Thursday, March 5, 2009

The End of Music?

Back in November of 2006 on my previous blog, I wrote a post entitled "Does Music Have a Future?" It involved an examination of a manifesto of the Future of Music Coalition, along with a related book by David Kusek and Gerd Leonhard, The Future of Music: Manifesto for the Digital Revolution. The ideology behind this futurism could be captured in a single sentence from the manifesto Web page:

For too long musicians have had too little voice in the manufacture, distribution and promotion of their music on a national and international level and too little means to extract fair support and compensation for their work.

Note the absence of concepts such as composing, performing, and listening, all of which are presumably subsumed by "manufacture." As I put it in my original post, the focus is on "the commercial survival of people wanting to make a living as musicians," with very little regard to the practice of music itself.

Needless to say, I was no more pleased with this ideological stance when I first wrote about it than I am today. However, to give some sense of how little things have changed since the manifesto emerged, let me reproduce my critical reaction:

However, all this trafficking in manifestos probably needs to be examined in the context of my recent attempt to get below the surface of the iPod phenomenon. See, as soon as the manifesto writers get on the bandwagon of a digital future (which is definitely the case with the aforementioned book), then it is not long before the iPod is paraded out as the wave of the future. At this point it is important to remember that iPods now provide content other than music, so any examination of the technology must take content such as video and podcasts into account. Consequently, if we buy into the argument I have been trying to promote, which is that the iPod is, above all other things, a convenient mechanisms for detaching from reality, then the fact that it provides music as content becomes relatively incidental.

At the end of the day, if there is a "digital music revolution," then it has precious little to do with music; and the primary reason for this is that the technology behind this revolution is solidly locked into what Noam Cook and John Seely Brown call an "epistemology of possession." The iPod is a handy little toy that provides us with a new way to acquire and manage old possessions, and it delivers those possessions as a cocoon to protect us from the cruel world out there. However, if we want to talk about music, we have to recognize that music (as opposed to the music business) is more about practice than about possession. Those practices involve not only making music (composing or performing) but also going to performances and playing recordings. Cook and Brown argued that talking about practice requires a different epistemology from talking about possession; and they envisage a "generative dance" that engages both epistemologies.

My fear is that if the only talk we hear about the future of music has to do with possession, then practice may drop out of even our peripheral vision of the world of music. Unfortunately, I am "old school" enough to believe that you cannot have music without practice. Thus my choice of headline: If we embrace the manifestos of the "future of music" with too much enthusiasm, the consequence may be that music has no future at all!

In other words the concept of "manufacture" dominates the manifesto because the envisaged future is all about possessing the next generation of "end products." In this future there is no room for those who would prefer to pay the price of admission to experience the immediacy of performing musicians practicing their crafts.

On this blog much of my emphasis has been on the underlying nature of listening to musical performance and acquiring that listening skill. My preference has always been for "live" performance, holding to the precept that the primary value of recordings is to prepare us for opportunities for such performances. The best recordings are best viewed as documents of performances, rather than end products of a manufacturing process. This recently provoked me to draw the following conclusion about such manufacturing:

Unfortunately, this just sucks the life out of performance, literally as well as metaphorically; and, as a consequence, the practice also impedes (if not debilitates) our capacity for being (or learning to be) good listeners.

This morning Alastair Jamieson filed a story for the London Telegraph that cast the situation I have been examining in an even darker light than I had anticipated:

Flatter sounds associated with digital music are now being chosen by some record producers as young listeners no longer appreciate high fidelity recordings.

Researchers believe the use of iPods and computers to play music by millions of consumers over several years has raised the collective perception of the sound quality.

Their findings suggest that the veneration of vinyl records by purists following the arrival of the CD in the 1980s is being repeated by modern day music producers exasperated by the apparent indifference of young listeners to the metallic 'sizzle' associated with the MP3 players used for digital sound.

Jonathan Berger, Professor of Music at Stanford University, California, has conducted an eight-year study in which students have rated various formats playing the same song. He found that, over time, there was a rise in preference for MP3 players and that there was no perception of inferior quality.

Professor Berger told The Times that the phenomenon was similar to the continued preference of some for music from vinyl records heard through a gramophone. "Some people prefer that needle noise – the noise of little dust particles that create noise in the grooves. I think there's a sense of warmth and comfort in that.

Rennie Pilgrem, a dance music producer, said he mixed his tracks while listening to them through iPod headphones to cater to the less refined tastes of today's youth. "To my ears iPods are not even as good quality as cassette tape," he said. "But once someone gets used to that sound then they feel comfortable with it."

That last sentence is the kicker. The "comfort factor" that Pilgrem cites is that same phenomenon of categorical perception, which I recently discussed in terms of how the equal-tempered tuning of a piano now conditions us to hear the intervals of the harmonic series as "out of tune."

Much of what I have called the "rhetoric" of performance is a matter of subtlety. It comes from the capacity of a performer to differentiate the present performance from any past performance; but that differentiation can only be appreciated by those with the listening skills to be aware of it. Those skills can only be grounded in the individual listener's own experiences of past performances, which basically means that every performance we experience expands our capacity for being better listeners. "Manufactured" music, on the other hand, is not about any such subtlety of rhetoric any more than it is about performance itself. To the extent that Jamieson's report is an assessment of what the Future of Music Coalition had envisaged, it is a future in which the very act of listening has been displaced by the sort of primal auditory response that, in his derogatory way with words, Igor Stravinsky had associated with ducks and declared to have "no merit." In 2006 I worried about the future of music on the grounds that the need to think in terms of practice was being displaced by exclusive attention to product. Now I see that I must also worry that, however many excellent opportunities there may be for us to learn how to listen, what we experience through those manufactured digital products may undermine the very capacity from which that learning can take place.

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