In the beginning there was the storyteller. In an oral culture, stories were part of a communal activity and had morals to them.
Then came the printing press and along with that the novel. The communal activity of stories now became a private affair. Morals didn’t necessarily permeate through novels, more so the “evidence of the profound perplexity of the living”. It was what a reader made of it.
The novel then was superseded by information: self contained bits of narrative. No appeal to a moral, authority, religion, or any other preconceived notions. Information, on the other hand, makes the world understandable in of itself.
This is how philosopher Walter Benjamin explains the shift to modernity in his essay “The Story Teller”.
What worried Benjamin was the loss of the storyteller to information. In an oral culture, stories required memory and frequent repetition if they were to be kept alive. Information doesn’t rely on memory as it does on the impetus of looking something up. The storyteller memory, hinging on the culture and morals connected to the stories, is replaced with what Benjamin calls a mechanical memory: one that deals in isolated and often disconnected chunks of information.
Music is at such a crossroads. The storyteller is butting heads with information. Songs passed down from generation to generation, standards and traditional tunes, are isolated from their original context and meaning to be used as a play thing to show one’s virtuosity. Works that were meant to be heard in full, from sonatas to concept albums, are broken up to single song downloads and Youtube clips.
Is there a stronger sense of lineage, of reverence, of morality in music today? Has the banquet of information made these ties weaker or even make us forget them all together?
We have more access to music than ever before, but do we have a stronger connection with music than before?