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.