In my review of Max Richter’s 24 Postcards in Full Colour, I choked a bit trying to connect the dots between Richter and the texturalists, that sorted group who together make up a kind of non-laptop-based “glitch” scene by exploiting the naturalized deterioration of sound and using entropy and antiquity as instruments in their recordings. I’d count among this lot Bibio, Belong, Optiganally Yours, Ariel Pink, Burning Star Core, William Basinski, The Caretaker, Boards of Canada, Black Mother Super Rainbow, and almost all noise musicians, amongst a host of others. There’s something important I wasn’t quite putting my finger on when examining the vitality of the recursive losses within the effects these musicians employ.
And then I came upon this old article by Woebot, which describes the advent of digital technology as the end of time, at least as far as sound media is concerned (even going so far as to speculate that such problem have facilitated the crisis of conscience and consciousness in the music industry). The article supposes that digital technology has perfected our desire to mummify every artifact in its exact original depiction, creating in essence a whole new generation who will be raised under MP3 and M4A and whatever’s to follow without ever understanding the temporal nature of music.
If digital music threatens to prevent music from colliding into a frictional relationship with time, then all new recorded sound will develop within the framework of a quarantined plasticity usually reserved for only the glossiest of pop stars. It is left constantly shiny, constantly new, pre-wrapped for consumption. In this sense, digital rendering is the genetic modification of music. It threatens to take away what those of us who came of age in the era of tapes and records recall as music’s fallibility- its expiration date. Remember when the magnetic tape of your cassette would gag itself in the gears of your walkman? That can never happen with virtual music. It is immortal, zombified.
Like a painter who might burn his canvas to simulate aging, the aforementioned texturalists see decay in sound as something more than just window dressing. Theirs is a kind of simulated attic music (attictronica? attica?), which carries the emotional resonance of years of dust and debris, the history of an old record collection like the rings of tree bark, despite the fact that it’s newly created music coming out of the speakers. Their work examines the mysterious aesthetic of time’s toll on the intangible, a sound once uttered, once carried through the air and captured by a microphone, forever to be trapped in polyvinyl casing. The tape decay and natural wear these artists dress their productions with carries an intrinsic gravity, but not just superficially from their association with a kind of universalist nostalgia. This kind of imperative programming reproduces a world in which in which the studio is not a vacuum and music serves as an organic member of the phenomenological community, regardless of its relationship to methods of production.
In the age of Pro Tools, one need not leave their desktop to have access to a home studio, so the decision of, say, Ariel Pink or Axolotl to use a four track or tape recorder should be seen as both an aesthetic and ideological choice. It’s futile to argue which aesthetic sounds “better”, as all presumptive hierarchies are entirely subjective, but it’s not beyond reason to wonder if this kind of reactionary choice does not serve as a kind of elegy.
Whenever coming upon a just-barely rescued anthology or a blog cataloguing rare and out-of-print records, its halts me when I think of those that never made it out of the crates, works of art reduced to dust before any one could ever hear their beauty again. Therein lies the sad secret of our great musical culture and its many institutions, all predicated on the seemingly populist notion that our shared artifacts are the distillation of mass tastemaking consensus, that we arrive by our heroes through their indisputable superiority. The fact of the matter is that most great music lives and dies in a basement. It gets thrown out or tossed aside, never making its way to the right sets of ears (namely, yours). In fact the greatest song ever written is probably being written right now. In a few days, it’ll uploaded to a random Myspace page in a corner of the internet no one visits, and promoted by a bunch of kids who are better musicians than salesmen. The Myspace page may remain up for years, but only a select few will care about the greatest song ever written.
As disappointing as this notion may seem, there’s something self-satisfactory about the intransigence of sonic mortality. Degenerative C90s and scratchable records were made to be discarded in an attic, forgotten by their owners, and left for dead. That we even discover them at all is like dancing with a ghost. And it’s not just the physical music object that is its hauntological essence, but the sound itself too.
The death of sound is something we experience perpetually as each wave vibration detonates against our eardrum and dithers its way into memory. Recorded sound, like photography, is a time machine, a cheat against nature. Our record collections are mausoleums of dead sound and now, with digital restoration, all these songs are absent the signs of rot usually observed in a corpse. The modern age has also seen an exponential expansion of the aural Golgotha. Technology now allows us the ability to establish a metalibrary of all recorded sound, left in the exact state it was recorded in. Conspiracy theories tell of a vast NSA database of every phone call in America, recorded for posterity. But when one thinks of the massive undertaking one would have to undergo to simply establish a categorical framework for analyzing these data mines, the idea seems more like a feckless battle against time than a system of control.
Recorded sound information is only doomed to be forgotten, left in eternal hospice without permission to fade off. As vast as our music collections grow, as knowledgeable as we become by dissecting the past, we’re still left with the burdensome task of actually listening to all that music. Eventually, the speed of information catches up with us all, just like death.
Hunters and collectors will continue to search through the bottomless record crate in attempts to communicate with the past. Others will seek out only the obscure and potentially miss out on music’s essential function as a social unifier. The rest of us will either look for a happy medium or settle for what the critical establishment, our friends and family, or the rest of the music community contends to be the best music has to offer, even though it probably isn’t.
Will future generations be able to establish their own unique identities through music if what they listen to sounds exactly like what their parents listened to though? What digital music threatens to erode is the knowledge that all music has a history, a genealogy, and plenty of contemporaries who have now passed on into the great record crate in the sky. At the cellular level, we’re always changing into new people, shedding our skins, replacing dead cells with new ones, old music with new. Musical evolution, like human evolution, requires us to allow for the death of music, loved or not, sanctified or vilified, to fertilize the grounds for tomorrow’s sounds. Whispering crumbled, fragmentary, and wounded sounds of wisdom, the texturalists tell us to let it be.