Sunday, July 11, 2010



Some musings on the conflict of terms, meanings and consequences of the postmodern generic usage of the word music. By Steve Brien.

Music, what a busy word- Programmed music, music industry, MTV (Music Television), live music, music CD’s , Music DVD, Computer Music, Ring Tones in the top twenty. “Music” rains down on us from broadcast media like digital confetti, anesthetizing the brains of shoppers, whipping halftime football crowds into excitement and heralding the start of your favorite TV show.

In an age where the recorded medium has become so cheap and available and the advertising resources of the “music businesses” integrated with everything from Coke to Time Magazine, does the word "MUSIC" lend authenticity to the dazzling array of visual sound hype promoted by McMusic Inc? Or is music a generic term of which two subgroups are live music and recorded music?

If we are to take the view that music is a generic term, which has as sub-categories live and recorded, then there is an implication that each category has the same intrinsic value. While it is quite clear that this is not the case (live performance has “cultural” weight as well as being expensive to hire), those in the corporate music “business” have a vested interest in ensuring the public’s perception of the word music is that of a commodity, a shallow product of millions of copies with the original “artist” being only available on TV media as a mega celebrity (in some cases the “artist” exists as an animation).

Art and finance seem to some critics to be becoming more and more closely related as the distinctions between high and popular culture disappear and artists become mass media stars in their own right.[1][1]

The noun music has a complex etymology. The usage of the word up until the advent of recorded media (roughly 70 years ago) involved the notion of a “temporal” art which once performed dwelt only in the imagination of the audience. The noun music which at one time only described a fleeting act, vanishing once played, has passed into postmodern usage as a by word for all facets of listening experience. It is therefore thought of by current society as the description of a commodity. On the other hand, does the word music carry with it emotion specific cognitive response? In this capacity, music is a sub-category of the noun Art, the branch of art that along with Drama unfolds and rings emotion with its brief existence. So there are clearly two ways of thinking of the word music, when performed live it takes on the introspective and imagination based aspect of the noun art , once recorded it takes on the finance inspired dimension of the noun commodity.

The experience of listening to a live performance of say, a chamber orchestra, a jazz group or rock band is clearly a different experience to that of listening to a recording facilitated by pushing the button of your stereo or the unfortunate subjection to “music” when you are put on hold on the telephone. There is a different level of cultural commitment needed to make the trip from your home to the music venue (or indeed to hire musicians to play at your house) compared to the on/off ease of playing your stereo. There appears to be a conflict in terms when the language used to describe the beauty of a fleeting moment of musical intimacy is the same language used to describe the commodity of the midi induced agony of a ring-tone.

Language specific to emotional experience is in place when it comes to the other great temporal artistic medium of society, Drama. For example, the language difference between: “I’m going to the Theatre.” and “I’m going to the cinema.” The former conveys the message that a stage production will be the subject of the evening, the latter suggests that a movie will be seen. Both may be wonderful experiences, however they are different experiences. Theatre being the temporal artistic experience, cinema the commodity based media experience.

If you go to a theater and capture the drama on a movie camera, the subsequent replay is called film. If you buy a print of an Arthur Streeton, it’s called a print and there is nothing that will ever make it a painting. Recorded music is called music (particularly by those with a vested interest in mass reproduction and sale of the product) while those who perform music have to qualify the act by calling it live music. Could it be that the temporal and fleeting aspect of live performance needs to enshrined in the language and that the word music only be used when referring to live performance? This would mean that once recorded, a different word would be used to describe that commodity based listening experience.

It may be argued that a recording is simply an extension of the musician’s persona, captured on disk so that the performance can be reproduced and distributed to a much greater audience than he/she would otherwise have. This is a kind of “where do I start and where do I end?” approach. For some recorded music this may be so, however, this is a little precious when it can be said that the recording industry has served first to impose American cultural imperialism internationally and secondly to drive home the advantage by shaping popular culture in a vast, cynical, lowest common de-money maker- media monopoly. Societies used to have their own “folk music”, their own “cultures” for crying out loud… when was the last time you heard traditional Chinese music coming out of a karaoke bar in Chinatown?

It can be argued that the unbridled commercial proliferation of recorded media has led to a disintegration of cultural uniqueness that leads to cultivation of traditional values and folk music. Bella Bartok, in his book Hungarian Folk Music, wrote:

Peasants who people one geographic unit, living close to one another and speaking the same language, this tendency to alter in consequence of the affinities, between the mental dispositions of the individuals works in one way, in the same general direction. It is thus that the birth of a homogenous style becomes possible.[2][2]

It is said that about 60% of any language is body language and that the full impact of oratory cannot be grasped unless you are in the room while it is being delivered. This sentiment can be directly applied to music. The full impact any performance can only be achieved when you are experiencing it at the venue. Witnessing first hand the performance by a musician or group, a social occasion with its sights, sounds and smells, lends a sensory dimension to the listening experience that cannot be achieved any other way. It is possible today to imagine someone growing up never experiencing live music and not making the connection between what they hear on the broadcast media and someone actually performing. It is a great pity that the “keep music live” and the “music manned not canned” protests of the 70’s failed to register on the public…well…what you sow, so shall you reap. The indignation of the public was rampant when they found out Milli Vanilli were not actually singing their pop hit in the 80’s, this of course was the thin end of the wedge for the recorded medium, the protesting died down as the big money poured in, now digital counterfeit is free to roam the airwaves and cyberspace at will…it goes unchecked…while we sleep.

So let’s look at what recording music means. Over the past thirty years advances in technology have vastly changed the industry. In recording jazz, processing comes in a myriad of digital enhancement. Hours are spent getting the sound of each instrument just right, EQ, reverb, headphone mix etc and often the band members are in separate rooms so that parts can be overdubbed later to fix mistakes. Then the usual course is to do several takes of each song with the idea that the best take is chosen for the CD. Sometimes an amalgamation of takes is needed, for instance if the ending of a take is screwed up, the engineer can digitally match up one of the other endings…cut and paste has become a common tool. Vocalists or soloists can re-do vocal tracks or solos till they get something they’re happy with.

After recording comes the mixing. This is where the engineer and producer get the right balance between the instruments, right EQ, compression to shrink the wave file and make the recording sound good on all stereos, in short, getting the thing to pressing level.

In other musical genres the processing takes an even higher profile; drum machines and sequenced bass parts (programmed and computer generated) lay down a rhythm track then layers of what ever the artist wants is placed over the top. If the singer has trouble pitching notes they can be brought in tune later with the pitch adjuster (Milli Vanilli could have used one of these), if the band has trouble playing in time they can play to a click track. Digital media can be slowed down or sped up without changing the pitch. In other words the enhancement available is endless.

In 1980 I recorded with a band I was playing with at the time called “Risk”. Clive Harrison (Bass player and band leader) had organized US pianist Chick Corea to play on the recording (Chick was in Australia on tour). As Chick’s tour schedule conflicted with our recording times, we put down our rhythm parts and solos, leaving space for Chick to come in at a later date and record his solos. The result was a good album “Once Bitten” (vinyl) with all of us on the cover and credits… but the fact is, I never met Chick.

I’m not suggesting that Clive was trying to deceive anyone, as this kind of recording is common, however the line blurring of fact and fiction for commercial purpose is an insidious mistress. When ex convict James Frey released his self described non-fiction book “A Million Little Pieces” recently, talk show host Oprah eagerly promoted the book, mistakenly thinking that if it’s published, it must be true… Wrong. A shattered Oprah a few weeks later had to inform her public that Frey had fabricated large sections. The unnerving aspect to this was the revelation that the publishing house did no factual research on the book prior to release and that this seems to be endemic in the industry…if it looks like making money, who cares if it’s true or not!

Photoshop has allowed a new generation of college and high school students to “touch up” their college yearbook photographs, adding muscles where there aren’t any; breasts, hair, smiles & perfect teeth, just so that in thirty years time they can confidently show off their old year book and not be embarrassed by a picture of a pimply geek staring back at them. Who cares if that person never existed, it makes them feel good. The old adage that “A picture tells a thousand words” may need to be revamped to “A picture may tell a thousand lies”.

My point here is that there is a disturbing trend in current society, fueled by the fast buck ethos of commercialism, that record keeping whatever the form, need not be honest and truthful if all parties agree and for the common- wealth of all concerned… and the public doesn’t seem to care…this is known as Moral Relativism.

“We have now moved into an epoch...where truth is entirely a product of consensus values”[3][3]

Our media, conscious of the form shifting of postmodern thought, can be seen actually condoning this current condition.

Writers and journalists are leading the purist attack on Frey’s blurring of the facts. They’re strictly right, of course. But how self- righteous can we be in a world that worships “reality” TV, relativism and subjective reporting? How many other memoirs distort the truth without detection.[4][4]

The aspect of postmodern society under threat through relativism is the body of human knowledge. In the field of music, knowledge is obtained through induction (knowledge based on observation) and deduction (knowledge based on analysis). Where does our culture stand if in the future, converging evidence yielding empirical knowledge of recorded music is based on media that has been enhanced, modified and processed so as to be a misrepresentation of the artists’ true contribution.

From an education point of view, institutions that rely on public funding have an uphill battle promoting the cultural worth of teaching the temporal artistic performance aspect of music in the face of a government directed by the interests of corporations determined to advance the notion to the public that music is simply a commodity. This can be seen for example in the bizarre laws that govern places of entertainment such as clubs and hotels in NSW where no licensing is required for broadcast media and yet it is against the law to take out a guitar and play it!

The time has come for the public to repossess the word music through usage by using it only when describing live performance and finding another word to describe the commodity experience.

My word (or rather three words) to be used in place of the word music, when describing the recorded medium is Electronic Processed Media or EPM. This simple demarcation in the language goes a long way to preserving the truth of musical performance in contrast to the digitally manipulated and processed, commodity based EPM experience.

It would thus enable society to rationalize the tidal wave of commercial EPM being pedaled to the public, including the so called composer sitting at a computer mixing sound bites ripped from disparate recordings, with no thought to harmony or keys, creating the sonic version of a car wreck, thereby producing a montage set to a digital beat to be played at dance raves. The deception is transparent when referred to as EPM but not if referred to as music.

You may at this point be tempted to think that this is a matter of semantics. What difference does it make if we call something a recording, CD or EPM ?…people know the difference between live and recorded music. Well, the public don’t actually want to think about the recording process and how it works anymore than they want to know what goes into meat pies, raising chickens for KFC or the maintenance stats of a low budget airline. They hear the record and call it music, blissfully unaware of the tradeoff of truth that the misuse of language is creating.

The danger here is produced by what is assumed standard according to the nature of the medium.Postmodernism insists that all mediums have equal intrinsic value, thus leading to a confusion in the publics' mind as to the line of demarkation according to different mediums standards. It’s possible for a bank teller to inadvertently take a prize winning photo on his way home from work (on his minute digital camera), of a subject that may have eluded a professional photographer all his life. But it would be impossible for the bank teller to whip out an easel and paint an equally prize winning portrait on his way home. That same bank teller might return home and spend the night creating sound montages on his computer, that he sells on the internet (as music) having never learned an instrument. It goes without saying that it would be impossible for the bank teller to go to the local jazz club and sit in with a bebop band (or any band for that matter) the two mediums are entirely different. The manipulation of recorded media is tantamount to the brilliant analogy proposed by Simon Blackburn in Truth, a Guide For the Perplexed in regard to postmodernism as firing arrows at a barn wall, then painting in the bulls eyes.

A refinement of the language would rely on all who understand the importance of this being vigilant in their usage and encouraging friends and students to do the same. We would become word nazis unfortunately, however, this would be a short-lived generational process until the usage gains a foothold. …What’s in a name? That which we call music by any other name, would sound as sweet… and there I go altering the past.

Steve Brien

Lecturer in Jazz Studies N.S.W. Conservatorium of Music.

[1] Simon Malpas, The Postmodern;2005 Routledge Pub, pg 22

[2] Bella Bartok- Hungarian Folk Music, trans: M C Calvocoressi: (New York: oxford University press 1931) pp2-3

[4] Jean Baudrillard; Norris 1990: 169

[4] Susan Wyndam-undercover column, SMH Sectrum 28/1/06 Pg 19

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