Context, Production, and Meaning

Alex Ross’s article in the New Yorker (via Tom Coates) about the ways that sound reproduction technologies have affected listening, performance, and composition, makes points that support many of my arguments about technology and semiotics. I’m too spaced-out to track all the occasions I shouted “Yes!” while I was reading the article, but the whole essay treats sound not as a given, independent of the means by which it’s (re)produced, but as a contextual phenomenon. That seems just right to me, and I’m pleased that this sort of thinking is getting play in an uptown journal such as the New Yorker.

At the sametime, boing boing reports that David Byrne is surveying the same article. He adds (among other things) that the ubiquity of music now makes more evident that extent to which the meaning of a musical selection has contextual determination.

What then becomes valuable in many cases is what music means to people — beyond the actual recording. Part of this meaning is in the song (or whatever) — and not necessarily in the specific recording of it. What it expresses, how it moves people, the worldview and ethos it embodies. Many of these qualities can be in the composition and exist apart from the recording and interpretation of that composition. People like “The Rite Of Spring” but are not everyone is super fussy about which recording they are hearing. Well, some are, but you get my point.

The other part of what music means is embodied in the singer, the band or the composer. It’s not even in the music and can’t be recorded, at some of it can’t. For some of this music the actual musical and lyrical content is almost irrelevant. For some pieces of music what it’s about is the relationship, the connection to, the singer, with their style, attitude, behavior, beliefs and looks more so than with the music, which is more or less relegated in this case to being the soundtrack to the lifestyle and philosophy. At best the music and everything else surrounding it — the videos, the gossip, the reputation, present a common front, a gesamtkunstwerk type piece that embodies what matters to a person.

Most listeners — energetically encouraged by the recorded music industry — haven’t moved their expectations and assumptions from the world of music objects (records, tapes, CDs) to a world in which music constitutes one part o the information flux that surrounds us. Overall, though, I think that inertia, lobbying, and lawsuits can’t hold off this transition more than a very short interval. The sooner musicians and the rest of us move into our new habitat, the sooner we can figure out just how to reward creative expression without restricting access to (increasingly irrelevant) physical media for it. And the last on in’s stuck with a failed business model.

4 thoughts on “Context, Production, and Meaning

  1. I quite liked the points made in this article as well, but it is undermined by the fact that it seems to be building towards a pure-bred luddite point of view at the end.

    The point about studios breeding a certain madness and the idea that moving towards making only studio albums contributed to the Beatle’s breakup is willfully misleading, thoroughly nostalgic, ignorant and more than a little condescending.

    It seems that the only thing Alex Ross takes from this, after an otherwise excellent overview over the potential role technology and context has in music, is a misguiding longing for a lost and romantic past.

    Especially considering that more than one member of the Beatles is on record for saying that the live performances were burning them out and moving to working only in the studio gave them space to be creative and make new things.

    They probably would have broken up earlier had they not stopped doing live performances.

    And it competely ignores those musicians which have thrived by using small studios to create their music like David Bowie and Sigur Ros.

    But the article does manage to raise a lot of issues that are becoming more and more relevant in today’s society. It’s just a pity about his attitude.

  2. I had posted a quote by Stravinsky on this same subject here:

    I tend to be very much a backward thinker on the subject myself. I hate the idea that music is an “industry” with consumers, rather than something people actually do themselves.

    Mt only gratification is that Christians are the only significant group of people who get together regularly to create music together for some non-self-indulgent purpose.

  3. baldur — yes, about his attitude, and about the productive uses of technology. Nostalgia is no substitute for close attention to positives and negatives.

    Paul, I too celebrate non-commercial gratuity in the theological offering of music — but I hesitate to assert that Christians are the only, or only significant, groups that make such an offering. I don’t know enough to make big claims, but I have a sense that Islam and Buddhism both cultivate strong no-commercial musical traditions, and the non-commercial folk tradition will be harder to eradicate (even in the U.S.A.) than those who profit from the dominant commercial models want to recognize.

    Indeed, that’s one of my main ripostes to people who think that performance copyrights constitute the sine qua non of encouraging creative expression: how do we account for the millennia of creative expression before the copyrighted recordings became available?

  4. Just to clarify, by significant, I wasn’t trying to disparage anyone or whatnot. I just meant that to my knowledge, there is no other large cultural phenomenon in the US where people get together to create music.

    Certainly there are exceptions to my gross overstatement. I’ve been a part of, and know several other, non-religious music societies of one sort or another. But generally speaking americans do NOT make their own music. For most Christians, the only music they make is singing in church, and for most non-Christians music only comes from someone else, nearly always mediated through tiny speakers.

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