Friday, April 6, 2007

On a Temporal Art Obtaining a Physical Space

Music is a temporal art form, existing only in the moment you listen to it. If you pause it, you cannot draw it out - it is necessarily silenced. There is no way to "look at it from a different angle," as it were. Any change to it or the way in which one is intended to experience it necessarily destroys the art or modifies it to such a degree that it ceases to be its original art; at best it becomes a work of art by a different artist (remixes, reinterpretations, etc.).

Despite its temporal nature, up until recently music has maintained a distinct embodiment in the physical space. In music's earliest history this physical space was created by the audience's experience - the lack of recording technology required people to be in the presence of both a musician and his instrument in order to experience music. This required being in the right place at the right time, and thus physical markers were tied to musical events. With the advent of music notation, a new physical marker was created: the musical score. Copies of popular scores were valued commodities, especially among musicians. Musicians themselves became commodities, hired on by individuals and institutions to create specific works. (Interestingly, while "selling out" is a phrase thrown around like a hot potato these days, many classical composers were under the employ of people and groups who would then dictate reasons for the composer to create [plays, cantatas, celebrations, etc]. This could be equated to modern record labels, though their dictates are usually based on the need to sell more records [and related products], and the music created rarely seems to have such staying power. In any case, the artist, like any craftsman, has always been inextricably tied to his consumers – for better or worse.)

Progressing into the modern era, recorded music became a popular investment, beginning with record disc singles. Music was still enjoyed primarily in a group setting, and recorded music in particular allowed youth a way to dance to the latest tunes without having to pay to attend a concert or hire a live group. Still, the means to play recordings were not widespread, remaining a luxury reserved for more affluent society. The rise of the Beatles in the 60s was a formidable force in the recorded music market. Teens everywhere wanted to have a piece of the Fab Four, and the falling costs of record players and record production enabled even the poorest to listen to their own recordings.

The ensuing two decades saw an explosion of recorded content, most popularly in the vinyl record format. Large 33-1/3 rpm records became the album standard, and the packaging itself became linked to the audio recordings it contained. "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," for instance, is probably more famous as a piece of visual artwork than an auditory one. In addition to the massive popular impact such recordings had, they also occupied a physical space. A music fan could be classified by how many records he had purchased. One could look in his house or apartment and witness the extent of his devotion; modifying attire to match a certain group or musical style also became popular. Such physical relationships to the temporal art of music continued throughout the next two decades: fashions changed from neon 80s pop to unkempt 90s grunge to the goth-influenced emo look that has pervaded the first decade of this millennium. Music's recording format has also shifted: from the record to the 8-track to the cassette and then the compact disc. The means for playing recordings also changed to become more convenient and portable. Turntables gave way to stereos, which in turn gave birth to car stereos, walkman headsets and portable CD players, culminating in the iPod and similar digital music players. And here is where the story takes a precarious turn.

The iPod, current king of convenience in the digital music world, allows for instant access to entire libraries of music. Each user's Kit Kat-sized player can hold any combination of music, pictures, movies, contacts and games that the space allows, all within the same inches-by-inches-by-fractions of an inch-sized box. Thus the physical aspect of music all but disappears. We no longer have shelves full of records, tapes or CDs as a monument to our interest in music. Without the physical space such recordings take up, music ceases to have a tangible impact on our lives. Sure we listen to it everywhere - in cars, coffeeshops, elevators, stores, restuarants, in movies, on tv, when working out, walking down the street, and even when on hold. But when it's gone, it's gone, and neither its presence nor its absence seems to make a difference.

Sadly, the iPod is the harbinger of music’s irrelevance. With our tiny little boxes we do not think about the work that went into creating the album. We do not think about the stacks of records or CDs the music would have previously inhabited, and how much time would have to be spent to listen to so much. We do not consider the money spent to acquire so many recordings. We do not appreciate the dedication someone would give to a passion, whether for music on the whole or a particular group or style. (My oldest brother used to have two things in his bedroom that took up the most amount of space: his racing bike, hanging from the ceiling, and his music collection. Ask me what his biggest passions were, and I could tell you. Ask me what he spent his money on, I could tell you. Today music remains a passion of his, but I no longer am amazed by the size of his music collection, simply because he doesn’t have one [or rather, one that occupies a significant physical space]. The closest I can get is jealousy that his iPod is bigger and better than mine, but that’s really a technological issue, not a musical one.)

Previously a person would have to make a point to go to a record store or other outlet, find his purchase and bring it home (or mailorder it). With the rise of downloading (both legal and illegal), even the slightest desire to hear a tune can be satisfied with a few clicks of the mouse. But what good is a desire if it is not left to simmer? Our instant gratification produces numbness and kills our appreciation for the artistic and aesthetic value of music. It instead becomes an unappreciated pacifier, a purchase instead of an investment. The iTunes "play count" feature can testify that many songs never earn a full listen, and one can even see the last time the desire for a specific song occurred.

This, of course, is just the tip of a vast iceberg. I'm reminded of Inigo Montoya after bringing the Man in Black back to life: "Allow me to explain: No; there is too much. Let me sum up:" The current cultural attitude toward music cultivates indifference and mocks the notion of appreciation.

*Ironically, currently the convenient iPod is servant to a larger unit: the personal computer. Though laptops come in increasingly smaller sizes they are still significantly larger than portable music players, and many users have their iPods linked to desktop computers which can be as big as record turntables. Until music providers do away with every step between the music and the user (i.e., building the music-purchasing software into the digital player itself and enabling wireless downloading), a larger physical (though not inherently artistic) presence will remain.

7 comments:

Mikkele said...

okay, let me take a stab at what is going on here. you wrote an essay in college about music. you were looking at it last night and thought, "hey... i should show this to people.... through a blog... about MUSIC!" and said blog was born. and said essay was posted. and i am now reading it.

Mac said...

wow eric, mikkele calling you out! i like it...

so far, i'm tracking what you're saying. And i also find it amusing that i don't have an iPod, so i once again (as i've previously explained to you with thoroughly logical reasoning) am probably a better judge of music quality and subjective good taste than just about anyone...

Mikkele said...

okay, so i was wrong. i take back what i said.

eric said...

As I explained to Mikkele, this was not a college essay. It's a subject I've been thinking about recently, and I typed this up the other day, though admittedly at the time I had not decided what to do with it. But now I know.

Ek said...

This probably explains, better than I could have myself, one of the main reasons that I still trek out to record stores and buy CDs (the other reason is that I hate the restrictions coded into legally downloaded music and have ethical issues with illegal downloading). Although I will concede that it did feel a little essay-ish.

Submitted for discussion: Who do you think was more universally popular - The Beatles during the 60s, or Dethklok during season one of Metalacolypse?

eric said...

Dethklok. No question. On the other hand, the government actually succeeded in killing one of the Beatles... right?

sexley said...

dork.