Monthly Archives: January 2017

“The sound experience which i prefer to all others, is the experience of silence. And this silence, almost anywhere in the world today, is traffic. If you listen to Beethoven, it’s always the same, but if you listen to traffic, it’s always different.”

-John Cage

Cage is keying in on the order of sound – the place of sonority within a span of time. If that is the case, Beethoven is repetitious. A symphony will follow the same path it does today as it did in 1899. Both performances have an identical road map. Not traffic. 5 o’clock rush hour will be different on Tuesday and Thursday: honking will happen at varying durations, people will scream at one moment as opposed to another, braking sounds abrasive one day and subtle the next. Each variable is not pre-ordained.

In a way Cage is correct. There is no order from which traffic derives from. Any semblance of it is contingency. Traffic makes up a non-repeatable experience. The road map acts like a palimpsest, erasing itself after each performance.

But is it that simple?

What if one is not familiar with the road map of a Beethoven symphony? Justin Davidson mentions this in his article “Beethoven’s Kapow”. “Classical music neophytes”, he explains, “often worry that they don’t have enough background to appreciate a performance, but the opposite is often true: They’re the ones who listen without preconceptions and who are primed for danger and unpredictability.” A Beethoven symphony can surprise us as much as an unsuspected honk. 

One could also argue that traffic has its own redundancies. Its ensemble is usually made up of car horns, brakes, chatter of people, etc. Traffic and a Beethoven symphony share in possessing a select assortment of sounds. Within these assortments variation will occur. But to say that it is more so with traffic is a stretch. There are different cars that pass through as there are violin models within every orchestra.

Then there is the listener. Where you are perched to listen to traffic is like a seat in a concert hall. It could be from your window or the bus stop on your commute. Going back there again and again, like the same seat, puts one in a familiar listening environment each time. The sound could be different every day, traffic or another Beethoven symphony, but your seat is constant. Sameness sets in.

The French philosopher Michel de Montaigne, not familiar with either modern traffic or Beethoven, reflected on how force of habit can create this sameness. “Shoesmiths, millers, and armourers could not live in the din that strikes their ears,” he says in an essay, “if they were stunned by it as we are.” Neither could a resident of a city bustling with traffic. She grows familiar to it, drowning it. The same could be said for a classical music concertgoer. A Beethoven symphony will become a habit after many listens. This familiarity allows for a memory of its contents for deeper contemplation and conversation.

“Stealthily and little by little”, Montaigne writes further, habit “sets the foot of her authority upon us but having, by this meek and humble beginning, fixed and planted it with the aid of time, she presently uncovers a furious and tyrannical countenance, to which we are no more at liberty even to raise our eyes.”

Habit governs our daily countenance and how we listen. To upend it would leave us in a state of turmoil, an anxiety ridden life in the present. Instead, we have to find ways we can raise our eyes from time to time. This is what Cage meant in his comment about traffic. His aside on Beethoven makes Cage as much a victim of habit. It is commonality that takes away from Beethoven and traffic’s wonder and strangeness.

If we can relieve ourselves from habit often, who knows how that might inform or alter our listening. Maybe raising our eyes can become its own kind of habit.

The way we search for music today finds an unlikely analogue in the practice of book-hunting at the turn of the Renaissance. Stephen Greenblatt comments on the act in The Swerve.

“Italians had been book-hunting for the better part of a century,” Greenblatt writes, “ever since the poet and scholar Petrarch brought glory on himself in the 1330s by piecing together Livy’s monumental History of Rome and finding forgotten masterpieces by Cicero, Propertius, and others. Petrarch’s achievement had inspired others to seek out lost classics that had been lying unread, often for centuries. The recovered texts were copied, edited, commented upon, and eagerly exchanged, conferring distinction on those who had found them and forming the basis for what became known as the ‘study of the humanities’.”

Many of these lost classics were found in the breadcrumbs left by other ancient authors. The humanists “eagerly read gave tantalizing quotations from these books, often accompanying extravagant praise or vituperative attacks.” These leads would incite investigation for the source.

Yet there was a realization that many of these mentioned texts were in fact lost forever. All one could grasp from an author would be a line here, an aphorism there. It is those one has to savor for the lack of a whole. A single morsel from an author is better than none at all.

There can be a sample in a tune, an artist giving a ‘tantalizing quotation’ from another, that similarly excites the appetite of the listener. She, like the book-hunter, wants to find the whole where the segment resides. In the sample’s obscurity, however, a promising trail can be wiped away. No cues are found anywhere – not on any website or mention from the sampler himself.

The listener shares in the book-hunter’s sense of loss. This song will never be heard outside of another’s ‘extravagant praise’. Its remains are but a footnote, a couple seconds worth altered to some degree. Until something springs up from the Internet or another source, the morsel will only exist as such to her.

And that is alright. It has to be, otherwise the loss would be all encompassing. Songs will slip through our fingers as ancient authors did for the humanists. Even with our seemingly unlimited access to information, one has to accept the unlimited’s limitations.

When Alan Turing was pondering artificial intelligence in the mid 20th century, he reached a crucial impasse on what it meant for a machine to be intelligent. It was the idea that a machine did not have to be perfect in order to be intelligent. Many thinkers at his time pondered the question through the lens of an infallible machine. Turing did not.

“Instead of trying to produce a programme to simulate the adult mind,” he asked, “why not rather try to produce a programme to simulate the child’s?” This meant that a complete and closed off machine was not the answer. Instead, a machine that could learn and adapt was the key.

Infallibility, in his words, “is not a requirement for intelligence…What we want is a machine that can learn from experience. The possibility of letting the machine alter its own instructions provides the mechanism for this.”

If you think about it, Turing’s mechanism exists in our everyday music experience. Most of us deal with a program like Pandora or Sonos. It requires that we enter in a suggestion (artist, band, etc.) to create a station. From there, song after song comes. But sometimes it throws in a sour selection. This is where the skip or thumbs down feature comes into play. When this is chosen it is a matter of reinforcement, letting the program know to avoid the song and others like it in the queue.

This won’t stop Pandora from choosing terrible songs however. We are dealing with a fallible machine here. But the ability for adaptation, to reinforce and dismiss choices, is what gives Pandora the mechanism for developing intricate musical patterns over time.

One has to wonder, beyond the noticeable objections, whether programs like Pandora have and develop musical taste like we do: through learning from experience what we enjoy.

Kenneth Goldsmith once remarked that when it comes to acquiring digital content, we are preferring the bottles to the wine. Could it now be that we are preferring the cellars to the bottles and the wine?

Music services like Spotify and Pandora have become the main mode of our intake. If we pay for anything, we pay for monthly access to the wine cellar. It is not a matter of paying for one song or album but for the cellar’s key. Once we pay for entry, it does not matter how much or little we listen to. The only thing that matters is that we put our money in the jar at the entrance.

New properties arise in music because of this. Spotify manifests in the many, constantly updating its back catalogue along with new releases. Because of this, no one album or song takes precedence over the other. Old and new weave together to form a single organism. It is similar to the formation of Calamites, an extinct plant similar to the modern day horsetail. Karl Niklas, a plant evolutionist, discusses this unique property:

“Only one can wonder at the lengths of the huge rhizomes that anchored Calamites to the ground. Interconnected by these subterranean roots, hundreds of Calamites actually made up single organisms, possibly the largest living things in Earth’s history.”

Since their roots are connected in a continuous network, individual Calamites form a single Calamite. This is baffling when one can observe each and every Calamite in detail. Are they not independent organisms? On the contrary, each constitutes but an angle of a larger entity.

This is what happens when we listen via a music service. Albums are not the way they were as CD’s or LP’s: independent and singular artifacts. Now, the digital weaves these artifacts together. It is the interlacing that is now emphasized. That is what we pay for – not the bottles, not the wine, but the cellar itself. A single Calamite made of many Calamites.

Does this mean that we will care more about these entities and less about the music? The connections rather than what they connect?

“If humans, instead of transmitting to each other reprints and complicated explanations, developed the habit of transmitting computer programs allowing a computer directed factory to construct the machine needed for a particular purpose, that would be the closest analogue to the communication methods among cells.”

Mathematician Nils Barricelli wrote this in 1985. This cellular process of communication is now normalized with computers. As George Dyson put it, “much of the communication between computers is not passive data, but active instructions to construct specific machines, as needed, on the remote host.” Music is a part of this stream of active data.

When we download Spotify we are given active instructions for our computer to construct the program. Once it is downloaded, this line of communication remains. It has to, otherwise we will not be able to access any songs. Spotify needs an Internet connection for this reason. That is, it needs a connection to access active data.

What is fascinating about this active data is that it is a far cry from our reprints and complicated explanations of before. Sure, sheet music is active data when one is performing from it: instructions to a human to construct specific soundscapes. However, this is a different type of active when compared to computers. If it were to be active in the same way, sheet music would have to be able to construct an instrument and then play it, performing music from other sheet music it could access via a database similar to the Internet.

Are we not living in the continual evolution of active data?

Neurologist Oliver Sacks speaks of a particular sea creature he encountered off the island of Pingelap. He describes the specimen in The Island of the Color Blind:

“The waters of the Pacific are full of a tiny protozoan, Noctiluca, a bioluminescent creature able to generate light, like a firefly…[It is] a phosphorescence most evident when the water was disturbed. Sometimes when the flying fish leapt out of the water, they would leave a luminous disturbance, a glowing wake, as they did so – and another splash of light as they landed.”

Sacks’ description rattles the imagination. Take their population density as well. “There may be as many,” he adds, “as thirty thousand of these tiny bioluminescent creatures in a cubic foot of seawater…” In such a small space, thousands upon thousands of creatures exist under the surface and illuminate when prodded.

Under the surface of the Internet is numbers. Many of these are constructed into the music we hear on a daily basis. The code lies dormant, waiting until our provocation. Then it all lights up – we click a link or push play and sound emerges from our speakers. It is similar to the Noctiluca and no less miraculous.

One has to wonder whether the activities of bioluminescent creatures could serves as an analogue to the qualities of music online. Density within a compact space and toggling that is dependent on prodding are a start to fruitful associations.

How we understand music today is linked to our comprehension of the Internet. Music not only inhabits this digital environment but takes on its properties. Technology historian George Dyson spoke to this in an interview with Edge:

“What we’re missing now, on another level, is not just biology, but cosmology. People treat the digital universe as some sort of metaphor, just a cute word for all these products. The universe of Apple, the universe of Google, the universe of Facebook, that these collectively constitute the digital universe, and we can only see it in human terms and what does this do for us?

“We’re missing a tremendous opportunity. We’re asleep at the switch because it’s not a metaphor. In 1945 we actually did create a new universe. This is a universe of numbers with a life of their own, that we only see in terms of what those numbers can do for us. Can they record this interview? Can they play our music? Can they order our books on Amazon? If you cross the mirror in the other direction, there really is a universe of self-reproducing digital code. When I last checked, it was growing by five trillion bits per second. And that’s not just a metaphor for something else. It actually is. It’s a physical reality.”

Music, a physical reality of sound, is made of numeric code. You cannot see it working but it is whenever a song is played. No wonder we cannot push past a metaphor. To designate a physical component to a transient world is paradoxic and uncanny. How can we say with certainty that music is now comprised of the invisible? How can music be comprehended in a universe that is quite literally digital?

Perhaps we can find help in antiquity. The Epicurean poet Lucretius wrote of a world made up of atoms. That is, a world of matter comprised of the immaterial. Italo Calvino highlights this aspect when describing Lucretius’ De rerum natura (The Nature of Things):

“Lucretius wants to write the poem of matter, but he warns us from the start that the reality of matter is that it’s made of invisible particles. He is the poet of physical concreteness, seen in its permanent, unchanging substance, but he begins by telling us that empty space is just as concrete as solid bodies…As soon as he lays out the rigorous mechanical laws that govern every event, he feels the need to allow atoms to deviate unpredictably from the straight line, thereby ensuring the freedom both of matter and of human beings. The poetry of the invisible, the poetry of infinite unpredictable potentialities, even the poetry of nothingness, originate in this poet who has no doubts about the physical reality of the world.” 

Lucretius lives within this paradox that we constrain to a metaphor. Material things need the immaterial in order to be material. We can take Lucretius’ lead for the digital. In order to listen to music online we need these invisible particles called code. In laying out rigorous programmatic structures for our music we also allow it to deviate, reproducing itself and succumbing to illegal torrents and viruses. This all originates from giving the immaterial a physical reality.

If we can admit that music inhabits this physical reality made of the immaterial, we can go forth and better comprehend not only music’s place in this digital universe but the Internet itself.