14 October 2013

Hearing Modernity (iii)

Olivia Lucas on Jonathan Sterne’s MP3: Meaning of a Format:

The approach to history here is never teleological; instead, it emphasizes the contingency of all events and artifacts. The book addresses the fact that the mp3 could have been invented thirty years earlier than it was, and uses this fact to interrogate the assumption that technological capability alone leads to invention. The emergence of the mp3 in 1993 was the result of a long history of people, institutions and technologies.

Okay, okay, I get it. I mean, not really, but kind of. No musical style or technique is universally applicable anymore, but everyone in a society lives under the same set of social, political, and economic conditions, and the better we understand them, the better equipped we are to make and consume sound/music. The idea of replacing music theory with acoustics in the core curriculum actually has always kind of appealed to me for the same reason: we all live under the same physical laws, even if our Musical traditions are vastly different and irreconcilable. Why not go all the way? Isn't embracing "the contingency of all events and artifacts" going to do more for more students of sound and music alike than sweating out the gory details of how "a minority of aesthetes" chose to spend their putrid little lives?

I honestly am not sure. It seems we will find out in due time. I do wonder, though, just to belabor the point a bit more, what becomes of the last thousand years of willfulness in Western music? Are we to behave as if it never happened? Today, given enough data from which to extrapolate, computers can spit out convincing sound-alikes in the style of virtually any classical composer; and yet simply by virtue of being first, the original works themselves tell us so much more about the world we live in and how it got to be that way. Sociology, meanwhile, can explain or excuse the work, but it can't perform or compose it. The former are ideal academic pursuits; the latter never fit quite so well. Perhaps it's better, then, that academia do Sound Studies rather than Sound Making; that it focus on what it's good at and leave the creative, subjective work that it never really knew how to properly approach or nurture to be done outside its walls. Isn't that what people like me have been saying for a long time? And yet it was the academics' unhealthy distance from real live musical practice that prompted those complaints in the first place. Seen in that light, instituting a yet further distance suddenly becomes a lot less appealing, and the very point of doing so rather unclear. That's my main problem here. As long as there has been music, practitioners have always already been analysts, historians, and most of all, teachers and mentors. That aspect of music predates modern academia and promises to outlive it. The story of the academic perversion of the time-honored mentor-disciple relationship is one of increasing distance from musical practice; of enforced insularity as an inevitable product of a particular kind of hierarchical structure in the organization of such institutions; and of people with no particular interest in or ability for teaching or mentorship half-assing their way through it in exchange for a much-needed paycheck when the society they live in presents them with no alternative income source. The strongest backlash against this monstrosity was bound to come from far enough beyond its walls to ensure that those leading it didn't entirely understand or appreciate the value of a properly functioning version; they simply wanted their own demands met, their own self-importance validated, by whichever institutions they happened to be looking at after being shot with Cupid's envy arrow, and where such things were not immediately forthcoming, they set about burning the whole thing to the ground. Ergo, Sound Studies, the new and improved, politically correct version of Sound Making, where everybody gets a trophy, no one has to practice, and the only prerequisite is fluency in a coded language of five-dollar words. In all seriousness, there is undoubtedly important work to be done here should its exponents demonstrate the ability to learn from the history of the institutions they've worked so hard to penetrate; it so often seems, however, that this history has simply been dismissed as a dark age without being fully digested, the very notion of aesthetic contemplation considered beyond redemption, and our nose thus cut off very much in spite of our face. There are other questions, too, like what becomes of the "music makes kids smart" narrative after every last piece of physical and mental exercise inherent in the traditional Western musical experience has been decolonialized right out of it, and anything less than a Partchian mania for first principles is pathologized as reactionary propaganda? It is not for nothing that Christopher Small, The People's Deconstructionist, builds his widely-read book "Musicking" around the notion that music is something people do; it would seem rather obvious, though, that art which anyone can make, which requires no specialized knowledge or skills, is inherently non-transformative, art with zero "extrinsic" benefits, if you will. Who cares, then, how many people it reaches?

The 21st century postmodernists have let the 20th century musico-academic terrorists win. Distrusting the power of beauty to elicit irrational behavior, or perhaps possessing no ear for it themselves, they can't seem to understand why anyone else would have use of it; and so the play of contingencies and constructivisms is supposed to fellate our minds the way music once did our ears. I'm a smart guy, so...almost. But not quite. I have ears, not ice, where my heart should be.

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