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.