Sunday, May 27, 2012

Muse Sick

For Jonathan.

Is it a good thing or a bad thing that we can record music? Meaning, on balance, are we better or worse off because we have this capability?

It is hard for me to answer that question because I do not know much about what it was like before recording, and it is impossible to picture a world in which all else is the same but for the absence of this one technology. Nevertheless, I think the question is worth asking.

My life has been changed in the last year by my purchase of a high quality set of headphones. I have always spent much of the time at my work computer listening to music, but since getting these headphones the music has started affecting me more. I find the music more moving. It stays in my head longer. I think about it more when I am not listening to it. And for the first time in my life I have actively sought out new music myself rather than just picking up what friends and family pass along. Finally, I have felt that I cannot only listen to music, but that I ought to make some myself. This summer I intend to take up the mandolin.

While those effects are dramatic, the explanation is simple. Recordings have not changed, but the way I listen to them has. I am hearing the music now and I was not hearing it well before. The music is at its core beautiful and wonderful, even divine. It is right that it should awaken latent passions and imaginations within me. But it could not do so beforehand because its nature was lost in transmission through inferior sound equipment.

It goes without saying then that I am very glad for the recordings that I have. Through them I have a richer understanding of what music can be. If there is a downside to our ability to make recordings, it is not that it is impossible to richly appreciate music through them. The problem is that it is far easier to brutalize and cheapen music through recording technology.

Most people do not listen to music on good headphones or speakers. In fact, with the proliferation of portable electronic devices in the last ten years, there are more and more speakers, the large majority of which are low quality. That is because the push has been for these devices to be more portable with a minimalist aesthetic. It is a matter of physics that good speakers cannot be made at the dimensions and power requirements of laptop speakers. Inexpensive earbuds and headphones are likewise of poor quality despite increasing ubiquity.

People listen to music more now than ever before, but it is uniformly crappy, even controlling for tastes. I have been shocked to see kids on buses listening to music as blared from their phones' speakers. It is not primarily that I would not listen to the songs they are playing (though I would not), but that I could not believe listening to music on those speakers was better than silence.

Are we better off with a little of something great, or a lot of a cheapened version of that thing? America has consistently chosen the latter. Are we better off with a lot of something great, or a lot of a cheapened version of that thing? Even when this is the choice we face, too often the default, cheap version is uncritically accepted.

There are other consequences of the widespread use and availability of recording technology. Doubtless our very idea of what music is has changed. Most commercially successful music could never be performed. Recordings are built from fundamental parts and then mixed and processed into a polished whole. It is the same difference as that between a stage play and a film. Human imagination is cut loose from physical constraints. A wholly unremarkable performer can be transformed into a top-20 hit by this artifice, and to ears accustomed to such music, that which can actually be performed sounds unremarkable.

As a result of this inversion, music is elite. People have as much chance of producing successful music as they have of making it in Major League Baseball or in Hollywood, and the ability to succeed in that sphere only marginally follows from talent.

Thankfully, music which is less "popular" is more accessible. Moreover the Internet has disrupted the hegemony of recording monoliths, and for those interested in something different there are abundant alternatives. But such choices remain off the beaten path.

In sum, recordings make excellent music widely available and producible on demand, but for most people music is ever-present and low-quality, and music itself exists only in "recordings" of impossible performances.

As a result are we better or worse off? For me the glory of music is inextricable from performance. It is a mystery that the very possibility of music is hidden and encoded within the laws of physics and of human biology, and it only comes to being through the interplay of human creativity with physical instruments. To me the decoupling of these two represents not the triumph of creativity over physics but the loss of what makes music music. Moreover there is further joy to be had in the production of music and in the shared experience of performer and audience. That this kind of experience has been rendered rare and perceived as elite is likewise to be lamented.

While it need not be this way, I think on balance we are worse off.