The other day I was watching, for the third time, one of my favorite documentaries, Possibilities. It covers the making of Herbie Hancock’s 2005 album of the same name, and I highly recommend seeing it if you haven’t already, especially if you’re not familiar with Herbie and his work. No one album can show all the versatility of his creative talents, but Possibilities can be a good place to start because it shows the way Herbie acts as a catalyst for the exploration of new sounds. The guest artists range from pop stars to young soul singers to relatively unknown instrumentalists who have garnered much less recognition than they deserve.
It was actually while listening to the part of the documentary dedicated to an artist who doesn’t appear on the album that I really started thinking about an issue that’s been bothering me for some time: the role of new technology in music. Brian Eno, like Herbie, has successfully integrated all kinds of cutting edge technology in his work. But why do I so easily use the descriptive “successfully” for these artists while I hesitate to apply it to so many others? Is it because they have been able to master the use of the tools better than some? Or perhaps because they are more creative in their application of such? It occurred to me that for some musicians, and even vocalists, new technologies are toys. For our Possibilities musicians, they are instruments. Even pianos and violins were new “technologies” once, but they have been studied, played and developed into finely tuned tools of sound. Whether digital and other technologies will follow the same pattern, we can’t yet know, of course, but a lot of the importance of instruments has to do with how they are treated.
These reflections gave rise to another question: which quality is more important for musical greatness, mastery or versatility? This is a bigger question than the latter one, and though I might be tempted to lean in the direction of mastery, I can’t discount versatility. Brian Eno and Herbie Hancock are perfect examples of both. Maybe our answer is that we shouldn’t want, or need, to choose.