them ever more powerful. But we can make art with any thing. We don’t need their tools. Music confounds the machines.

So the iTopians have controlled the medium and the message for a generation now. And they are making a complete hash of things. The clearest and most pervasive proof of this is the psychedelic political season we are in, which we can see playing out in every election around the world. 

Before the atom bomb, we had begun to project idealized versions of people up on screens, while the people whose images were projected would hide behind the screens, knowing they could never measure up.

After the atom bomb, we have automated that process. On facebook, everybody is a star. The idealistic, lysergic promise of the 1960’s has been mechanized, allowing us to become ever more facile conterfeiters.

The mask has become the face.

Malcolm Muggeridge said that the kingdom Satan offers a man is to the kingdom of God as a travel poster to the place it depicts. 

This internet technology that has been so wildly promoted as being the key, the final solution, to our freedom, has become our prison. What the false prophets of the internet said would replace governments and nation states and commerce, and create a free world of community and sharing, has led instead to a consolidation of wealth and power that makes the monopolies of the early 2oth Century- Morgan and Rockefeller and Carnegie- look weak and ineffective.  

Ethan Zuckerman, the director of the MIT Media Lab has apologized for his part in creating what he calls a “fiasco”. Tim Berners Lee, who diagrammed the schematic for our current internet on a napkin, said at Davos last year that the internet needs to be rearchitected.

Our 21st Century communication network, regarded by its early adherents with a religious fervor, has been turned into a surveillance and advertising mecnanism. The World Wide Web is just that- a web that ensnares everyone who uses it. 

Artists must not submit to the demands, or the definitions of, the iTopians.

Lastly, I am here to speak specifically about American music.

This country has been led by artists from Thoreau and Emerson through Walt Whitman to Woody Guthrie, through Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker, to Presley and Dylan to The Last Poets and Kendrick Lamar.  The Arts have always led the Sciences.  Einstein said that Picasso preceded him by twenty years.  Jules Verne put a man on the moon a hundred years before a rocket scientist did. Medieval stained glass windows are examples of  how nanotechnology was used in the pre-modern era. Those artists were high technologists, and many other things- they were aestheticians, ethicists, conjurers, and philosophers, to name a few.

They took risks. Risks a technocrat could never take. Artists risk everything in everything they do. Risk is what separates the artist from the artisan. Art is not a career, it is a vocation, an inclination, a response to a summons.

We, in this country, have defined ourselves through music from the beginning- from Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier in the Revolutionary War, to The Star Spangled Banner in the War of 1812, to John Brown’s Body and the Battle Hymn of the Republic in the Civil War, to the incredible explosion of music of the last century that was called Jazz, or Folk Music, or Rock and Roll, or Country Music- because although our music has taken many different paths, it is all of a piece and a most important part of our national identity- of US.

Music is to the United States as wine is to France. We have spread our culture all over the world with the soft power of American music.  We both have regions- France has Champagne, we have the Mississippi Delta.  France has Bordeaux, we have the Appalachian Mountains. France has Epernay, we have Nashville. Recorded music has been our best good will ambassador. The actual reason the Iron Curtain fell, is because the Russian kids wanted Beatles records. Louis Armstrong did more to spread our message of freedom and innovation than any single person in the last hundred years.  Our history, our language, and our soul are recorded in our music. There is no deeper expression of the soul of this country than the profound archive of music we have recorded over the last century.

This is the story of the United States: a kid walks out of his home with a song and nothing else, and conquers the world.  We have replicated that phenomenon over and over.  We could start with Elvis Presley, but we could add in names for hours-   Jimmie Rodgers, Rosetta Tharpe, Johnny Cash, Howlin Wolf, Mahalia Jackson, Bob Dylan, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Loretta Lynn, Chuck Berry, Hank Williams, Aretha Franklin, Jack White, Dr. Dre. That is the American Character.  That is Johnny Appleseed. 

At last year’s MusicCares tribute to Bob Dylan, Jimmy Carter said, “There’s no doubt that his words of peace and human rights are much more incisive and much more powerful and much more permanent than any president of the United States.”  I believe that is undeniable.

That’s who the artists are. We can’t forget that.

So, in conclusion, there is this sense that the technocrats are saying, “Look, we’re just going to go ahead and do this, and we’ll sort it all out later.” As they did with the atom bomb.

As artists, it is our responsibility to sort it out now.

Barnett Newman said, “Time passes over the tip of the pyramid.” By that he meant that there is a lot of room at the bottom of the pyramid to put things, but that as time passes, gravity washes them down into the sand. But if you put something right on the tip of the pyramid, it stays there.

We aspire to put things on the tip of the pyramid. That is our preference- our prefered medium.

Digital is not an archival medium.

Technology is turning over every ten years. Their technologies don’t and won’t last.

Our art — if we do it right — will.

Artist T Bone Burnett
Other tags AmericanaFest

Thanks for posting this interesting read with many valid points even if T-Bone seems to have gone off the Luddite deep-end when he states "Parenthetically, we have to remember that all this technology we use has been developed by the war machine."

Real Wisdom here..thank you for sharing..


My open-letter response to T Bone as an artist-turned-tech-CEO :

I thought there would be some reviews of the various Americanafest shows here on No Depression. Instead, this transcript of Burnette's speech has been here for five days. Good as it is, I would prefer some real music news.

Several of us were there taking it. You can read about it here, here, and here

Great Article T Bone,
As we progress through time, we are starting to see more and more Artists that also have the capability of Technocrats.
Take a look at what I am, and the company I founded is doing to solve the problems you talk about.


If you need to know more contact me via my linkedin page....

His ultimate point is valuing art and the artist which I appreciate.

The Michelangelo story, I think, was to make part of that point, otherwise, I don't really get it. 

The quote from the book, about autonomous technology taking over traditional values...I don't really know what he means but my assumption is he's referencing the industrial revolution, which was good for efficiency and lower product prices, but it took decades to give workers the rights and protections (values) they should have been afforded in the first place. 

That technology and the technology created since, he says, is all about efficiency. To me he's saying that when we interrupt the process of acquiring something and take it to its lowest common denominator, the fastest delivery for the best price, we not only miss something but we give up a piece of ourselves in return...or maybe it's more like we lose out on an opportunity that can't be recreated, something deeper and more fulfilling than the acquisition itself. 

As far as being stampeded from one thing to another, the marketing issue and not getting into music for a career in marketing--yeah, what's the option? Hire someone to do it for you? Marketing has always been part of music, from traveling Bards to Mozart. It looks different now, but it's all marketing. I definitely think that's nostalgia for record label days. I definitely think there's a better way, that's what our company, Lineage Artistry is going to try to find.

The price of music driven down to zero? Disagree. I think it's stupid how little artists get paid for streaming, but even huge artists can't make music and sit on their asses at home, they all tour and sell merch. Independent artists must, too. There IS a way to do it and make money, it's just a shit ton of work. 

Artists following the house show model are asking the world to adapt to them. Artists not playing for peanuts or exposure or drink tickets are asking the world to adapt to them. 

Disagree with not crowdsourcing. And the technocrats have nothing to do with that. My husband crowd funded his latest album on his own.  Asking your fans to pre-order albums and purchase cool stuff to fund an album IS asking them to adapt to us! 

No, we don't need those iTopian tools. But by golly we can use them how we see fit to carve out a career--making THEM adapt to US.

I don't get how music media and political media are connected. But as far as media--leave it to beaver, et al, sure, but hiding behind screens? I don't get what he means. Paparazzi has done a fab job of making sure people on screens have their faults displayed for us all to see. 

Facebook is bad because we don't get real on it blah blah's a world of acquaintances and friends, I think it's easy for certain personalities to love it and others to hate it AND tear it down and complain about it. He's obviously the latter.

I have never heard that the Internet is our key to freedom. I love being able to get information on anything I want at any time from many perspectives. I agree that it's been turned into something it wasn't meant to be, but it's not ALL capitalistic garbage. Most of us don't even see the ads anymore. We get what we want and move on. We adapted it for our own purposes. 

Using technology doesn't mean submitting to anyone if you make it submit to you. That's what DIY is all about. That's what indie is all about. Use their tools and screw the rest. 

Risks--not sure about what risks "technocrats" do and don't take, but hell yes, some artists take risks. Art isn't a career? Yes it is. It's all those other things, too. 

I like what he says about American music. 

I agree that artists had ZERO say in where things have gone as far as streaming goes. I think they deserve a voice and a much higher pay scale.

Digital not being an archival medium? As a digital photographer I agree on one hand--nothing replaces a printed image--but music is different. It lives and makes its home in airwaves that move through tiny caverns, tripping hairs and vibrating fragile bones, striking synapses and moving through neurons into our very souls. 

I think the real archiving is done by the heart. Everything else, in the long run, is disposable.

T Bone is right on, and he has given people a lot of food for thought here.  He didn't go too deep into it, but I agree with his disdain of crowd funding. It's demeaning and not conducive to the creation of art. Don't be anybody's monkey. Monkies are entertaining, but they're not artists. 

This article is pretentious and silly. Get to the point Mr. Burnett. Artists are getting royally screwed by the Digital Devil....just say it. "Keep making music by pay attention to new marketing strategies that compensate artists and their teams with increasing profitability" is what you should be saying. Cut out the bullshit and just help music people earn a living instead of sending them away scratching their heads.