Social top


What’s Wanted Next?

It’s interesting that the first indication of some sweeping social change brought about via the internet — the first wave of something big, I hope — is the incipient collapse of the consciousness industry, or at least the recording industry, thanks to piracy — “exchange”.

It may yet be possible to set up the controls needed to curtail everyone’s freedom to decide how they want to use their own storage media.

What seems likelier is that the absence of corporate control over the distribution of media suggests the beginning of the end of stored media, at least in certain of its roles.

I don’t mean that cleverer ways of distributing the products of licensed artists will be contrived. Rather, that the idea of an unchanging recording — or perhaps the very idea of recording itself — hardly seems expressive of the current dynamic of technological change, however this winds up catalyzing a different kind of society.

I mean, rather, that media, and in particular music, will inevitably be transformed into abstractions identical to the structure of whichever media expresses them. If that turns out to be true, the concept of “ownership,” which also seems to belong to a receding world, will be transposed to machine structure, to hardware particularity. It would be as though the machine pushed for its own unique identity, unwilling to play the role of neutral repository of whatever had previously been considered to express human identity — music, and the like.

We could imagine music as an open structure or shape whose realization could not be transposed in time or space.

I have a different question: if it’s true that times, society, media and such are changing, how does it happen that music, which lost its claims to avant-gardism years ago, manages (once again) to be riding the crest of whatever wave this may be?

Let me explain a bit what I mean by “music having lost its claims to avant-gardism.”

From the early 50s to about the mid-70s, music was written and theorized in ways that suggested the imminence, or at least desirability, of some sort of transformation or evolution within one’s hearing. (“One” probably was a composer, rather than an average music consumer.) Ideas which are now completely banal, eg that a chord and a melody, within some subtle transformation of mind, could amount to different expressions of an underlying equivalence — at one time seemed to imply the appearance of a completely new kind of musical mind.

Cage’s work and ideas were another application of the same principle of self-transformation. If you want to “let the sounds be themselves,” you need to stop plugging what you hear into the categorical structure of “music” and find out what these sounds actually sound like. Theoretically, we discover that we don’t need to impose music on sound in order to find sound interesting.

People such as Dennett would probably think this amounts to a kind of “incorrigible” phenomenology — ie, since no one can tell you that you didn’t hear what was really there, there can’t be much of a discussion or exchange. And maybe you don’t really hear what you think you do anyway. And the result is the emperor’s new music. So to be short about this, it’s true that the ensuing discussion, the practice of “new music”, released its claim on the notion that through such precepts, a new common understanding, a social mind, a new species of musician, or of Man, could be evolved which could touch upon, or alter, the real world, socially, perceptually, cognitively, etc. One of the results has been a kind of dreary outlook on what listening to music means from a cognitive standpoint in the application of standardized perceptual structures. Music, on that view, has no real force to penetrate beyond this kind of perceptual regurgitation — and so music’s potential for activating change is nullified.

I’m not for that idea, mostly because it kills too much unexplored potential, in particular through AI, perception enhancers, listening modules, artificial cognizers, and a completely new orientation towards the creation of sound, about which we currently know very little. Most of these ideas are basically the musical equivalent of science fiction. I like that. It reminds us that making music also has to do with being an artist, being someone who imagines things that don’t yet exist, or which can exist only through the imagination, enhanced (if not electronically) by something — like music — that enables us to project ourselves into the underlying vision.

Of course the imagination is being progressively ruled by virtual reality, and I for one expect music to go precisely into that direction, or its equivalent in hearing.

VR in music would suggest to me a new understanding of when and how things “work”. A C-major triad “works” in the sense that it creates an active combinative structure for its constituents — effortlessly sliding into brain-integrations, almost automatically generating a new kind of experience called “harmoniousness.” There’s something about it that’s “real”.

I’m not suggesting we get back to C-major, though there’s supposedly plenty of good music to be written in that structure, as Schoenberg said. The problem is to extend our ideas about such structures in ways that can unleash new automatic resonances within our integrating brains, and push forward to new experiential domains, to the generation of things as fantastic — as unimaginable — as a Beethoven symphony is to someone who’s tone-deaf.

All this is just an aside. My point is that music doesn’t yet seem to be about these things — so much as the instantiation of a daily new mountain of recorded music. But this too is interesting, since one aspect of this mountain is music-trading, the first really new thing to happen in music for years. Let’s imagine that this is really important, with consequences we can’t begin to predict.

So how does it happen that music is on the crest of something again? What’s in music that made it possible for it to be seized as pivotal in the old countercultures, central to the rise of the consciousness industry, and now central to its demise, assuming the best?

Here’s a simple idea. The power of music — and let’s say, in some way, its very identity — is based upon being wanted. And music, for a long time anyway, is virtually a theory of the structure of wanting. We see this in the theory of tonal music, for instance: the leading-tone, says one textbook or another, “wants” to go to the tonic. Thus wanting and release are both encoded. The same ideas can be applied on an enormous scale to the structure of large-scale pieces. (All that’s needed for their popularity is that enough listeners want the same thing the music wants.)

Might I guess, therefore that music is (I’m about to commit the Hume crime of “nothing-butism”) — everything included by the possibilities of structuring sound with implied wantedness? That includes the way the brain gets, eg, the experience of harmoniousness out of C-major: it includes every possibility of mind from within music, everything resonant and alive, every fluxion of sensate intelligence.

It seems certain, however we think about this, that nothing further can happen through music unless it’s wanted. I don’t know that this means popularity on the scale of pop-music. But it surely implies a turn from private realms of incorrigible experience to that which enjoys different kinds of social validation. And that validation, in turn, will catalyze the next spiraling of music into realms currently articulated only by silence.

June 2003

Social bottom