I recently began reading The Oxford Handbook of New Audiovisual Aesthetics (OHNAA) for a book review for Notes: The Quarterly Journal of the Music Library Association. One of the ways I hope to gestate the book’s essays is by reflecting on them here, processing and synthesizing ideas it contains with those I’ve encountered elsewhere, with the intention of making a proper review easier to write. We’ll see how successful the outcome. But I should be clear that what I will write here is not so much a summary of the authors’ points, perspectives, or arguments, as it is my impressions, contemplation, and response to their essays. I’m less concerned with accurately representing the authors’ position (although there will inevitably be some of that) and more concerned with being able to articulate what I got out of their essays and where it sits in my larger experience.
Today’s essay: “Classical Music for the Posthuman Condition” by Lawrence Kramer of Fordham University.
This essay begins Part II of the Handbook. (For reasons I don’t unite understand, Part I was the introduction to the rest of the book. Why it wasn’t simply called “Introduction” and Part I given over to first contributed essays, I don’t know.) This essay is about classical music (in the broad colloquial sense of the term, which I don’t prefer; henceforth, I’ll be using the term art music in its stead), social media, cyborgs, and humanity. Yeah! All in about fourteen pages. If you follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed a flurry of tweets today making reference to these concepts.
Music as Space
One of my increasingly favored areas of inquiry is that of conceptualizing music in metaphors of space, distance, weight, and other physical properties that it does not literally have. I don’t mean the physics of sound, which has various properties that operate in actual spaces. I mean the metaphors of physical bodies through which we perceive and experience music, not mere sound. Not the cold rationality of quantifying a sine wave, but the rich warmth of an encounter with, say, Beethoven.
One of the first elements Kramer raises is that of distance. The distance between man and machine, between person and person, between art music and modern audience. These are, of course, not literal, physical distances; they are psychological, emotional, technological ones. It is here that Kramer posits a possible reason for the long-trumpeted “death of ‘classical’ music” (which should also not be taken too literally). He states:
Digital media project a model of mind drastically different from the model that has informed classical music for more that two centuries. The music acts through time and depth; digital media act through space and surface.
—OHNAA, p. 39
Typically, Twitter and other social media consist of rather shallow interactions—probably why many academics have been so slow to adopt Twitter as an academic tool. This shallow interaction seems at odds with the profundity associated with the great works of Western art music. Live-tweeting a concert or recital, then, might seem to ensconce the sublime amid the ridiculous.
Like all new-media technologies, Twitter involves a collapse of distance. Tweeting is prosthetic telepathy; it transports virtual thoughts like a kind of mental telephone. But the collapse of distance is also the collapse of nearness. In the twittersphere, ‘near’ and ‘far’ become meaningless terms.
—OHNAA, p. 40
Kramer then invites us to consider how much we are “near” the music—near in the sense of timely. A live performance of a given work only happens once in the history of the universe; the experience is unique to its time and place. Are we near that place when we attend such a performance? From my own experience, I know that even though music recordings may be note-perfect, I have been more often moved at live concerts than when staring at my iTunes playlist. But this metaphor of distance conjures feelings of the immediacy, intimacy, and subjectivity of being “near” the experience of those fleeting moments, or else the detached, remote, and objectivity of being “far” from them. Kramer points out that Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, which he has been using his point of departure, is itself a study in distance. He says:
The symphony is a musical essay in distance: distance lost and won, distance enjoyed and regretted. There is the distance sought in nature from the troubles of urban life and moral confusion, and the distance from nature imposed by the artifice of representing it. There is the distance in history that prevents us from being too credulous about the pastoral ideal (the pastoral is dated, and always was), and the distance from history that gives the ideal its continued allure (the pastoral is timeless, and always will be).
—OHNAA, p. 40
This dichotomy between distance in and distance from mirrors the dichotomy I’ve been alluding to all along,—that of the rich, warm, subjective, immediate, qualitative human-ness of the “near” versus the rational, cold, objective, recorded, quantitative machine-ness of the “far.” I don’t mean to imply one of these is inherently better than the other, or that an event can only be experienced through mutually exclusive bifurcation. After all, the idea of warm has no meaning if we do not also have an idea of cold.
Kramer points out that humanity has increasingly used machines for music making, graduating from voice to ever more complex instruments to increasingly sophisticated sound reproduction technologies. We are becoming posthuman as our lives are increasingly mitigated by technology. The distance between human experience and machine becomes ever smaller. This is where the cyborgs show up—the singularity—an event forewarned by numerous writers of science fiction and hailed by some futurists like Ray Kurzweil.
The increasing naturalization of the machine–human interface has led to an emergent reconnection of the body.
Thus the body is merely extended by the technology we use as a kind of prosthesis. In what ways, then, has recording technology altered the way we experience music. In some ways, music recording has opened up new vistas—wider dissemination, new audiences. At the same time we have had to pay a price for those vistas—orchestras around the U.S. (and other countries, I expect) are closing because attendance is too low to sustain local ensembles. Why go to a live performance when I can download the songs I actually want, keep them, and return to over and over again?
The distance of the machinic—the distance from the human that becomes the distance of the human—is now lost. In its absence the distinctions between the human and the machinic and between consciousness and the flow of information become meaningless. . . . the music loses its audience, not in the sense that fewer people listen to it, but in the sense that the figure of the human, the fiction of ‘man,’ to which the music is addressed has become vestigial.
—OHNAA, p. 45
Even in the use of earbuds, says Kramer, we merge machine with man.
Earbuds exceed the older headphones in this respect; with earbuds the apparatus is taken into the body cavity and thus literally incorporated. The earbuds become prosthetic eardrums in which the music itself becomes prosthetic, less a sound transmitted to a listener than a making-audible of what might otherwise be heard only in the mind’s ear.
—OHNAA, p. 46
The Musical Work
. . . it involves the transmission not only of the classical work but also of the distance between music and audience on which the concept of the work depends. The work asks to be contemplated; contemplation requires distance.
—OHNAA, p. 44, emphasis added
That last sentence in particular struck me, as I have considered the notion of contemplation, or rather Contemplation, in earlier posts (1, 2). C.S. Lewis’s “Mediation in a Toolshed” seems to be becoming a theme for me. The work asks to be contemplated, and that contemplation demands a certain distance. If I understand rightly, this is very much in line with Lewis, who says that in order to Contemplate the beam of light, one must move outside of it. When one is within the beam of light, one cannot Contemplate it because one is experiencing it; we must have distance. At the same time, distance, in this sense, seems to fall more on the side of objectivity, rather than the subjectivity I’ve been ascribing to the moment-to-moment experience of live performance. Perhaps the distinctions I’ve ascribed to these different modes of thought are false, but they at least help me think about it.
Kramer describes five conceptual pillars that supported the traditional modus operandi of art music:
- the music is a psuedo-object
- the musical work is an integrated totality (i.e. works made up of movements or sections that go in a particular order)
- the music addresses the listener from a psychological distance to allow contemplation
- the musical work is mysterious, requiring musical and conceptual interpretation
- The music is to be attended to in activity of nothing but listening
The cyborgian nature of the way in which we now experience most of our music distorts these. (1) Music is less like an object than perhaps ever before. We cannot even pretend to hold it; there is no record or cassette tape or CD. We still call them “tracks” even though the term is the remnant of when records actually left analogue tracks visible to the eye. We may have purchased the right to listen to our digital recordings forever, but that is hardly the same thing. (2) With the iPod’s shuffle feature, the connective tissue between the many parts of a musical work begin to dissolve. (3 & 5) I think the third point may be closely related to the fifth, in that focusing attention, what we might call active listening, provides space for contemplation. In contrast, passively hearing the same music does not prompt one to cognitively engage with it. (4) How many people buy all the available recordings of a given Schubert song cycle? Or even just all the recordings of a single one of his songs? Not many, I’d wager. This limits one’s experience of the piece to probably one (at most, a handful) of interpretations of the work.
Doom and Gloom or Unprecedented Opportunity?
Kramer suggests we “rebrand” (my choice of word, not his) art music as “something that cannot be recorded but only simulated” (p. 49). This nebulous ideal of the standard-by-which-all-other-performances-are-measured might be traded in for a conceptual approach that looks at the uncertain and potential of each unique performance experience.
In concert [the body] would be charged with making the event of music happen and making the music happen as an event, with the outcome uncertain until the last note has sounded.
—OHNAA, p. 44, emphasis added
Reminds me of Schrödinger’s Cat. The musical work is both alive and dead until we hear the final strains and open up that box. That very reframing of the the live performance in these terms fills me with greater anticipation of such an event. As we become increasingly disembodied in our interactions with other people, and increasingly integrate technology in our everyday lives, perhaps the live performance will become again the unique and exciting exception to the rule of recorded monotony. Art music would again be an “uncertain adventure” (p. 51).
So I will end with the apt words with which Kramer himself ends his essay:
. . . classical music may claim a renewed value not by invoking long exhausted claims of transcendental expression, but by securing a space in which the infinity of the posthuman interface yields to the plenteousness of a simply human finitude.
P.S. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how much joy I got from Kramer’s use of Brobdingnagian in his last footnote. Until this morning, I had never seen the word in print, but was even more delighted than I knew what it meant (thanks this scene from The Big Bang Theory).
—OHNAA, p. 51