The perils of ubiquity
The 10 August issue of The New Yorker has a piece by Alex Ross about the growing number of online retailers offering high-definition music downloads. It’s worth checking out, not least because he mentions David Lang’s hauntingly beautiful Little Match Girl Passion, and Stile Antico’s equally magnificent recording of Palestrina, Gombert, Lassus and others, Song of Songs (I have to confess the harpsichord pieces by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck he mentions all sound a bit hard to me, but I’m very interested to hear Ann Southam’s “immense, glacial, hypnotic piano work”, Simple Lines Of Enquiry).
Although much of the piece is occupied with the manner in which recording technology is altering what we hear when we listen to music, Ross is also worrying away at another, deeper question, about how we as a culture and as individuals accommodate a situation where the availability of music radically outstrips our capacity to absorb and understand it. As he puts it:
“For a century or so, the life of a home listener was simple: you had your disks, whether in the form of cylinders, 78s, LPs, or CDs, and, no matter how many of them piled up, there was a clear demarcation between the music that you had and the music that you didn’t. The Internet has removed that distinction. Near-infinity awaits on the other side of the magic rectangle. Video and audio stream in from around the world. The other day, I watched Karol Szymanowski’s King Roger, in an interestingly horrible new production from the Paris Opéra (courtesy of the European arts channel Arte); took in Mahler’s Ninth at the Proms (courtesy of BBC 3); and then bought a virtual seat in the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall, which had an HD video of Simon Rattle conducting Robert Schumann and Bernd Alois Zimmermann, the agility of the camerawork outdoing the robotic Great Performances standard. (Berlin’s harp-cam is especially cool.)
“But these meandering journeys across the Internet soundscape can be taxing. The medium too easily generates anxiety in place of fulfillment, an addictive cycle of craving and malaise. No sooner has one experience begun than the thought of what else is out there intrudes.”
It’s an interesting question (and one I’ve asked myself before). What does the sheer ubiquity of music and content do to our capacity to engage meaningfully with individual works? Nor is it a concern confined to music: only a few weeks ago Jeff Sparrow was asking, not entirely facetiously, whether the internet was destroying his capacity to read books.
As I remarked when I posted on this subject last time, I’m painfully aware these words are inescapably the articulation of a very particular sort of cultural anxiety, and that it’s difficult to ask these sorts of questions without sounding as if you’re engaged in a lament for what we’re losing. But I do think it’s a serious question. Isn’t the intensity of our reaction to a piece of music or writing a function of a deep and powerful engagement with that piece of music or writing? I know the pieces of music that have mattered to me over the years (Glass’ Metamorphoses, Bach’s Mass in B Minor and St John and St Matthew Passions, Brahms’ German Requiem, Strauss’ Last Songs for instance) are all pieces I’ve listened to repeatedly and often obsessively, sometimes over the space of months or years, and that my relationship to them is inextricably wound up in that process of listening and relistening.
But I also know exactly the feeling of restlessness and dissatisfaction Ross describes. usually it’s worst in the car, where I’ll find myself flicking songs over and over again, often before the last one has finished, looking for the next song I want, the song that will be just right. Like being jacked up on caffeine or speed, it’s a state of nervous dissatisfaction which by it very nature denies you the ability to engage with what’s you’re listening to.
Ross suggests, not implausibly, that the resurgence in interest in vinyl over the last decade might be a reaction against the sheer ubiquity of music in the modern world, a way of controlling its impossible profusion and universal availability. I suspect we all have techniques of our own as well, personal systems and listening habits designed to control our burgeoning digital music collections. Nor is it difficult to see something of the same impulse in the creation of systems like iTunes’ Genius function, or music communities such as Mog, both of which are, in very different ways, technologies designed to filter and control what we listen to by offering recommendations. But these systems are also, inescapably, expressions of a need to preserve our ability to engage with music in a meaningful way, and of the cultural equivalent of the oldest rule of economics, that scarcity and value are inextricably connected.