“Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, drawing on Aristotle, had attempted to reconcile transubstantiation – the metamorphosis of the consecrated wafer and wine into the the body and blood of Jesus Christ – with the laws of physics.

Aristotle’s distinction between the ‘accidents’ and the ‘substance’ of matter made it possible to explain how something that looked and smelled and tasted exactly like a piece of bread could actually (and not merely symbolically) be Christ’s flesh. What the human senses experienced was merely the accidents of bread; the substance of the consecrated wafer was God.”

-Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve

The Aristotelean concepts of accident and substance used by Aquinas form the complicated relationship entangled in digital music. For we know that there are two factors at play: code and the music that comes from our speakers.

The question then becomes which of these is the accident and which is the substance?

Accident and substance determines how we go about music and its relationship to the Internet. This connection will not only grow but become more complicated with time. What will become the accident in the future? Which will be the substance? Is it a question of servant and master?

When one reads a text it is like entering a walled garden. You cannot read anything else without leaving one garden for another. Two gardens cannot be inhabited at the same time. Only a single book, not a couple, can be read at one moment. “My feeling about why write a book in paper now”, Kenneth Goldsmith said in conversation with writer Virginia Heffernan, “is that what a book does is it actually stops the flow of information.” Reading is a closed system. That is what makes it unique, useful. A book clogs any other textual information from coming in.

Music does not stop the flow of information. It is an open system. Sound is allowed to enter and leave in concordance or dissonance. Our ears pick up on anything and rarely discriminate. This is not so much a bug as a feature. Hearing two or more tones going in and out, ebbing and flowing, makes up the majority of our music experiences. The bands and orchestras we listen to embrace the open system. Otherwise, we would only be listening to pieces for solo violin or songs with no accompaniment.

But this open system goes even further. Beyond single tones, one can hear multiple pieces of music at the same time. These moments can be accidental – rolling the windows down to hear music from another car, playing music on your phone while the grocery store muzak hums. There is also, however, a history of this kind of experience being orchestrated. On the cusp of the 20th century, American composer Charles Ives’ father, George Ives, schemed for two bands to perform different material at opposite sides of town. They were then, whilst playing, to meet at the center. In 1920, Stefan Wolpe played eight Victorola phonographs of Beethoven’s 5th at varying speeds. Jamaica in the 50’s were home to what were called ‘sound clashes’.

This orchestration continued and can be seen in various guises today. Any search on the Internet can bring up these maximalist provocations. One that especially summons the spirt of the open system is Brandon Landis’ collage of every recording of Erik Satie’s “Gymnopedie no. 1” (here).

A fellow Frenchman, Paul Valéry, contemplated this power of sound. It reminded him of a fairy tale play. “In the Sorcerer’s palace”, he writes, “the furniture spoke and sang, took a poetic and mischievous part in the action. A door opening set off the piping or solemn tones of a village band. If anyone sat down on a pouf, it would sigh politely. At a touch everything breathed forth a melody…I sincerely hope that we are not moving toward such excesses in the magic of sound.”

The use of the word ‘magic’ is quite fitting. The act of listening today is not the walled garden of reading. It exists, rather, in the Sorcerer’s palace. Sound comes from all places at all times, provoked by our doing or by chance. There can be an ecstasy to how complicated our sound environments gets. No wonder that a genre of music is synonymous with the bewitched state of being entranced.

This state the Sorcerer’s palace leaves us is concerning for Valéry. Today it doesn’t seem to startle us much. We have acquainted ourselves with the furniture that breaks out in song and the doors with hidden marching bands. In fact, I think we are now eagerly exploring the Sorcerer’s palace more than ever. What new magic of sound can be found and conjured up next?

“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?