Final writing: "Hearing Mulholland, which is a 21st century exercise in hearing anything at all"
Media files referred to in the paper:
Final writing: "Hearing Mulholland, which is a 21st century exercise in hearing anything at all"
Media files referred to in the paper:
Sidney Bechet (as quoted in Bruce Boyd Raeburn 2007):
The idea of 'remembering' is intrinsic to accounts of exile by New Orleans musicians and can be considered as part of a broader narrative encompassing all music of the African diaspora. As a literary theme, it is particularly well developed in the clarinetist Sidney Bechet's memoir, Treat It Gentle. In the final chapter, 'It's the Music and It's the People' (which conveniently answers the rhetorical question implicit in the book's title), Bechet evokes the 'spirit tides' that connect him to his African heritage:
What I have to say, it's what the music has been saying to me and what I've been saying to it as far back as I can remember. The music makes a voice, and, no matter what happens, the man that cares to hear that voice, he can hear it. I don't mean there's any end to the things that make it hard for the people to hear the real voice the music has got in it. All I mean is that the music is still there for any who want it....The blues, and the spirituals, and the remembering, and the waiting, and the suffering, and the looking at the sky watching the dark come down – that's all inside the music. And somehow when the music is played right it does an explaining of all those things (815 – 16).
I wish I had been able to hear the class discussion on fidelity. I feel like I think of music in terms of the music I know too often without taking into consideration other possibilities. I am most acquainted with acoustic instruments and thinking of fidelity as the faithful reproduction of acoustic sound presented as acoustic sound. In recordings, faithful can either mean faithful to the moment in which the sound was made or faithful to the underlying 'essence' of the piece. Recording is nerve racking. Knowing that each note that you make will be scrutinized again and again, each mistake becoming a permanent fixture, is exhausting. And without an audience there to resonate with, the emotion of the piece becomes the performer's to bear. With most modern recordings, we prefer to hear the 'true' piece. Artists do several takes, re-record over mistakes and digitally edit pieces so they are perfect. Time and continuity is collapsed to create the ultimate take.
Yet there is something appealing about 'live' recordings. Instead of a decontextualized specimen, a butterfly pinned to a card, they are the memory of a contextualized event. A live recording may not be the 'definitive' version, but it holds more information about the human experience. Not only does it convey time and space but also audience reactions.
In movies too, we replace real sounds for what we think we should be hearing. For instance when a sword is drawn there is often a sound added (“shhhhhhing!”) that isn't there in real life, or in the movie The Exorcist the sound effect of bones cracking was not bones cracking but lifesavers being snapped. This reminded me of the music we listened to by the artist Matmos who took sounds (which we may not have wanted to hear) and disguised their referent to make a piece of music (which we did want to hear).
American culture places such a high value on science and scientific methods and it manifests itself in odd ways. We are ok with creating deceptive soundscapes (for instance one guitar looped to sound like three) or strange CGI monsters but they all have to be presented in high definition and surround sound. Even iPods are being filled with higher and higher quality music, and they can be accessorized with sound canceling headphones. While artists are taking their music to higher levels, using new technologies to create sounds that would have been impossible years ago, sound reproduction is becoming more and more precise.
To be honest, I used to be a bit of a tech geek when it came to portable media players, headphones, and cheap, portable recording tech. Similar to Perlman’s observations, I also saw online communities of “meter readers” and “golden ears” with distinct mutual vocabularies of noise, individualized EQ settings, and colorful descriptions of how systems might sound that never could really match up to what it would be like to possess the systems yourself.
A good example of this that I couldn’t resist is a Cnet.com review of the Monster Beats by Dr. Dre that we were watching in class. As can be expected from the analytical versus emotional reviews that would be expected from both sides of this community, all reviews on this website include numerical rating comparisons and tech specs as well as a more adjectival, written (and often a video) review.
Back to the mindset behind audiophilia and the constant tweaks and endless pursuit of a better listening experience, I wish to acknowledge the extent that the entire endeavor may seem fabricated or excessive to the rest of us who can’t afford to become as invested as many of Perlman’s ethnographic examples. Like other things that are man-made, such as our concepts of economics, politics, or culture, our modern issues with the reproduction of music exist in a very different environment from that of 100 or even 50 years ago. Acknowledging that, you could say that they are “unnatural” but we can disregard those issues no more than we can disregard the existence of a man-made building that stands before us; they’re real.
Most of the music that my generation listens to is not live and is proliferated digitally which generates the constant battle between file quality versus file size, fidelity versus access. And in a time where proliferation is most important both to the music content makers interested in profit and to the consumers who desire that content, I think the current trend of further shrinking music file sizes will continue until proliferation and the cost of modest music storage and playback become a non-issue. The exception to this will be when there is an additional factor that makes music listening more than just about the cost of having a music collection with a non-descript medium. That's the whole point of the Monster Beats headphones. If it were all about the music, any loss in fidelity due to the wireless tech would be avoided but this is all trumped by the "coolness factor" in the first place.
For me, comparing all of these different modes of listening is like comparing human relationships. We may have our own judgments, but ultimately can we say that one type of relationship is superior or more valid than another? Are “Western relationships” generalized by a way of not attaching text to instruments or musical passages or that or that “sub-Saharan African relationships” all do? When we group a music scene that broadly, it is true to that that the musics that we acknowledge all have a similar locale and history of pretext but that doesn’t change the individuality of each. I don’t want to imagine trying to group all of jazz, American punk rock, country music, and a history of Western classical music by how they acknowledge textual references while simultaneously contrasting it to a different music of another continent. I do not envy Cooke’s enormous scope and limited space to write and cite more specific examples.
But what all of this conversation does highlight is a diversified notion of where listening occurs. What happened in class when all of us were transitioning between “listening” to a 12/8 meter in either 6 or 4? How did we feel this? It wasn’t that our ears were changing or that the input our brains received differed. But there was an alteration in our focus that was probably most visible through how we were bobbing or tapping our fingers. There are many aspects of music but in particular, I think that rhythm is particularly expository in showing that true understanding of rhythm is corporal, not something that is constant in a disembodied brain. That’s why when many musicians really want to play in sync, they breathe together. And understanding how to breathe together does not have a cultural pre-requisite.
How are forms of mediation connected to the experience of music?
I am interested in answering this question with a special eye towards my experience, now as a student in 2011.
The first thing I think of is the cultural cache we place on vinyl records. Vinyl is unquestionably cool. It is human: disconnected from the cold and everyday Internet world of digital music files (the golden-earists have won the cultural debate wrt analog vs. digital). With vinyl, listening to music is more active than with other media. There is a ritual composed of specific physical gestures: flipping through a crate to pick out a record, extracting the LP from its case, opening the turntable and setting the record carefully down, and then finally placing the needle into the groove and closing the lid. For my generation, who grew up with CDs and then iPods, which require only a single press of a button to produce sound, these actions are refreshingly novel. But most important, they are actions. Vinyl enacts music in a way that other media do not.
In a similar vein, the “hiss” of an LP makes aware the listener of the LP’s status as a medium, and subsequently brings forth the aura of the song. Though the original is as unattainable as ever, its ghostly presence is more evident on vinyl than on other, more transparent media.
The iPod, or portable music player, is ubiquitous among my peers. Maybe 15% of students I pass on the quad will be plugged in to their music. Though more recent models with 160 GB capacity are capable of storing large quantities of CD-quality audio, the iPod is mostly associated with lofi portability, prioritizing quantity and ease over quality. Music is used to augment daily tasks, particularly ones that might be boring otherwise. Music also becomes private, focusing the majority of the listener’s auditory attention on events occurring within millimeters of the eardrums. And by using music as distraction from a task, the listener envisions the original task as more boring than it may have been without additional entertainment. The practice of walking across the quad becomes less of an event itself and more of an occasion for other, private entertainments to happen.
Practices of iPod- and LP-using can be mapped onto the hearing vs. listening dichotomy we’ve discussed in class. hearing vs. listening, resonance vs. reason, music as object vs. music as ephemeral/time-based, music as incorporated into the self vs. music as part of the world.
What does the simultaneous existence of these two radically different listening styles with different media mean? The culturally acknowledged lofi-ness of the iPod (proof: the JustBeats commercials), combined with the less attentive listening style its portability encourages, serves to associate low fidelity with low worth. Inversely, vinyl listening is a high fidelity and high-status act. If a musical object is not high fidelity, it is not worth careful listening. But an iPod’s supposed low fidelity is only measured by comparison to higher fidelity options: uncompressed audio files or analog media. In fact, the most disruptive obstacle to deeper listening practices with an iPod is the interruption of ambient noises, which noises the practice of headphones-wearing constructs as unwanted and invasive.
Unfortunately for this blog post, there’s not a lot at stake in pedestrian listening practices. Audiophilic listening advances a dangerous dogma that trickles down into the popular sphere, perpetrating acts of misleading marketing which advance bunk science and anecdotal psychoacoustic thought as motivation for arbitrary consumerist choices. The listening practices I’ve described are the product of larger, stranger forces. We are likely to continue along our current path, with advances in low fidelity sound technology being culturally balanced by attitudes of high-status, high-fidelity listening.
In all of Perlman’s stories and analyses I was most surprised to encounter such strong opposition to the privileging of technology over the music it mediates. The opening of his ethnography led me to believe that an audiophile may be no more than a tech junky. I was apparently mistaken. The audiophile’s primary attraction to “musicality” was surprising because these middle-aged white men did not need to be musicians, or musically inclined beyond the role of the aficionado (Perlma 791). The fact that purchasing expensive equipment, regardless of its true efficacy, is considered an expression of a deeper love of music speaks for the Western habitus of listening that is so wrapped up in media and technology. Although there seems to be a fine line between “musical” equipment and “revealing” equipment (and one cannot listen “musically” without being analytical and focusing on accuracy), the former is the appropriate purchase of the model audiophile, while the latter can be a dangerous temptation.
Perlman’s ethnographic account is consistent with existing preoccupations with high-definition and high quality media. I wonder how this expensive mode of listening would thrive when placed in an aural culture similar to that of Egypt’s, or if it would exist at all. In a culture where the message being mediated is such an integral part of living, knowledge, and belief systems, it’s interesting to find that the actual method of mediation is not so important. Whereas Western culture almost worships the mediation itself, constantly seeking higher forms and sacrificing more money. Sermons are dubbed and re-dubbed in homes and stores without any regard to fidelity, kilohertz, noise, and so on. The quality of the experience of these religious messages is not conditional; at least not conditional on any external factors. I imagine that Egyptian Muslims’ idea of fidelity would involve the inner workings of the human heart and mind that can facilitate or thwart proper listening. Hirschkind’s ethnography in contrast to Perlman’s sheds light on the cultural relativity that accounts for varying human perceptions and ways of knowing.
In Western ways of thinking, the relationship between technology and fidelity lies in technology’s ability to reproduce sound in varying levels of accuracy. Essentially, it is the cultural desire to defy the limits of time and distance that drives engineers to create technology that leaves less and less of a trace of its existence. The value of the live performance and closeness to the performer compels audiophiles of all levels of dedication to achieve a state of listening that is not adulterated by other sounds. High definition radio and 3D television have been developed with the premise that time and space should not obstruct the flow of knowledge and the body’s perception of that knowledge.