New Audiovisual Aesthetics, Part the First: in which we talk Twitter, cyborgs, and the uncertain future of art music

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

Posthumanity

“My name is C-3PO: Human/Cyborg Relations.”

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?

Kramer suggests:

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:

  1. the music is a psuedo-object
  2. the musical work is an integrated totality (i.e. works made up of movements or sections that go in a particular order)
  3. the music addresses the listener from a psychological distance to allow contemplation
  4. the musical work is mysterious, requiring musical and conceptual interpretation
  5. 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

MOOCs and the Changing Landscape of Higher Ed: in which I take a sonic screwdriver to conventional wisdom

If you’ve been a member of the human race for the last couple years (yes, Daleks, this excuses you from reading, but I do have some student debt I’d like you to EX-TER-MI-NATE), then you’ve no doubt been made aware of the growing concern over the cost of higher education in the US (and likely abroad as well).

I wish Daleks could exterminate my STUDENT LOAN DEBT!

With the recession, jobs have become harder to secure, giving pause to a demographic who might have gone to college a decade ago without hesitation. Not long ago, “having the college experience” was a given, even for those who had no intention of needing or completing a Bachelor’s degree. (For the Daleks, we in the states frequently use the words college and university interchangeably, even though there is a technical difference).

Now potential students (or, more often, their parents) count the cost (as they should) of whether spending thousands of dollars—many thousands when attending a private institution—is worth the return. Once upon a time, the first year or two of college was in no small part intended to expose students to a wide array of fields and disciplines so they could make an informed choice about what it was they wanted to pursue. Now that seems like money down the drain.

Enter, MOOCsmassive open online courses. These free courses, offered by reputable institutions, offer a full university level course for those who are interested. Coursera, a for-profit edu-tech organization partners with schools such as Stanford University, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, and The University of Michigan, boasting more than 1 million students from 196 countries enrolled in at least one course as of February 2013.

MIT, Harvard, UC Berkeley, University of Texas System, and others have also created their own version of MOOCs that downplay the commercialization of higher education.

Add to this the free and engaging education opportunities offered by Khan Academy, TED, iTunes U, YouTube (PBS Idea Channel, CrashCourse, MinutePhysics, VeritassiumVi Hart and many others). Although not necessarily geared for higher education, there are also sites like ShowMe and Educreations, which offer amateurs the opportunity to share with each other what they know.

MOOCs offer a more “certified” educational experience than YouTube, simply because they tend to be taught by real professors at real universities. Now, I have never participated in a MOOC, so my perspective is that of an outsider speculating on what it must be like to be an insider. My suspicion is that, much like the TARDIS, the inside is much bigger than the outside. One fear folks have about MOOCs is the inability to get meaningful feedback from students (not when your enrollment exceeds 100,000), and the potential lack of quality control. It’s a lot like self-publishing—where is the gatekeeper who makes sure than what’s being disseminated isn’t rubbish? Well, since they are free courses, you get out of them what you put in—not unlike traditional classroom-based courses.

With so many opportunities for self-education, there are inexpensive alternatives for the undecided 18-year-old, which, statistically speaking, is most of them. Take a year or two of free education online, figure out what you love—then go to an institution of higher learning with a bit of maturity under your belt and a lot of focus on your goals.

Here’s the catch, this works if one is self-motivated. Many of these resources are self-paced, and don’t require a particular schedule—something that many people find difficult to enforce on themselves. Kind of like many aspects of life, though, right? There is a lot out there on MOOCs, both pro and con, and it’s worthwhile to learn a bit about the potential upsides and downsides. This is a wibbly-wobbly, timer-wimey era in which to grow up.

One Thing Drives Out Another: in which I make excuses and get excited about a now-and-future project

Too many interests—to some extent, that’s what this blog is about. And that’s also what has prevented me from writing these last forty-ish days. That’s not to say I haven’t been writing. As my focus process shifts from the writing of my dissertation to final edits and looking toward the imminent defense of said dissertation in October, I’ve been scrambling to patch holes in the ship that will sail me to Ph.D.-dom.

Couple that with an idea that’s been simmering in the back of my mind for about nine months (which, I’m given to understand, is an excellent gestation period for both ideas and babies), and you get even more writing. I will “e’splain” with a timeline.

November 2011—insidehighered.com publishes Exploding the Lecture by Steve Kolowich. Kolowich discusses the use and benefits of recorded mini-lectures by Mike Garver, Professor of Marketing at Central Michigan University. (I mentioned this in an earlier post.)

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January 2012—gradhacker publishes “Publishing Your Presentations Online,” something that’s good in its own right, but got me thinking about ways to make visuals for mini lectures, and then perhaps make them available via podcast, iTunes U, etc.

YouTube user Vi Hart uploads this video on math and the Fibonacci Sequence. The short form and whimsical treatment of subject matter typically viewed as dry and boring by students makes me wonder if the same could be done with music theory.

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April 2012—Vi Hart uploads another video, this time relating geometry to sound in time (as does my dissertation).

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May 2012—I begin sporadically writing out mini lectures that I intend to record very soon, perhaps with my brother. We share many happy memories writing and recording a number of “radio plays” to audio cassettes.

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July 2012—I discover YouTube contributor pbsideachannel via their video on Minecraft as a model of the theoretical post-scarcity economy. (Apparently the channel’s been around since February, but I’m late to the game.) The snappy scripting and pacing of each weakly installment creates bite-sized thought-candy. Incidentally, this show fits remarkably well with the underlying theme of oldworldforthenew—comparing, contrasting, and merging seemingly disparate ideas in the arts, philosophy, etc.

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August 2012—I discover another YouTube contributor, MinutePhysics, who provided me with the most concise explanation of the Higgs-Boson particle I have yet to encounter. Again, the short form makes for smaller, digestible amounts of new material. The drawn visuals echo what I liked about Vi Hart’s videos.

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So why not music theory too. Music theory is often thought of as a rather dry and opaque area of study in the minds of young (a surprising number of older) musicians—much the same way grammar is to English students, or maths or physics. It requires the logical side of our brain. For those who don’t take to the left side of their cerebrum, adding some whimsy and humor to the mix can make a difficult subject more palatable.

So in the last few weeks, as my academic writing load has decreased, I’ve put more effort into developing a fun, podcast-like, short-form series intended to make music theory more accessible. Of course, once that’s up and running, it will likely require some form of web support, so I’m trying to get a jump on that and learn something about HTML and CSS.

I’ll post something the first episode when it’s done.

Old Meets New: in which Beethoven and OneRepublic get acquainted

I wasn’t the first to jump on The Piano Guys band wagon, but I’m so glad I did. Don’t let their name fool you—it’s actually a piano guy and a cello guy (and behind-the-scenes guys). They have done some fine things with combining older and newer music into something unique and refreshing. In some ways, that idea is what inspired the naming of this blog. I think that what they are doing will entice a younger audience back to an interest in art music. That, combined with nice visuals and professional videography, gives them a strong presence on YouTube. (Why aren’t these the sorts of videos that go viral?)

So here is one of their recent uploads, which combines elements from OneRepublic‘s song Secrets with references to Beethoven‘s Symphony No. 5. The YouTube blurb doesn’t mention this, but near the beginning I also hear distinctive connections to the “Prelude” from J. S. Bach‘s Cello Suite No. 1. (There’s also a vocal version of this mash-up.)

The Piano Guys have done other interesting mash-ups of old and new music. They combined Somewhere Over the Rainbow with the Shaker tune Simple Gifts; Adele’s Rollin in the Deep with Holst’s “Jupiter” from The Planets; and used elements inspired by Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata in a new piece, played on electric cello.

Incidentally, they’ve also put out a re-imagined version of that same “Prelude” from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1—except the cellist, Steven Sharp Nelson, clones himself seven times. And here’s the kicker—Nelson combines the “Prelude” with bits of Charles Gounod‘s famous Ave Maria. That Ave Maria was Gounod’s own version of old-meets-new because he composed it to be sung over a different “Prelude” by J. S. Bach, the one in C major from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I.

Did you follow that? Bach composes the Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello most likely between 1717–1723; he also composes Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier in 1722. Gounod takes the C major Prelude from Well-Tempered Clavier and writes a melody over the top 137 years later in 1859. Then Steven Sharp Nelson takes Bach’s Cello prelude from 1720-ish and Gounod’s melody from 1859, and combines them with his own ideas in June 2011—152 years after Gounod and at least 288 years after Bach. Talk about using the “old world for the new”!