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.