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.

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.