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.
I feel that our entire semester as culminated to reach the epistemological view that there are infinite modes of listening, which leaves the term “fidelity” utterly meaningless. I argued in class that there is something authentic about listening to a low-fi recording that took place out in the field. Perhaps every word is not discernable, but the moment, the time and space at which the piece of artwork unfolded is perceivable in this instance. When music is recorded in a studio, that time and space vanishes—in fact this seems to be a goal of the recording studio. Properly recorded song should not allude to the fact that it was recorded in this studio with this equipment, it should just exist as sound. But I would argue that it is the space in which the sound takes place that music develops.
The listeners in hirschkind’s book did not require high fidelity recordings in order to perceive the authenticity of the message. In fact, the cassettes often encapsulated the time and space—recording the weeps and responses of those attending the sermon. I would argue that in our culture it is impossible to separate the idea of technology and fidelity because fidelity is such a loaded term, but perhaps let’s replace the word fidelity with loyalty or trustworthiness. I would argue that greater technology does not necessarily lead to a more trust worthy recording—it may lead to a higher fidelity recording, but this is not necessarily the purpose or intention of the piece of art. I think it is a product of our society that we view technology as the means to access fidelity, but as we saw in Hirschkind, technology is not necessary to reach these level of “fidelity” or trustworthiness. However, if a golden ear is using technology to make a recording sound similar to its live performance, then I would argue that this use of technology is allowing for a high “fidelity” listening.
Perhaps we are trying to look at this epistemological battle as being too black and white. When Professor Engelhardt listened to the first minute of my composition, he commented on how he could structurally hear the axis upon which my piece was built—as the composer, I had actually intended and heard the opening section to be more atmospheric and less grounded in structure. This highlighted the idea that there are infinite modes of listening and that not one is correct. It seems that if one were to compare CD and vinyl rationally, they would take on the position of being a meter reader, but if they listen through their emotions then they would take on the position of the golden ear listener and support the claim that vinyl is better. Is either one better? No, indeed the different ways of mediation lead to different modes of listening—but that is not a bad thing. It simply allows for us to experience music both structurally (Rationally) and emotionally (through resonance). Perhaps the belief that there is something else to be heard by the golden ears actually enables them to be deeper listeners—and experience music differently from all other listeners that do not expect to hear beyond their capable limits. As with many of the discussions we have had in class, I think this topic is a dichotomy that should be accepted by any music lover. It does not make sense to listen to any piece with only your heart or only your mind—it is the intertwining of reason and resonance that allows for the trustworthiness mode of listening—the true fidelity without all of the loaded bullshit that our culture has associated with the word.
Forgot to mention this in class on Thursday. The students of the Amherst College Theater & Dance department are putting on a production of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" today on the freshman quad at 5:00. I wrote a couple songs for it, too. I was at the dress rehearsal last night and it's the funniest Shakespeare production I've seen. I was literally falling out my seat laughing. It's totally free — bring a blanket and some friends. Hope to see you there!
That's my PSA. Blog post forthcoming.
This week exemplified that technology and culture are intimately intertwined. The development of new technologies are dependent on a need and a cultural setting for the new technology to fit into, but conversely culture is shaped around technologies—our lives, practices, and ultimately our thoughts and desires are organized around the technology we use. I thought that Sterne’s cultural-historical case study of the development of sound reproduction technologies and the cultural beliefs which it necessitated was an excellent example of this relationship. Sterne argues that the technology would not exist without a cultural demand for it yet also a new cultural idea arose in the midst of these technological developments: fidelity.
With all new technologies comes a grace period of adaptation. People need time to become familiar with the use and the implementation of new technologies into their lives. Often inventors and in contemporary times, entire marketing departments, are devoted to convincing consumers that the new technology could not only be functional but that it is in fact necessary in their lives. This is most obvious in the advertisements Sterne includes in Chapter 5, which begs the question, who can tell the difference between the original and the reproduction. This same rhetoric meant to mark a space for new technology is repeated in the HP commercials we saw in class, where the discourse of “poor kids who have cheap headphones” places a moral value on a new type of “authentic hearing.” This grace period and these advertisements are the creation of new listening modes and moral ideas of authentic practices within a given society.
Our technology thus instills moral values into our culture. This is more apparent when discussing technologies of the past but current technologies have the same power. Charles Hirschkind’s sermon cassette example in Egypt exemplifies how new technologies create new modes of listening and thus shape particular ideas of what is moral. In traditional Islamic thought, the idea that audition of a sermon or holy text was sacred and instiledl ethical values existed prior to the cassette medium. However, the introduction of the cassette medium utilized this pre-existing idea while simultaneously changing the engagement with the audition of sermons itself. This example is another example of how technology is both dependent on a prior need and established cultural framework, while it simultaneously affects pre-established notions of the prior culture or ideas itself.
To speak specifically about music, new technologies are depdendent on both our physiological conditions and cultural conditions, but they also affect them. The mediation through which we hear music affects our ideas about the music. In the contemporary world, most of us listen to music through headphones in a variety of spaces that would not be possible without the availability of technology which allows music to be reproduced anywhere. Because of this, we are less akin to agreeing with Walter Benjamin’s claims of the original aura. We see this type of physically and technologically distanced reproduction of a performance as authentic. Through our own acculturation to music listening technologies throughout our lives (from listening to radio, television, walkmans, portable CD players, ipods, etc.) we have grown accustomed to a portable listening experience. This experience to us is an authentic and self driven experience, one which was dependent both on a desire for such an experience and the technology which allowed us to create them.
These questions are so broad that they could encompass most of the semester's discussions. However, I am particularly interested in how fidelity – with all of its loaded moral meanings – is represented in Hirschkind. Hirschkind discusses the morality of listening, albeit within a distinct and culturally relative setting with similiarities to and differences from that which Perlman describes.
Within Perlman's piece technology is contingently entwined with fidelity in a scientific and/or moral way within the epistemologies of both “golden earists” and “meter-readers”. Although the two groups differ in interesting ways upon the kinds of technological mediation which best allow for musical fidelity, they are similar in that they ultimately believe in the appropriate use of expensive technology as necessary for musical fidelity. In Hirschkind's book, however, although technological mediation of sound is important (e.g. cassette tapes are relatively cheap, durable, can easily be used multiple times and for multiple purposes, can be played within cars and at home, etc.) the medium and the sound systems are not the ultimate medium through which the sermons are realizing fidelity. Instead, Hirschkind describes the ways in which the believer's heart is the ultimate conduit for the sounds of cassette sermons within the context of Islam; fidelity is found within the emotional reaction of the listener to the messages being conveyed.I wish to argue that although the contexts of these two approaches to sound fidelity are different in many ways, they are also similar in some inexplicit ways. First, as Perlman discusses in his article, although audiophiles are predisposed to rely upon technology as an extremely important and prized medium for music, it is still a medium for music. Hearing music in its most “truthful” form is given such importance by these listeners because how they hear is directly correlated to the emotional value within what they hear, as well as their emotional responses to what they hear. The distinction between this approach and the approach of many Egyptian listeners who follow cassette sermons is that the “how they hear” is applied to their bodies and hearts as the conduit for the sound's meaning, as opposed to adding a layer of mediation with an LP or CD player.
The distinctions become a bit more convoluted when you factor in the differences which Perlman writes of between “golden earist” audiophiles and “meter-reading” audiophiles. Where “golden-earists” believe ultimately in the importance of the subjective individual as a conduit for processing sound and the information recorded on LPs (which is often beyond the spectrum of human hearing), “meter-readers” are interested in measureable and “rational” musical quality as determined by quantifiable distinctions between music and noise. One could possibly argue that some of these relations to music are more rational than others, yet it is obvious to me that each of these positions is equally subjective due to their differing epistemologies.
Practicing Muslims who listen to cassette sermons have necessarily subjective ways of approaching their listening despite the fact that laws of listening are codified within the Qur'an. In the end, the heart is the tool of listening within this epistemology, and that itself is subjective. “Golden-earists” use their subjectivity as a tool for combatting scientific evidence that is often used to fight their opinions, and in this way they are successful because no one can measure what a person feels when they listen to music. Finally, “meter-readers” are subjective in that they choose to practice the epistemology of rationalism within a musical context and because worldviews, by definition, are subjective.
In our work this semester, we have often evoked many dichotomies in our discussion. We say that you can either listen for reason (a structural/analytical listening mode) or for reasonance, a more fuzzy feeling-centric mode. It is easy for us to fall into these traps, as it is true there is a range between being completely analytical and “feeling” the music. We saw that in the Arvo Part piece. It was obvious that the value of the piece was the feeling of the sounds, rather than some musical comlexity. However, I think that both modes important—and of course, our tendency towards the dichotomy goes back to a Cartesian model. In western music departments, it is quite valuable to be able to listen for cadences, keys and modulations.
However, I think cross-culturally, there is a duality in both intellectual and artistic engagement in music. I think it would be hard to find a musician who does music purely for the structural complexity of the pieces they play, nor would you find a musician who does not appreciate the challenge of understanding the “structure” of a piece. The two are mutually dependent. Even the most “primitive” of musics we have heard in this class had a complex structure and thus, "reasoning" behind it.
Adorno and Schonberg’s structural listening implies that there is an inherent ability for one to hear a structure. To even call this perspective a “western” notion would be problematic, as there are many members of western society who do not listen to music structurally or at least are not equipped with the proper vocabulary to analyze music. I stand by the assertion that listening and performing is a subjective endeavor conditioned by the cultural meanings ascribed to particular sounds and the experiences that we as listeners and performers inevitably carry.
However, I do believe in structural listening in a different sense. If we dismiss “structural listening” as a purely western concept with a western vocabulary and the association that non-Western music is more about feeling and reconfigure structural listening as an active listening for a pattern or an underlying system which organizes music, I think this is a type of listening that could be applied to all music types. This is what we did in class when we listened to the Ghanaian examples. We can lisen “structurally” to any type of music. However, as we have all experienced, despite the excess of ethnomusicological explanations, we cannot experience music in the same way that native listeners do at first. Again, we can return to the metaphor of language. In the beginnings of learning a language, we can learn vocabulary but fluency requires experiences and years to understand deeper connotations and meanings in conversations. This is the same in music. It would take years and years to experience music that same that an insider of a particular culture does, but even then such an assumption is flawed, as we assume that all insiders “hear” the same way.
If music as purely a structural endeavor, I fear it would be placed under science or math department where objectivity is worshipped, but what makes music so interesting are the multiple levels of negotiation at work in music. It is important to note that the listening of music is just as culturally mediated and challenging as performing it. This combination of structural listening and feeling, the ability for music to stimulate both reason and resonance, is what makes music a prevalent artistic as well as an intellectual practice in so many cultures.