A skeuomorph is a physical ornament or design on an object made to resemble another material or technique. Examples include pottery embellished with imitation rivets reminiscent of similar pots made of metal, or a software calendar that imitates the appearance of a paper desk calendar.
I came across this article today in which the writer, Sophie Heawood, claims that music has "died" for her "because she started listening to it on [her] laptop." After a move that prompted her to get rid of her CDs and only listen to music on Spotify, she is left with no other choice: "It's not so much that my laptop made all other physical forms redundant, it's that it made music so dull that I lost interest in music."
I'm grateful that someone-- especially a pop culture writer-- would take on this topic so candidly, as cursory and diaristic as the article is. This attitude is similar to one that I've heard from self-proclaimed music devotees, audiophiles, and record junkies; music culture is declining further (as it always has) to a lower-fidelity, higher-convenience state where the dying craft of recording-making is losing out to devious industry executives and their fickle or indifferent target market. But since the first shift of this kind, from the edison cylinder to the disc record,* this has been a recurring phenomenon in the perennially mass market-oriented music tech field.
It's completely reasonable to hold this attitude-- to listen to records on hi-fi stereo systems and embrace the dying arts of quality recording and quality listening. We should certainly preserve this part of our musical heritage. But to lament the demise of these arts as the "death of music" is to underestimate the agency we have to change our relationship to the music-technological present. (The article cited is a particularly good example of this helpless lament as the author describes the sequence of events that carried her from music enjoyment to music death.) There are positive and creative ways to deal with this problem, or rather, to understand that this is less a problem and more an inevitable change in the way our culture deals with music.
Listening is an active process. Though contemporary ears have gotten used to listening to recordings as high-fidelity stereo reproductions of studio or live acoustics, we don't have to keep listening as though all music is produced and distributed this way. To many of us including Heawood, hi-fi listening is a lost cause for most of the music that's around us. Whether it's top 40, Mozart muzak or smooth jazz, music is so often used as a placeholder-- as a statement that "there is music playing here"-- as opposed to being treated as significant in itself. Retail stores, transit hubs and "please hold, thank you for holding" situations are proof of this phenomenon.
Rather than shutting ears and turning up noses to this treatment of sound, we can listen. We might not immediately like the blatant mistreatment of something so dear, but this is our culture and it is what it is. We can close our ears and minds by blocking out the noise; or we can continue, as good musicians are trained to do skillfully, to expand our listening and see what happens. It's not going to hurt anyone. What we get might not be more enjoyable or uplifting, but it's definitely more real. And equally important, our practice of active listening can remain boundless rather than delineated and exclusive, an on-off binary. Listening to the real world is better music than anyone can create.
This puts musicians in a really interesting position right now. Some of us will continue to work in the tradition of stereo records, the tradition of high fidelity recording, playback, and listening. This is not wrong. What excites me now is the possibilities that stretch these traditions: how do musicians deal with shitty audio quality, cheap consumer playback hardware, streaming, compression noise, internet distribution, loud environments, bad acoustics? When our safe listening spaces are challenged, musicians have the power (privilege or joy, really) to expand our aesthetic field, to fold in these challenges as new concepts and contexts for music.
Hito Steyerl has written convincingly in defense of the poor image. A very similar argument can be made in defense of poor audio. Eric Laska has an essay forthcoming outlining his "Thoughts on Bad Acoustics." Steyerl and Laska both insist that declining consumer media quality is unrelated to the demise of music quality. In fact, maybe it's a good thing: low quality challenges musicians to open our ears and our aesthetics, to allow for a richer repertoire of future musical material.
*this compromised the recording by creating a differential in the stylus' angle to the grooves: with a cylinder, the stylus is always perpendicular to the groove; with a disc, the stylus hits the groove at a range of angles as it moves from the beginning to the end of a record side, creating some variation in the playback. This shift, according to my colleagues at WKCR-FM, was the first of many similar shifts in which quality lost out to consumer and industry convenience.
]Blnkt Talk Series - With Eric Laska
March 15, 2013
Excerpt of conversation with Eric Laska and Jordan Topiel Paul in room with Impulse Blasts (impulse-blasts.com) and Wash (topiel.info/wash.html) double sound installation. Thanks to John Paetsch for hosting, Bertolain Elysee for recording and all present for participating.
Through a Pane of Glass
May 22, 2013
On researching the MP3 codec for various reasons, I came across this information on Wikipedia:
"The song "Tom's Diner" by Suzanne Vega was the first song used by Karlheinz Brandenburg to develop the MP3. Brandenburg adopted the song for testing purposes, listening to it again and again each time refining the scheme, making sure it did not adversely affect the subtlety of Vega's voice." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mp3#Development)
"Vega wrote the song based on a comment by her friend Brian Rose, a photographer, who mentioned that in his work, he sometimes felt as if 'he saw his whole life through a pane of glass, and [...] like he was the witness to a lot of things, but was never really involved in them.' " (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom%27s_Diner)
This is an MP3 of "Tom's Diner" compressed at the lowest bitrate available to me, 8 kbps. (Download)
It Is What It Is, "Specific Objects"
April 16, 2013
American artist Donald Judd wrote an essay titled "Specific Objects" (click for PDF) in 1964 (published in Arts Yearbook 8, 1965). Judd advocates a new type of work that operates in real space as opposed to the illusionistic 2-dimensional canvas. These Specific Objects are what they are; they represent nothing else.
It Is What It Is, HESPT
April 2, 2013
HESPT is a word whose phonetic and graphical appearance are the same as the word's meaning.
Every instance of hespt is hespt.
It Is What It Is
March 3, 2013
The Sufi mystic Rumi titled his volume of discourses "Fihi Ma Fihi" or "It Is What It Is"
What's the difference between faith and creative practice? Download PDF
Net Music (2012-13)
In the fall of 2011 I began making Net Music "studies" as a way to explore a native format for music on the internet. A few ideas guided this project:
The internet is a relatively new medium, just like cylinders, discs, tapes and CDs were at different points in the last century. Music has always developed symbiotically with its media and spaces. Just as you can point to a CD and say "this is music," I want to ask whether you can open a web site and say the same.
The specifics of sound on the internet are also unique. With a single html document that points to a few small sound files, these pieces create resonance wherever they're opened. Similar to other Net Art, the work physically lives on a server but is heard through a unique pathway each time: through the internet connection, the browser software, the audio hardware, and the ambient acoustics of the space. So a static html file brings about an open and dynamic range of resonances.
A web site is a different listening context for music. What do you do with a web site that's only sound and a color? Do you listen intently as if it's a recording? Do you keep it as an open tab as you do your other business? Do you try to peek at the source code to see what's going on? How long do you listen before you lose patience, wander elsewhere, close the tab? Regardless of your first time, do you ever revisit that page? How do we listen to this?
It is what it is. Unlike a recording, each instance of Net Music is its own acoustic thing. Just as many paintings simulate three-dimensional space, recordings also usually reproduce the original or optimal acoustics of a studio, concert hall, or stereo listening space. This is true even with direct recordings of electroacoustic sound because playback can have more or less fidelity to the original (ie. there is a best way to hear it-- on these speakers, in this room, etc.). But Net Music has no original acoustics to reproduce. Each playback is original and specific to itself. No version can be better or worse.
Despite the conceptual workings, it's really all about listening. Avant-garde music follows a pretty basic principle: the world changes, listening changes. Of course listening is always the same but the context for listening coevolves with life.