Wednesday, May 7, 2008

less is more

What happened to music? Did anyone even notice? Maybe it's just me. I'm given to viewing things through a lens of time. Humans have been on the planet for, I don't know, a million years? And yet, most everything that defines our day to day has only been this way for a generation or two. If the time that humans have been humans was a twelve hour clock, almost everything we think of as 'normal' has only been this way for less than a second on that clock.

Put music on this scale. For countless generations the only way people could hear music was if they were present whilst it was actually being played. Music was prized. People would look forward to the opportunity to listen to it. They would talk of it long after. Each opportunity to hear music was something special.

And now? Now, music might just be the most devalued and worthless thing ever. It's everywhere we go, all the time. It's such meaningless shit that we almost breathe a sigh of relief when we escape it. There's so much music now, catering to ever narrowing tastes, that people will actually react violently if subjected to music they don't care for. I shall never forget freelancing in a workshop ruled by a petty tyrant whose music tastes ran the gamut from Metallica to Megadeth. I put on Puccini's Death of Butterfly and this fellow went into an apoplectic meltdown. I've lost count of how many workplaces I've been in that dissolved into acrimony over people bitching about having to listen to 'shit' music. Even two generations ago such an intolerance of music would have been inconceivable. As would the idea of having such narrow tastes.

That blink of an eye ago, when the only way to listen to music was to have real people play real instruments, there was a tremendous incentive to have musicians amongst a community. I couldn't comment as to whether there are less musicians now, but in Sydney the live scene has died in the arse. It's all about DJ's now. DJ's used to be merely the guys who whacked records on turntables. Actually, they still are, but somehow it's the height of musical ability. What percentage of music is recycled now? People who can't play an instrument but are capable of fiddling about with computers are now a Very Big Deal. Who needs to practise, practise, practise when you can cut and paste? God spare me recycled music.

Some of the greatest never-to-be-forgotten moments in my life have been musical: a two hundred voice choir rendering me non compos mentis with Carmina Burana at the Sydney Opera House; A Russian soprano, whose voice could fill an opera hall, completely overwhelming a lounge room in Milan with Ave Maria; a couple tearfully performing Hawaii 78 in a karaoke in Kailua a week after Israel Kamakawiwo'ole died. Why is it that recorded music has never had this power? How come I yawn when I hear a recording of Carmina Burana?

A strange thing happened to me in a Uighur restaurant in Shanghai. Uighurs are the round-eye Muslims of China's West. They have precisely the problems the Tibetans have except that nobody gives a shit about them. Anyway, it was very late and we'd completely missed the floor show of traditional music. But as we were eating the inevitable lamb, it occurred to me that the instrumental music I was listening to was not recorded. It was live surely? I turned around and looked for the player - nothing, a near empty room. Ten minutes later I was struck again that this could not be muzak. I looked again, there was nothing and I dismissed it. Another five minutes and I had to wonder, am I going nuts? I twisted in my chair and there he was. It was the owner of the restaurant sitting in a little alcove playing his dutar, a long-necked lute. He was leaning out, a grin on his face, glad that I'd finally seen him. My face mirrored his and I did that Buddhist thank-you hand gesture. He was a Muslim sure, but he grooved on it.

The thing is, how did I know the music was live? I'm no audiophile. I have no trained ear. But I knew that the sound was possessed of a depth and texture that no stereo could deliver. Three times I turned around. Whatever it was this music possessed made recorded music seem ordinary. And recorded music is ordinary. I would never have paid attention to a CD. And the point is? For me, it's that perhaps recorded music isn't worth listening to. So, ha ha, I no longer listen to it.

Me, I want to feel what humans felt right up until a mere two generations ago. I want music to have value, to be significant, to be a human event. I want to be done with the idea that there is such a thing as 'shit' music. Believe it or not, the absence of perpetual recorded music is not a hole in my life. I'm perfectly happy to listen to the wind, and the birds, and the sound of the surf. Humans did this for a million years. And now I do it too. And if there's real people playing real music, I'm your man.


Anonymous said...

Yea, would that mean you still listen to real people playing covers of todays music?

Anonymous said...

Aww I do not know if I agree with the title. Live music is never less. I would say that more is more. I still get cds but they are usually live recordings, I have been that way for many many years. As a musician who performs live all the time, and an acoustic one at that, I fight this fight all the time: Not only do I want the music to be live, I have to fight to make it SOUND live. I do not like plugged in instruments. A guitar plugged in is an electric guitar,it is a different instrument. I am playing now with a Django style guitarist, at the house his playing is stunning, but live he INSISTS that he cannot be miked, he must be plugged in. He sounds electric and he is ok with that. I am not.

the Silverfish said...

This essay Twas truly music to my ears, to bad you forgot to mention that cornerstone of the popular music scene.CRAP, the C is silent, Sadly the rest isn't.

nobody said...


Just for the record, I do listen to CD's occasionally. But very very occasionally. I'll drag out Doolittle or Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea once a year or so. Old times sake, and all that...

Here's a crap analogy. I don't hate travelogues. I watch them every now and then. But they're no substitute for travelling. Having an ipod is like all travelogues, all the time.

Sure enough, travelling is insanely expensive and the majority of people flat out can't afford it (I certainly can't anymore). So the analogy falls short. But in a way that's to my advantage. Live music isn't that expensive. And I'd rather pay for a live gig than get a CD for... hell, for nix! And thinking about it, the unforgettable moments I mentioned in the piece (apart from Carmina Burana which cost $30) didn't cost anything. Also I kept that list to three (four including the Uighur guy) but I have crystal memories of live gigs beyond counting, from Sonic Youth to a Tokushima shamisen band. 'Yatta Sa! Yatta Sa!'

I'm not sure I understand the question about covers of today's music. Do you mean would I watch covers of recycled music? Maybe. Imagine one of those 'unreproducable live' production-heavy puff pieces performed by a guitar, banjo, tuba and washboard. Who wouldn't want to check that out? You haven't lived until you've seen a tuba solo.

kikz said...

real is of course... best :)

kikz said...

ah.. beautiful guitar..

my distant cousin by marriage
sorta :)

jesse cook... i can lost in that:)

Anonymous said...

It take time to become a musician, just as it takes time to understand what is really happening in the world. Both require diligence and many hours, which is why both are being deliberately undermined by those who promote shallowness and the Paris Hilton/Jade/Big Brother brand of celebrity. There's something shallow and too easily acquired about the DJ cult. As you say, they are not musicians, just disc spinners with the ability to time one syncing into the next. As a musician for twenty years, I resent this sort of easily acquired status, but then that's the way the world is going, deliberately or not.

The elite benefit from having society increasingly dumbed down in every way, from politics to music.

nobody said...

Hey Suraci,

Certain lines of thought run through my head but I often leave them out of a given essay on account not wanting to bite off too much at once. Which is to say, you're right.