Violence is for the birds


I’ve not been able to make it through a James Bond film for the last few years. They are just too brutal, too violent. I miss the stylish Bond, where taste supersedes action. Oddly though, I’ve been listening to Bond film soundtracks. The difference between David Arnold’s throbbing soundtrack to Casino Royale and Burt Bacharach’s soundtrack to the faux-Bond Casino Royale is jarring. The latter film is so fun, and while listening to the former I just feel pummeled. Critics do call the new Bond “stylish” but if this is style, you can have it as far as I’m concerned. Soundtracks are integral to the Bond franchise, carefully reinforcing the brand at critical moments.

Sometimes, film music is inseparable from the drama of the moment , such as the shrieking violins in the shower scene of Hitchock’s Psycho. In other cases, such as the Bond films, the soundtrack can be playfully ironic. John Barry’s score for Goldfinger with its brash brass layers on not simply a commentary, but a commentary on style. My difficulty with the latest Bond isn’t simply the violence though, it’s also the constant sense that I’m being lead through the eyes, ears, nose and throat to be told what to feel. And I really don’t want to feel violent. It’s simply not a world I want to inhabit, and yet it’s polyannaish and impossible to avoid the presence of violence. Why do some modes of violence in reproduction seem important and “real,” others gratuitous, and still others, diverting and almost charming?


I’m beginning to think that music has a lot to do with it. In most cases , even though it purports to be an incidental background, the soundtrack tells us how to feel. It’s not simply an affectual nudge. Music can be a narrative element that pulls you through something. Or, in the case of Psycho the soundtrack music almost physically create a tear— an extreme case of what Roland Barthes labeled as punctum. This sort of extreme affect/effect is by its very nature contrived as artifice. Music is in actuality primarily incidental both in the sense that it is a part of a physical territory we happen into, but also in that it helps isolate temporal incidents of daily life.


I want so many moods and then I want so many more
Cars and tape decks carve eternal between my worlds
Windshields are like TV screens and I’m not involved at all
My entertainment takes me everywhere, nowhere at all
Everywhere, nowhere at all.

My soundtrack tells me what to think of what I see
Interpretation by the music, and not by me
I don’t point myself anywhere where I can’t turn away
I’m only going places, I never mean to stay— I never mean to stay
I don’t intend to stay.

Soundtrack, Thin White Rope, Exploring the Axis (1985)

I’ve written recently about my experiences/perceptions of nature growing up. So, when Krista and I watched Hitchcock’s The Birds last weekend it seems a given that it would push my buttons. What I hadn’t counted upon, though, was how the lack of a soundtrack made watching the film far more powerful than I remembered. The film, in a lot of ways, simply doesn’t make any sense. Birds start violently attacking people. There is no rhyme or reason, no explanation. A couple of characters in the film offer hysterical explanations for the violence, such as it is surely a sign of the apocalypse. But the violence escalates without pattern until it ultimately just stops.

Because there is no soundtrack at all except a few electronic bird sound effects and snatches of truly incidental music. The real score for the terror is silence. Silence is perhaps the most terrifying thing of all.


In the edges

I’ve always been drawn to folk music, to roots music. I stop at Barry Manilow. From a very early age when I was a kid listening to Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five – you know, that’s very crude music in the one sense but it’s very sophisticated and advanced and harmonically interesting but its surfaces are crude. I suppose I fell in love with that sound when I was quite young and its something I’ve always looked for: sophisticated but crude.

. . .

They wanted me to transcend something and sometimes if it’s rough and has a rough quality it transcends. If you repeat music too often . . . if you rub the edges off music you take away the music itself. The music is in the edges, its in the rough bits. If you smooth it over there’s really nothing left. You’ve got lots of notes left but there’s no music, so its always a striving to keep it alive as something fresh that really has vitality to it.

[Richard Thompson]

I’ve been always after something like a deeper truth, an ecstatic truth. I’ve been after balance, after something like justice within pictures. Very strange to explain it and I’ve hardly ever seen a film that has complete balance within it. There are exceptions like Rashomon by Kurosawa where I’m sitting in awe and wondering how did he do that. How for god’s sake can I get somewhat close to this. Of course I never will but trying it anyway is okay and it gives some sort of meaning to my life and in a certain way going for the essential right straight without detour where is it . . . it’s the essential I’m looking for what is the deepest essential that defines us as human beings.

[Werner Herzog]

“In the Edges: The Grizzly Man Session” bonus feature on the Grizzly Man DVD

I have problems of different sorts with both Richard Thompson and Werner Herzog. One seems completely foreign, the other all too familiar. Richard Thompson has always been a bit weird for me because he is always “in character” in all his songs. There is virtually no sense of who or what he really is as a human being. Even watching/listening to something like A Thousand Years of Popular Music gives you little insight into what or who he is through his consumptive choices. It’s a bit like the split between the Romantic poets and the Victorians like Tennyson or Browning— with Blake or Wordsworth, you never fail to recognize who is speaking. Victorians are tricky role-playing creatures, impossible to take at face value. I tend to think of Thompson as a bit of a Victorian, and this extra bit is uncharacteristically revealing of his preferences.

At the onset of this featurette, Herzog declares that film and music are closely related, more so than film and literature. The discrepancy between container metaphors between these two collaborators is striking. For Thompson, the music is found at the edges. For Herzog, he wants to seek out the heart, the essence inside the human condition. “Straight without detour” hardly describes the arc of most of his films. He seems to want to play the trickster, dancing around the fire until the heat is unbearable. And always, the focus is on him and his feelings about the fire.

Grizzly Man is probably my favorite Herzog film so far (I haven’t seen that many) because of a profound affinity between the lunatic filmaker in charge and the lunatic filmaker under scrutiny. One sees nature as friendly and welcoming to kindred spirits, the other sees nature as hostile and unforgiving. The tension is in the dialog between the two. Because Treadwell is dead, though, he really can’t correct the crazy German. At least it’s easy to believe that although they disagree, these two guys would probably like each other.

However, the whole idea of the artist as a crazy egotist is just tired and rubbed in the ground. That’s why even after just a few forays into Herzog’s films it seems tiresomely familiar. The artist makes his statement, reality be damned. Herzog is often guilty of shaving off the edges, but less so here than in the other films I’ve seen.


What I found about the blues and music, tracing things back, was that nothing came from itself. As great as it [Robert Johnson] is, this is not one stroke of genius. This cat was listening to somebody and it’s his variation on the theme. And so you realize that everybody’s connected here. This is not just that he’s fantastic and the rest are crap; they’re all interconnected. And the further you went back into music and time, and with the blues you go back to the ’20s because you’re basically going through recorded music, you think thank God for recording. It’s the best thing that’s happened to us since writing.

Keith Richards, Life 94-95

I think it’s important to note that prior to this observation, Richards describes how he and Jagger sorted music by the good/crap formula. This retrospective observation is not the point of view of a young man: old men seldom celebrate evanescence, while the young sing “get it while you can.” Tradition matters a lot more when you find yourself to be a part of it, rather than an interloper introduced into a history already in progress. What strikes me most though, is his comparison of recording with writing and the incredibly short history of recorded music. It’s actually much newer than photographic recording technologies.

I’ve been on a kick of reading autobiographies by musicians. Last week it was Andy Summer’s One Train Later and this week it’s Keith Richards. I’ve been enjoying them for a variety of reasons, but it strikes me how much I agree with the appraisal (loosely paraphrased from any of them) that “music is the best.” But, what I have difficulty buying into is that being a good musician gives you license (or commands) you to become a hedonistic ass with no real responsibilities in your intercourse with other people. What about being a good cabinet maker or mechanic? Why don’t they have killer parties and entourages of groupies? If music is, as these players suggest, a craft requiring practice and dedication what makes it different and more noble of crafts involving utilitarian rather than artistic ends? The art/craft divide here seems to be at its widest, where social capital creates/reinforces deviant and antisocial behavior. It is paradoxical that music can be a glue bonding social groups together, while its craftsmen break down traditions to get these privileges. It seems unlikely that young musicians think of themselves as producing “variations on a theme.” Instead, they long for uncharted territory. Summers, in particular, was adamant about that. The tension between these perspectives is delicious: in reinventing ourselves, we conserve the past in perverse ways.

I think it’s part of recording pieces of ourselves; as we appropriate multiple sources to invent ourselves, it’s only natural that the past is enfolded. Richards was adamant about the motivation:

I’ll do anything to make a record. It was really narcissistic in a way. We just wanted to hear what we sounded like. We wanted the playback. The payback didn’t come into it, but the playback we really wanted. In a way, in those days, being able to get into the studio and get an acetate back sort of legitimized you. “You’re a commissioned officer” instead of being one of the ranks. Playing live was the most important thing in the world, but making records stamped it. Signed, sealed, and delivered. (126)

The next phrase of his final triplet (unstated, of course) is “I’m yours.” across time, past death even, if you leave behind a record, you belong to the future.

Death By Technology

1970_ The Complete Fun House Sessions [Disc 3].jpg

I was listening to the Complete Funhouse Sessions this morning, not-so-suddenly during take 28 of “Loose” a huge lightbulb went off. I don’t think it’s a matter of technology making us incapable of sustained attention, it’s more a matter of a decline in the popular understanding of the rewards of attention. Attention to detail matters. The Stooges relentless drive to getting all the elements/feelings of the song exactly right was incredible on that album. Each version has subtle and not so subtle differences, and somewhere around take 22 the engineer starts joking about releasing an entire album of versions of that song. The sense that the song was worth the effort never fades, for the band at least, and on take 28 real magic happens. Some might think that such relentless drive for perfection might be unhealthy. I think it’s an example of the rewards of attention.

Is digital the cause of music’s doldrums, or has it been the insatiable drive for technical perfection that has sapped music’s spirit?1 No one can say for sure, but it’s a fact that music’s function has morphed so slowly from foreground to background listening that most people haven’t noticed it happening. One thing is certain: Recorded music doesn’t engage listeners the way it did in the analog days. Music now serves as a backdrop as people talk, read, drive, work, exercise, etc. Foreground listening is what audiophiles do— but other than us, very few people really listen to music anymore, even while attending live concerts. If recorded music isn’t worth your undivided attention, it’s not worth paying for.

Steve Guttenberg, “As We See It” Stereophile May 2011

Insatiable drive is what makes Funhouse an incredibly spiritual album, in my estimation. I think Guttenberg gets it wrong when he claims that only audiophiles pay attention to music. Ahem, musicians do too. And they keep making music. We kicked off our trip to Atlanta a few weeks ago by standing in a crowded club in Ithaca, NY to watch the Mountain Goats perform. Yes, it was noisy and sometimes impossible to hear the comments between songs. But that’s a perennial problem— concerts sometimes foreground the social nature of the gathering rather than music. Just add alcohol, and people even try to invalidate the laws of physics— a woman with a full drink tried to plow past me directly into our leaning-table, spilling it over our coats (and my new Mountain Goats LP purchased at the merch stand). Does this mean music is dead? Far from it. A good portion of the crowd was downright passionate about their favorites as the came vibrating into the room.

I’m not claiming that digital has or will destroy music— just what’s left of the record business. Musicians will continue to play music, and concerts won’t disappear, but income from recorded music will continue to decline. Obviously we can’t turn back the clock and return to the analog era. I’m just not sure what it would take to get people listening again.


After we got back from Atlanta, record store day rolled around. I usually don’t pay much attention, but there were a couple of releases I was interested in. Rain was forecast that afternoon, so we went to the farmer’s market early and ran out of things to waste time on and ended up on the doorstep of Sound Garden records a half-hour before they opened. The line was at least 40 feet long, and before they opened it probably reached 100 feet. Why were all these people standing in drizzle I wondered. Concert tickets? CD’s? When the doors opened I got my answer. The LP section of the store soon turned into a mosh-pit with people clutching at rare limited edition singles and LPs. Manufactured scarcity still works, apparently. No one really talked about which of the myriad special releases they were there for. It wasn’t any sort of unified phenomena, really. Just the coalescence of a wide variety of niche markets, I suspect. Krista and I split up and worked our way down both sides of the river of people, collecting more than a few LPs. Unfortunately, they didn’t have the Low release I was looking for. We had to contact a friend in Minneapolis who scored it for us there.

There’s still a lot of passion out there both for and in music, I suspect. It’s just in a different form now. Curiously, old school analog technology is falling into the hands of the niche musicians/collectors. I notice that the digital downloads that come with vinyl are generally handled by only a couple of jobbers/pressing plants. Nice. Distribution without the record company hype (though they are of course building up mailing lists every time you raise your freak flag high). Seems to me that “income from recorded music,” though it is no longer in the hands of the platinum selling boy bands, is alive and well for more than a few folks. Major labels can now officially suck it.

Listening to a BBC Front Row podcast the other day, Elvis Costello commented about his album National Ransom that he didn’t care how people wanted to hear it, just as long as they did. He continues to make the vinyl version available, complete with libretto, for those who like to sit and listen and hold a record album in hand. I think that’s how I tend to divide it up. There are things that I listen to in the form of digital files that I have little or no investment in. But if I like something, I tend to have it in multiple forms so that I can appreciate it more. In that regard, I think we’ll never really surrender the beauty and comfort possible in physical objects.

People are still listening, I suspect. It’s just that the media/record companies just haven’t been paying attention to how they listen, and how they get to the place where they really want to listen. Which brings me back to Iggy.2

In the early days of rock (particularly with the Who music got louder and louder in an attempt to force people to listen. The Stooges represent a sort of peak in the technological sound, I think— but there’s was the blue colar technology of the manufacturing plant with crashing metal machines, a far cry from what “industrial” eventually came to signify in music. The band that I’m leaving tomorrow to see at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Low, takes a decidedly different approach. Apocryphally, they are famous for turning down to force the audience to listen more closely. Different strategies, but the same ends in mind I think. It’s hard to communicate effectively with people who aren’t paying any attention. 

1 In fairness to Guttenberg, I’m sure his comment is a more direct gesture at the rise of Pro Tools and the slicing and dicing of performances to gain technical perfection at the expense of soul.

2 Nice to see that Iggy can even make American Idol seem cool.

Three songs for paper, film and video

The detective novel is the only novel truly invented in the twentieth century. In the detective novel, the hero is dead at the very beginning. So you don’t have to deal with human nature at all. Only the slow accumulation of facts … of data …

In science fiction, the hero just flies in at the very beginning. He can bend steel with his bare hands. He can walk in zero gravity. He can see right through lead doors. But no one asks how he is able to do these things. They just say, “Look! He’s walking in zero gravity.” So you don’t have to deal with human nature at all.

When TV signals are sent out, they don’t stop. They keep going. They pick up speed as they leave the solar system. By now, the first TV programs ever made have been traveling for thirty years. They are well beyond our solar system now. All those characters from cowboy serials, variety hours and quiz shows are sailing out. They are the first true voyagers into deep space. And they sail farther and farther our, intact, still talking.

And as we listen with our instruments, as we learn to listen farther and farther into space, we can hear them. We listen farther and that is all we hear. They are jamming our lines. We listen and we hear them talking, traveling, going faster and faster … getting fainter and fainter. And as our instruments become more sophisticated, we can hear them better …. speeding away … the sound of speeding away … like a phone continuously ringing.

Laurie Anderson, Three Songs for Paper, Film, and Video. United States Live (1984)

I was listening to this on vinyl just after completing the previous post. Shame I couldn’t have incorporated it.

Aural detectives

Early humans first adapted to nature’s acoustic geography: open savannas and mountain ranges. Modern humans adapt, in a weaker way, to the acoustic architecture of urban centers and of enclosed dwellings and gathering places. Both natural and fabricated environments are relatively constant and difficult to change, but by changing their vocalization behavior, those who occupy them adapt, whether as individuals, groups, or species. Every acoustic arena is an application of the principle that social groups select or create an environment, which in turn, determines the resources of their acoustic arena. The vocal behavior of a social group creates an acoustic arena as a geographical region that supports an acoustic community. (27)

. . .

Reverberation gives rise to an interactive experience, with the space entering into an acoustic dialogue with its occupants. It is difficult to enter a reverberant space surreptitiously because the sound of your footsteps produces an acoustic reaction for all to hear. Metaphorically, the reverberated sound of footsteps is the reactive voice of the space; the spatial acoustics of a reverberant space announce the presence of active life by responding with an audible hello, as either a whisper or a shout. (62)

. . .

Although smaller spaces still produce reverberation, as a listening visitor, you experience it as changing the tonal color of the direct sound, not as enveloping you. The acoustic dialogue between you and the space changes, but it remains a dialogue nonetheless. The spatial acoustics of a shower stall may induce you to sing because a small space has numerous discrete resonances. When the pitch and overtones of your voice coincide with these resonances, the intensity of your voice decreases dramatically. Rather than remaining neutral, the space reacts to the presence of some frequencies and not others. Space may thus be said to have tonal preferences. A singer is an aural detective exploring an environment the way a child explores a toy. (63)

Spaces Speak, Are You Listening?, Barry Blesser and Linda-Ruth Salter.

As spaces become smaller, their defining characteristics are not set by their reverberation, but by their resonance. Resonance is a complicated matter; we are comfortable in certain spaces and uncomfortable in others. Comfort is certainly a cultural creation; it has to do with a sense of security and familiarity. Resonance is, by definition, reinforcement of a phenomena (sensually described in most cases). These descriptions nearly always make senses metaphorically overlap: e.g. tone color or anthropomorphized sound as quasi-conscious (the “dialog” example above).

McIntosh corporation has handy personifications typifying tone:


Harmonics are a flexible way of talking about the impure nature of most sounds, but it is much easier to simply dress them up in different clothes and imply a range of personalities (including our smug narrator in the kilt). Reverberation is involved, this time in a much more nuanced fashion because the harmonics of a sound grow/decay/reflect at the different rates.

Blesser and Salter make an interesting move by making space a partner in a dialogue with the beings that occupy it. It makes it easier to visualize even solitary spaces as social. The concept that space has a “preference” for certain types of tones and colors is relatively easy to grant (given the definitions of resonance, harmonics, etc.). But attributing personalities to space and objects within it is curious to say the least. Again, I defer to the little guy in the kilt:


Does music have a “message”? That doesn’t jibe well with the idea of the singer as an aural detective. Making sounds can simply be a way of exploring space. The McIntosh brochure is very much a product of its time (1952) with its modeling of aural space as an area where sound travels uninhibitedly without resonance. This is counter-intuitive to say the least. I find such notions of fidelity fascinating.

Listening to a 2008 interview with Roy Harper on the Stormcock podcast yesterday, Harper made some interesting assertions relevant to aural spaces. First, he described culture as a piece of architecture that we all live within, an “edifice” to be exact. Then, he went on to describe culture as “the history of interpretation.” This is a useful perspective in my (unrelated) discussion of aural space, because it is obvious that the McIntosh brochure provides a 50s interpretation/valuation of sound which emphasizes the purity of the signal as given. Taking things back a bit historically and culturally, Blesser and Salter seek to interpret/value sound within spaces, experienced as architecture culture: the edifice of culture as it were. Harper suggested, further, that meaning is created between the notes and between the words, of songs—the message isn’t something transmitted to a listener, but created by a listener. 

One interpretation of the “between the lines” concept is mystical and metaphysic (by definition, since metaphysic would be beyond the physically present message). But I would prefer to think that what Harper actually means here is that interpretation is the central and uncontrollable aspect of musical communication. We take songs and make meaning from them based on the psychological spaces we have available to them: messages are not pure and constant, but changeable over time. Messages, both musical and linguistic, find meaning through the resonances and harmonics they create within us.

Blesser and Salter provide a different view of the relationship of beings and sound by close comparison: sound/space/perception does not map the same as light/space/perception. We live in a world bathed in light that allows us to locate ourselves within it. Sound comes and goes based on motion and movement through life. The cues that we can use for location are transient, and interpretation of sounds are necessarily cultural and slippery. Not only that, they are profoundly accidental and unconscious. Reliance on “messages” makes understanding sounds quite mystical, particularly if the animated nature of sound is given preference.

Even though space reacts to all sonic events with its characteristic response, nobody from our modern cultures imagines that an enclosed space is actually alive. Using a similar concept, but without realizing that it still applies today, acoustic archeologists speculate that ancient shamans heard cave acoustics as the voice of the cave’s spirit. In ancient cultures, objects were animate, containing living spirits. Although, in modern terms, spatial acoustics have replaced animating spirits in describing the aural personality of a space, nevertheless, I prefer to believe that, however subliminally, some sense of spirits animating spaces resides within us even now. (ibid., 63-64)

Taken this way, the detective work of listening is analogous to spirit-catching. I like that idea quite a lot. The catch, however, is that such listening is as much a product of accidental transformation rather than conscious formation/transmission of messages. Spirit resides not in a “pure message” transmitted by an animate being, but rather in the dialog between messages (of animate origin or not) and spaces of/for interpretation.

Close your eyes

Rock Out.jpg

A screen capture of this Shure ad has been sitting on my desktop for a year or so now. It bothers me a great deal— historically, I think music has been a way of connecting with the world not blocking it out. But music is also linked to escapism and flight to a sort of internal spiritual realm. The dichotomy doesn’t resolve itself neatly. There are a lot of things that I could suggest about this image. For one, music began as a social activity that has been gradually marginalized into privatized spaces, culminating in its domain being simply the distance between your ears. It seems like a rip-off and impoverishment of experience when looked at from that angle.

But in the space between your ears, and more importantly with your eyes closed, there is a sort of purity to it. Metaphorically speaking, it’s as if god whispers to you. To block out the world requires closing your eyes. But closing your eyes—returning to the dark side— suggests a form of death. Not an actual death, but deep separation from our social natures. I am reminded of a song by Steve Wynn about the ending of a relationship:

When they bring down the curtain
In an hour and 45 minutes
we can talk about the play
and pretend that we were never in it

flashes lit up the skies
thunder and then surprise
you can close your eyes

when the earth shakes,
opens up and swallow itself
I won’t be thinking about anybody else

fury and fire flies
it’s too late for compromise
you can close your eyes

words turn to anger,
anger comes to blows
nobody feels the hit but everybody knows

when nothing can tantalize
it’s gonna take a new set of lies
you can close your eyes

Close Your Eyes, from Dazzling Display

The complexity is rewarding. Part of what I read into this is a sort of necessary blindness in the name of moving forward, in the name of getting to the next sort of fiction you have to believe to be safe within a social relationship: “a new set of lies.” The implication is not that closing your eyes grants purity, but rather simply that it shuts out the previous deception. The headphone listener closes their eyes— a different sort of deception, a different relationship with music.

The title track, and indeed the entire LP Dazzling Display nestles in the shadow of its cultural preconditions: the first Gulf War. Many of the songs reflect the shallowness of a television war, with all it’s deceptions and facades. But it seems fallacious to suggest that if we close our eyes to outside stimuli and “block out the world” that the messages we receive will have greater purity, particularly if what concerns us is this world rather than the next. It is a conundrum. Music is a communicative phenomenon that unfolds in space and time, not outside it— just like relationships and wars. Both require massive leaps of faith— suspensions of disbelief, or at the very least, cynicism. Nonetheless, we are easily deceived. Try this video for example:

Even when you know the trick involved, you still can’t help but be deceived. Unless you close your eyes. But live musical events are seldom experienced with eyes closed. Deception is a core feature of the aesthetic experience. If we knew precisely what the experience was, it would lose its attractiveness.

The Late Barbara Billingsley


“It ain’t a privilege to be on TV
and it ain’t a duty either.
The only good thing about TV
is shows like ‘Leave it to Beaver.'”

“‘Shows with love and affection’,
like mama used to say.
A little Mayberry living
could go a long way.”

from Greendale by Neil Young

I was celebrating having located the limited edition audiophile LP set of Greendale when Barbara Billingsley died. I used this clip from Airplane for years to teach the problems of bridging discourse communities (in Tech Writing classes). Tech writers just never get any respect either. Now that I basically live in Mayberry, the loss (and humor) seems even more poignant.

A product that would fail you

From I Need that Record (bonus material)

One of the most common critiques/observations about photography is that it interferes with experience. It is commonplace to assert that all photography is elegiac in nature; it is only slightly less commonplace to compare photography with collecting. It seems productive to examine the relationship of shithoarding (Mike Watt’s colorful description of collecting), time travel, and experience.

Watt’s observes that young people don’t think about the future (and the certain loss of the past) much, favoring instead to dwell on experience and social interaction is well placed. But when it comes to music, we all are not blessed with having tons of live venues just outside our doors. Most of us, historically, have had to rely on records (or CDs, or MP3s depending on your vintage). In that way, the modern experience of music is also elegiac. As a kid, I was just becoming aware of the majesty of Jimi Hendrix’s music when he died. He was long dead by the time I had collected all of his records. It’s not always that extreme, but I think more people discover bands after they don’t exist anymore than discover them in their prime. Does that make these musical experiences elegiac or otherwise inferior to the sense of discovery of new art? Is music appreciation always tied to nostalgia, to shithoarding, to shadow worlds imitating more primal experiences?

From this perspective, recordings (visual, verbal or textual, and musical) are always products that fail. They aren’t originary experiences; they are commodifications of experiences: products meant to be consumed and thrown away or perhaps hoarded. MP3s certainly seem disposable. They are infinitely replicable, and therefore not precious. The same is true of CDs (as a storage medium rather than objects). Vinyl still has that mystique as collectable objects, but it’s connected to the imperfect (read physical) nature of their production and distribution. Paper fades, but it also holds a sort of physicality of touch that more pure repositories of data don’t have. The physical, like life, is riddled with imperfection.

What is missing in this theoretical cul-de-sac is the idea of recordings as social artifacts. As social artifacts, recordings attain a degree of perfection beyond the data they contain. A record doesn’t just simply have value as a commodity, it has exhibition value. It’s interesting to me that Chuck Close from the beginning sought museum sales far more than collector sales for his laborious works. In fact, the lovely self portrait of his that I admired in Minneapolis originally sold for a paltry $1500 or so, just so more people would see it. No one seems concerned about limiting their art experiences to “live painting” rather than dead ones. 

Regardless of replications, I would argue that sincere confrontations with recordings are atemporal rather than elegiac. It’s a matter of how the recording is performed in a social context. Paintings are grouped and regrouped incessantly; so are record albums. Photographs are the most disposable of all though— without an elegiac function, most photographs have difficulty maintaining sustained interest. That is, unless you are a working photographer trying to hone your craft, or an educator or historian attempting to illustrate or simply understand another place and time. The time machine factor always lurks; but we always experience recordings now rather than then. Yes, they have a documentary (or record) value that can be commodified, but the experience of records is social and atemporal.

An interesting take on these matters was recently published (in a buyer’s guide, imagine that!) by Robert Harley of the Absolute Sound:

My friend Mike was at a hi-fi show with the manufacturer of an expensive turntable when a showgoer asked the manufacturer how much the turntable cost. When he was told that it was $75,000, the showgoer replied in shock, “That’s a lot of money for a turntable.” Mike instantly shot back, “Yes, but it’s cheap for a time machine.”

My friend’s view, in addition to being a brilliant witticism, is dead-on perfect; audio components are not things to be possessed, but facilitators for connecting you with music. A turntable doesn’t spin records, it transports you across time and space to those magical moments when extraordinary music-making occurred. It lets us in on the exuberance, tenderness, joy, and despair that can be felt by human beings.

I disagree that the time machine metaphor is “dead-on,” simply because most modern recordings are synthetic; rather than being any sort of event that can be recaptured, they are imaginative products that cannot be located precisely in time. This nostalgic and wistful review of a Mazzy Star album is a case in point. But Harley also explores music as shithoarding vs. social activity:

I see high-end audio from my friend Mike’s perspective. Quality audio equipment isn’t about consumption and materialism, but about experiencing and enjoying one of life’s fundamental pleasures. Sitting at home listening to music (and sharing it with others) is as much a return to simplicity, basic ideals, and valuing experience over possessions as I can imagine. A high quality audio system isn’t a shrine to technology or wealth, but a vehicle for exploring the world of music.

With that different view of high-end audio, the contemporary trend toward experience over possessions, of nourishing our core needs rather than encouraging mindless consumption, should embrace what high-end audio brings to the table— hearing your favorite music wonderfully reproduced night after night. Whether a turntable (of any price) is a thing on your equipment rack or a time machine isn’t determined by the turntable (the object) or it’s owner (the subject), but rather by the relationship between the two. The message from our community needs to be more about time machines and less about gear.

The peroration is decidedly odd, given this is from the 2011 High End Audio Buyers Guide which is filled with stratospherically priced hardware. There are several articles claiming a “democratization” of experience (by low-cost home theater, no less) but little evidence to support the claim that good sound can be had on the cheap. A “bargain” in here has many zeros behind it, save a few token items which are consistently trotted out (including my favorite speakers, the Magnepans). Where is the content that isn’t about “consumption and materialism”? The only article that qualifies is the recommended recordings list.

I fail to see any contemporary trend for “experience over possessions” at work right now. People simply have less money to hoard possessions, or to spend on experiences for that matter. Music rates highly on my list of simple pleasures, and I enjoy good gear— not as a time machine but rather as a sort of “study aid” to the human experience.

Music’s products have seldom failed me; neither have photographs. Both reward sustained attention.