Old dogs, new tricks

While tuning his guitar during a visit to WPVM’s studios for a recent live radio performance, Chris Smither said: “The biggest change I’ve seen in music during my career is that people [play] in tune now. You listen to some of the old vinyl records, and it jumps out at you: They couldn’t tune their instruments!” As he spoke, Smither’s eyes were focused on his digital tuner. “Tuners have made the difference,” he continued, “and I think audiences have a better sense of pitch as a result. We’ve gotten used to hearing musicians who are in tune.”

Glass act: Michael Hatch of Crucible Glassworks depends on digital controllers to mind his ovens. Photos By Jonathan Welch

Digital technology has affected virtually every branch of the arts, and if some of that impact seems “natural”—such as the gradual evolution of sound recording from wax cylinders to acetate tape to digital files—other aspects of the high-tech revolution may come as a surprise. Weavers, potters, glass blowers and brewers now rely on desktop computers to leapfrog the arduous study and/or internship required of prior generations of artisans.

Art and technology have played a long-running duet. Take weaving, for instance: With its punch-card programming, the 1801 jacquard loom was a direct ancestor of the IBM punch-card computing systems that emerged after World War II. And today’s fiber artists can use a wealth of computer programs to generate weaving, needlepoint or beadwork patterns and even translate photos into step-by-step instructions. Colors can be interchanged instantly rather than having to painstakingly complete separate projects in order to compare the results. Other programs help spinners create fancy yarns.

Potters were much earlier beneficiaries of high-tech. Probably invented in Mesopotamia more than 4,000 years ago, the potter’s wheel revolutionized the manufacture of ceramic vessels. The basic idea has not been appreciably improved on, other than substituting an electric motor for the potter’s foot. But other aspects of the ceramic arts have undergone a sea change. Thanks to digital kiln controls, firing cycles can now be programmed, replacing the hard-won skill gained through years of experimentation with precisely timed changes and temperature readouts that can be instantly graphed on a computer screen. The knowledge base of hundreds of glaze chemists has been compiled into simple programs that guide new potters through the manipulation of formulas to help them create personal colors and styles.

Glass blowers also depend on digital equipment, and for the same reasons. Michael Hatch, who owns Crucible Glassworks in downtown Asheville, says precise control of his annealing oven is essential. “The digital controller is really important, because glass wants to break up if it heats up or cools down too quickly,” he explains. “The digital controller on my main oven can take the temperature slowly from 600 degrees to 1,100 degrees over an eight-hour period, and it provides an important safety feature as well. It constantly monitors gas and air pressure; if anything goes wrong, it shuts down automatically. But at the same time, if there is a temporary power outage, it will shut down and automatically restart. If the oven shut down completely overnight due to a temporary outage, it could cost me three days while I gradually brought the unit back up to temperature.”

Something brewing: While many modern brewers use computer programs for recipes or monitoring, Doug Riley of Asheville Pizza & Brewing eschews computerization.

After a tough day laboring in front of the computer, some artisans like to unwind with a frosty mug of homemade beer—and gee, there do seem to be a lot of homebrewers these days. In part, that may be because the knowledge gleaned by countless generations of brewmasters and winemakers has been distilled (ahem) into recipe programs. There’s even a program written for the Palm Pilot, so neophytes can keep the instructions at their fingertips.

More sophisticated high-tech tools appear to be aimed at commercial brewers. Crucial fermentation and aging temperatures can now be digitally controlled. Variable-capacity, stainless-steel tanks transmit fermentation and temperature data wirelessly to a computer whose software provides guidance and manages both processes and record-keeping. But Doug Riley, the chief brewer at Asheville Pizza and Brewing Co., says he prefers to do things the old-fashioned way, noting, “Larger breweries use computers, but I don’t think many microbrewers do.”

In general, however, high-tech seems to be here to stay. And the impact of these changes doesn’t stop at the studio door. Just as desktop computing has facilitated the creation of the local newspaper you’re reading right now, it has also helped fashion the locally made goblets or mugs from which Xpress readers may sip local wine or beer while dabbing their mouths with locally woven napkins and enjoying some locally produced tunes. All chips—silicon, that is—off the new block.

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About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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