Making a record is a strangely ironic endeavour. It is deeply personal yet highly public. It begins as a meditation on eternal truths and ends as a disposable plastic product. The work is fulfilling but also exhausting. Recording a musical performance traps spontaneity, wraps it around Styrofoam and gives it glass eyes. It is the taxidermy of sound. In many ways, making a record undermines the essential spirit of music. Even capturing "live" music is, in the end, an exercise in futility. When the red light goes on, the excitement generated by music is diminished or at least put in the past. Like a photograph, a record is nothing more than a memory aid.
Then again, the studio has become a place of musical experimentation. Today's writers of popular music use the multi-track studio as an arranging tool. Composition is no longer a job involving quill pens and paper. Complex electronic music is created on the fly. The studio allows musicians to hear what tones and timbres sound interesting next to each other. The invention of overdubbing in the 1950s transformed composing into an occupation of listening and doing rather than thinking and scribbling. The studio musician is more like a sculptor or a painter than a composer. Except instead of marble, clay or paint his medium is air.
It's obvious to many that music has been in a state of decline since the advent of recording technology. For all the excitement recorded music generates it has transformed music from a literate culture to a consumer culture. People don't engage with music like they did before the 20th century. Enjoying music is a passive experience and passivity leads to boredom. Boredom in turn creates a need for entertainment rather than enlightenment. Even if you don't understand classical music it is obvious that people who followed the careers of Beethoven and Liszt were experiencing music on a different level than people who follow Lady Gaga.
But perhaps modern music isn't just the cause but also the cure for this devolution in musical culture. It's certain that there are many reasons for the widespread loss of sophistication in music. And if technology is the main culprit perhaps it is also the stop gap that is preventing us from losing musical languages altogether. Music is a code which sums up the human experience. It transcends time, space, culture and creed. Perhaps, hidden in today's country, rock, and rap, lies the essence of what it means to be a human being waiting for its renaissance.
The Internet and the mp3 have made music universally accessible. And while this has been a disaster for musicians and the music industry it has also fired people's interest in music. A young person today is likely to have music from dozens of cultures, genres, languages and styles on her iPod. Unlimited access to the entire history of recorded music has freed the listener from the tyranny of the populist, the ad man and the politician. Musical tastes can no longer be dictated. They spring from a natural curiosity and find their home in the folk music of Madagascar as easily as in the dance clubs of Los Angeles.
Indeed, much was lost in the 20th century and a lot of the blame can be laid at the feet of technology. But modern recorded music is enormously complex. There is a reason the music of Mozart sounds boring to people today. Their ears are used to unmeasurable and untranscribable depths of dense musical overtones. Distorted electric guitar may sound like noise to the ear trained to hear simple polyphony. But likewise a string quartette sounds dull to the rock music fan because it is sonically unsophisticated. What is lacking is education and appreciation on both sides.
Music seems to stand now on the cusp of a massive rebirth. There is a critical mass approaching where centuries of musical knowledge are about to be reformed in an unimaginable way. It may be another technological innovation or it may be a true renaissance, an awakening of lost wisdom. Order may yet rise out of chaos and introduce to us new forms. The collective unconscious has surprised us before. And though there is as great a risk of calamity as there is hope of beauty, I'll throw my lot in with music.
Whether it's heard live on the street corner or in the solitude of your ear buds there is a secret in music that no one can capture. It cannot be bought and sold, neither can it be theorized and codified. Music remains the freest language, the song of the trickster, the cry of the soul. It is a principle good, an ultimate end. It defies irony, repels cynicism. It is both primordial and trivial. Music is the twin spirit of life, the tension that drives existence forward, orients us towards eternity. “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord,” the psalm says. Good advice that has yet to go out of fashion.