Response to (the Awesome) Roman Mars: Frozen Music

He did invite discussion and conversation, but I’ll be honest: the purpose of this post is not so much to respond to Roman — host of the 99% Invisible podcast, which I highly recommend — as to share his most recent episode, “Frozen Music.” You can listen here:
For those of you who don’t know, 99% Invisible is (mostly) an architecture podcast concerned with how objects shape our experience of the world. “Frozen Music” is about how objects shape our experience of music, and discusses the notion that since the advent of recording and playback technology, our notion of what a “song” is has changed to mean not the music, but, largely, the performance of sounds, by a particular artist, at a particular time, as fixed via a particular recording. For instance, people didn’t buy Tinpan Alley songs on a disc or listen on the radio (“What’s a radio?” I hear guys in candy-striped suits and strawboater hats asking) they bought the sheet music and went home and played it on the piano. Now, things are different.

In a segment excerpted from a 2006 interview he gave on Sound Opinions, Jon Brion talks about this on 99% Invisible. What people may not know about Jon Brion, and isn’t mentioned in the podcast, is that Jon is a FREAKING MUSICAL TITAN. He has been a fixture at Largo here in LA for…maybe 20 years?  I cannot recommend highly enough going to see one of his Friday night shows. He is a multi-instrumentalist, a virtuosic player of at least the piano and guitar, and a loop pedal wizard who seems to know every song, ever, and can play them on command. When this guy talks about songs, we would all do well to listen (again, click the player above to do so).

Here’s his point: since performances are now fixed via recording, there has arisen the popular misconception of what a song is, which was mentioned above — “song” vs. “performance.” Both are totally valid and enjoyable musical expressions, but nevertheless distinct from one another.

What I’ll add to the discussion is this: in many ways the “performance pieces” are closer to the musical ideal for artists, because it allows the controlled crafting of a sonic experience. Even in classical music, a composer often lacks the ability to control how people experience his or her work. Ideally a venue will provide good acoustics and a distraction-free environment, but a conductor can change the speed of the music, an arranger can alter the instrumentation, and a performer can screw up, just to name a couple of variables. 

My old bassist, Christopher Crowson, once told me he thought Beethoven would’ve loved programmable synths because they provide a way to write for an instrument without regard to a human being’s ability to actually pull off the performance. I think he’s right. What we’re after with art, largely, is to provide someone with an emotional experience. Recordings, then, have not simply enriched the palette musicians have to work with, but they have given them a way that never existed previously to shape the listener’s experience and evoke an emotional response, either via a song or something totally different. Maybe the happiest marriage of both — great songs presented in an inimitable way — has been The Beatles. You will not catch me covering a Beatles song. They’re great songs, and those four guys performed them better than anybody else has yet.

Objects(of magnetic tape, vinyl, transistors, diaphragms, reflective plastic, etc.) have not only changed and shaped our experience of music, but changed the very definition of it. I love a good chord change. If it’s good enough, it can break your heart or put it back together. But the idea that you can do the same thing by manipulating a drone of static is a pretty staggering revelation.

So thanks, objects!

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