Technologies of Transformation

One of Taruskin’s more philosophical passages, the aptly subtitled “What is Art?” (I, pp. 64-67), outlines in broad strokes the transition from music-as-activity to music-as-Art. Once a practice that existed entirely within the oral tradition, early notation was pivotal in codifying music and providing individual works with autonomy, a fairly universally regarded prerequisite for “art” status. Instead of the transitory, unpredictable nature of oral transmission and living, breathing musical practice, notation allowed for prescriptive snapshots of sound ideals. The manuscript was sound made flesh, and the very “thing-ness” of a notated page had the effect of elevating it to a higher status. When the printing press came along, allowing for numerous, easy copies of musical works, this process of reification intensified. As Taruskin writes: “The durable music-thing could begin to seem more important than ephemeral music-makers. The idea of a classic – a timeless aesthetic object – was waiting to be born.” (I, 65). The final step in this progression, Taruskin goes on, came with the invention and popularization of recording technology, which allowed people to own not just things that represent music (scores, notated music), but the music itself, the Ding an sich. “A recording of a piece of music is more of a thing than ever before, and our notion of what “a piece” is has been correspondingly (and literally) solidified.” (ibid.) Recordings are the ultimate tangible embodiment of music, and thus the ultimate step in their paradigmatic transfiguration into art.

Oh what has changed in the decade and a half since Taruskin wrote this. In many ways I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment: the recording is just another form of writing (“sound-writing” to be precise), only one that is much more powerful than notation in that it captures time itself, not just representations of music-colored time. In no other 20-year interval in history, however, has a paradigm of musical transmission come so quickly to its knees. The thing-ness of recorded music is, for all intents and purposes, presently dead. Proliferation and rapid adoption of digital formats like the MP3 have taken the physical object out of music consumption for a majority of people. They still have their recordings – fixed, solid performances of music – but the things attached to them have disappeared into thin air. In some ways, we moderns are returning to an earlier paradigm of music making with alarming, unprecedented alacrity.

As goes the transmission medium, so goes the art. Contrary to what Taruskin says – that today works of High Art are held in great esteem precisely because of their manifest thing-ness – today the traditional bastion of musico-cultural value, “the canon,” is collapsing all around us. The nature of this transformation is complex, but one of the major factors, I would argue, is the severe decline of the physical object in recorded music.

I want to return one last time to our favorite topic of the week – tropes. (And I swear this is the last post, all you troper-haters out there!) As Taruskin argues, thinking of tropes as art in the traditional definition is highly problematic. The same is true of sampling, as the legal and cultural firestorm over the technique’s very right to exist amply demonstrates. Much of the reason why these two forms are so problematic is because of the strange, complex message they carry about the media of transmission themselves.

The thing that intrigues me the most about tropes, and about sampling, is how fundamental the media is to the message. Here’s what I mean. The respective technologies of music notation and sound recording, by fixing musical practice into a thing, enable the subversion of the medium itself since an object can be cut, pasted, broken apart, rearranged, etc. It’s much easier to use an object for new purposes than it is to use an idea, which is what all songs were before they were figuratively “made flesh.” In both troping and sampling, the media itself (notation, recording) becomes the battleground on which musicians mediate these warping notions of musical meaning. Tropes (and sampled hip-hop) aren’t just captured by their respective transmission media – they are a product of their technologies. No music notation, no tropes; no sound recording, no sampling.

We should keep this in mind when attempting to draw straight lines through music history. The same technologies that helped reify music into Art also helped challenge the very notion of art and might, ultimately, lead to the collapse of cultural authority inherent in such a paradigm. To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.


  1. Here are some stream-of-consciousness thoughts in reaction to your highly intriguing post:

    From what I can tell, there is a pervasive tension between our economic and emotional responses to disappearing music media. On the one hand, iTunes is now the #1 music purveyor in the world. The benefits of digital dissemination win over our consumer-driven decision making. At the same time, however, our emotional spidey-sense starts tingling. What will we look at when album art consists of a single thumbnail? What will we read when there are no longer any liner-notes? At least in some ways, physical recorded media are disappearing faster than we would wish.

    Apple’s answer to this, of course, is their LP feature, rolled out last week, which seeks to recreate a digital version of the “golden era” of vinyl. (What is it about vinyl that makes us so nostalgic?) The feature will include the old stand-bys (album art, lyrics, essays on the music), but also some 21st-century bells and whistles (videos, interactive apps). Will this be enough to quench our desire to touch and see our music, which has become ingrained in us over the last century? I tend to think not.

    Will this lead to a less art centered view of music? If gone are the days when you brought an LP home (never mind that I’m too young to know what that’s like; in my case it was a CD), locked yourself in your room, and listened transfixed to the entire album repeatedly while reading the notes and looking at the art, and in their place are the days when you download an album (or more likely a single track), then plop it on your iPod and it plays in the background while you walk to class, barely hearing it, then are we moving back to music as action rather than thing?

  2. I guess I’m not so sure about the drastic change to the ontological status of music through the changes of recorded media. How is an LP so different from an mp3? Even though I’m going to iTunes instead of the record store, I’m still searching for just the right recording of this or that piece. Or because I’m chatting online with my friends in three different states (transferring the communal sharing from smoky living room to the dull glow of the LCD screen of my computer) about said recording or listening to it on my iPod, doesn’t mean I’m having a less-reflective experience than I would if I had fired up the ol’ vinyl.

    Digital media does mean we can mess with soundfiles. But what average listener who has chosen to download a piece of music to listen to does that? the most I mess with music is for background music to my home movies.

    So what is exactly is the Thing attached to the recorded music? the jewel case of my CD? or the pocket sized iPod? I don’t see the huge difference. I guess I’m not so sure that I would argue quite so strongly for the disappearance of Thingness with the rise of digital recording. But maybe I’m totally missing out on some fun and don’t know something you do about the digitized musical experience! 🙂

    (Have been enjoying very much your Week o’ Trope.)

  3. Gonna post my thoughts/reactions on and highlights from chapter 2 here, as this is the most recent thread. By the end of my thoughts, I’ll be touching on this topic of “art as thing” so it works.

    I liked how Taruskin brought out the “genetic” fallacy on page 42. It can be very easy to focus on the formal development of a genre and lose track of the fact that the meaning of said genre will very likely change as time passes.

    The section where Taruskin pointed out that the early Franks could have notated entire melodies if they had wanted to, but preferred to rely on memory with a small handful of written guides struck me. I remember when studying mnemonic theory a few years ago that in the medieval period, prior to widespread literacy, elaborately encoded illustrations were created to remind the knowledgeable viewer of all sorts of information. Ages ago Socrates (vis-a-vis Plato’s Phaedrus) expressed his worry for how writing has the potential to diminish one’s memory. Certainly my experience with teaching aural skills this last four weeks has demonstrated to me how many musicians today have rather weak, untrained musical memories! (And as a side thought, Socrates also didn’t like how he couldn’t directly question the author of a written text–I wonder, however, if he would have been a fan of blogging!)

    I loved the bit comparing various chant “dialects” and how the differences might be expressive of local (secular) musical culture. I always rather enjoy the study of these “unmanageable” differences.

    And finally to the “what is art” section that this thread was actually about before I posted my above thoughts: I don’t think it’s entirely fair to draw a huge distinction between “art” music and “utility” music. I defy you to show me a piece of so-called autonomous music that is 100% “independent of its context, its observers, and particularly its users.” The aesthetic valuation of absolute music, intended for contemplation of the ages, is itself a context applied to it by particular observers and particular users!

    It is interesting, however, how the widespread availability of recorded music affects how we perceive a “piece” of music. Often we become fixated on the first recording we hear being the “correct” version and compare how other recordings differ from the “correct” one which we are most familiar with. If it differs enough from our preferred recording (or, for that matter, from the useful fiction of the printed score–remembering that music actually exists in time, whether heard aloud or imagined internally), we consider it to be “wrong.” Before theory classes on Friday, I played some recordings of well-known pieces of music done by the Portsmouth Sinfonia in the 1970s (check some of these out on YouTube, they’re awesome!). Compare these versions to more “correct” versions, and then ask yourself–is it still the same “piece” of music? The “autonomy” of a musical piece really doesn’t quite hold up to serious scrutiny and reflection.

    Finally, to address your question, Jeannette: part of the issue of digital information (e.g. .mp3 file) vs. hard-coded information (e.g. printed score, LP, or CD) comes down to ownership. There has been much debate in the computer software community on this topic in the past decade as downloaded digital copies have replaced actual physical copies. When you bought a video game on CD, in a box, you were legally free to sell or give away your physical copy to somebody else when you were finished it. Digital downloads, however, are NOT supposed to be transferred to somebody else (actually, it violates some federal digital rights laws to do so), even if you then delete your copy from your possession. To translate to the music world, then, perhaps we value a CD album in a qualitatively different manner from the .mp3s stored on our iPod; in the first case, we are in physical possession of a unique, tangible artifact, and in the second we are accessing a distinctly ephemeral bit of information. I find the mindset arising from this new technological paradigm of zero scarcity (when a new copy is made, it is created ex nihilo, and does not take away from another potential owner) to be quite fascinating and, in a way, possessing some similarities to the pre-literate world (i.e. the world before music became a “thing”).

    Final thing to point out in this chapter: On page 67 Taruskin writes “putting ourselves imaginatively in the position of the chant’s contemporaries gives us access to meanings we might otherwise never experience. And perhaps even more important, it gives us a distanced perspective on our own contemporary world, a form of critical awareness we would otherwise never gain. These are among the most potent reasons for studying history.” Wow, isn’t that an AWESOME quote (maybe worthy of its own discussion topic, even)? It brings us back to that question of what meaning does this music have to US, TODAY. When we study what music has meant to others, or even only what we imagine it might have meant to them, our own personal valuation of music and the world is transformed and shaded with added nuances.

  4. Wow, lots of ideas here, Mark, Jeannette, and Nathan. A few responses:

    Mark — Interesting thoughts. I’m glad you mentioned that mythic past where people bought CDs or records, put on a pair of headphones, and lost themselves to the music while hungrily consuming the photos/text. I have this conception of that age too. However, it’s tough to say that people actually listened that way back in the day of music-things. Maybe people were just as distracted as now, despite the colorful packaging, superior sound quality, and purchase price of the CD/LP. Which leads me to another thought…

    Jeannette — Thanks for your interest in the project as well as your thought-provoking voice of dissent! I agree with you when you say that LPs vs. MP3s may not be that significant of an ontological distinction. (And no, I don’t think I’m privy to any unique knowledge about the MP3 format:) A recording is, essentially, a recording. However, a couple key differences come to mind that I think are worth noting. Nathan very perspicaciously points out an important issue here: the concept of ownership is challenged by the MP3 format in a way that is foreign to physical objects (CDs/LPs). You can put a CD on your shelf, give it away, lend it out, destroy it, whatever – it’s yours. But as Nathan says, zero scarcity changes the status of the thing. CDs, musical scores – these are make of stuff. But MP3s are just strings of binary code. They have no substance, and their ephemeral existence can be conjured out of nothing. There’s no limit to how many copies can be made of an MP3 – they can reproduce millions of times a day or not at all. Space and physical resources are no limitation.

    This leads, I think, to a loss of perceived monetary value associated with the format. You have to pay for your CDs and LPs because they are goods limited by the same market forces and resources that dictate prices of wheat or TVs. MP3s function very differently. And despite the success of iTunes and its clones, the vast majority of all music files on the internet are illegally traded for free. This means, therefore, that the average CD collection represents a much greater monetary sacrifice than the average MP3 collection. One of the forces at work in the art-object phenomenon that Taruskin doesn’t mention is economic: limited pressings of LPs and printings of scores makes the Thing not only the mystical purveyor of art, but also a commodity. MP3s are not commodities in the classic sense.

    Another key difference is sound quality. Born of the “Werktreue” concept, where fidelity to the work is paramount, the history of recording technology has been the history of greater and greater audio fidelity. The better a format sounds, the closer it gets to the real thing, ie. the piece of music the recording represents. However, MP3s are a remarkable step backwards in this regard. They actually represent the music more poorly than their predecessors.

    Nathan — Thank you for this extensive contribution! You bring up some really interesting points that – you’re right – deserve their own discussions on this blog. The Taruskin is a tough book to blog about because its ideas are so dense – I have a notepad with about 20 potential posts that I’m never going to write! Please, I encourage you to take any of those topics up in a post of your own. You can email me your text and I’ll put it up in your name. Same thing goes for all readers: submissions are enthusiastically welcomed!

    Your observation about the “art” and “utility” distinction is much needed in this discussion. I kind of take Taruskin on face value in this post, but you’re absolutely right – his taxonomy needs to be probed a bit. It seems that most composers until about Beethoven didn’t even conceive of their own music as “art.” The sublimation of use-function into art is a huge topic, and it plays into High Art/Low Art dichotomies in significant ways. At some point, the more “useful” a music was, the less it was “art.” (Hence, dance music was deemed inferior to concert, symphonic music.)

    Thanks again, all!

  5. Great discussion! A quick response to Zach’s questioning of the reality or myth of nostalgic LP (or CD) listening: Speaking for myself, I really was one who listened with girded intensity to CDs, first track to last track, reading essays and learning lyrics. Perhaps the misleading part, though, is that when I (and others) recount such stories, we imply that it was that way with ALL the CDs or LPs we bought. This was not the case. There are a certain few albums that came in an important stage during my musical development (jr. high and high school), and which got such attention. It was a time when I did some key discovering of rock (Pearl Jam’s Vs., Green Day’s Dookie), jazz (Coltrane’s Blue Train), and classical (Artur Rubenstein’s performances of the Chopin nocturnes, Gould’s performances of Bach’s two- and three-part inventions). These are just the ones that come to mind first.

    I admit that intense listening still happens for me now that I have one foot in the digital music economy. But now instead of having the images and text there, I have to go searching for it on the internet, which can be hit or miss.

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