Monday, March 12, 2012

From a Diary: I:ixx

As it happens, this evening a friend pointed out one of these irresistible online clips of the Sun Ra Arkestra; many things can and have been written about the Arkestra, but their survival into the 21st century as a functioning live performance big band — and a big band with such a heterodox style and world-view — is one of the most endearing bits of evidence of music's potential to act as a counterforce to prevailing musical style and economics alike. Baumol's cost disease: salaries in jobs that have had no increase in productivity rise in response to the rises in salaries of jobs that have had increases in productivity. We need ever less labor to produce ever more goods and provide many services, but a string quartet still requires four bodies to produce the same quantity of music which a string quartet produced with four bodies two hundred years ago. And the orchestra? The large "romantic" orchestra is one of the — if not the only — examples of mass skilled manual labor with continuous survival since the late 19th century. Now, it does seem to be the case that sound recording did for a time indeed increase productivity by increasing the potential audience — in terms of both numbers and geographical range — for a musical performance, but this effect was, as far as I can tell, a delaying one, as recordings appear, with their digitalization, to have largely come and gone as a commercial medium. For most musicians today, a recording is (a) historical documentation, (b) a token of a certain status, (c) a gift-able object, and/or (d) a calling card and advertisement for live performances. So, after our strange and wonderful recorded interlude, most musicians are back to square one, busking and gigging, with our antiquated and ever-more costly mode of production, making music live for an immediate audience. And these increasing costs are making music an increasingly vulnerable profession. But at a certain point, I think we have to figure out a way to challenge the utility of viewing all forms of production in the forced terms of a common system of value. Yes, there is utility in being able to compare the value, the price, of apples and oranges, but what is the utility of comparing string quartets and SUVs or the Arkestra and FCOJ? Yes, live music making requires ever-costlier skilled labor, but a century or so of sound recording has shown that the experience of live music (real musicians, real audiences, in real spaces) is irreplaceable; its value is without a meaningful equivalent in other goods and services. I'd like to think that music, as a human activity, is so valuable on its own terms, so essential to our identity as humans, that the incidental costs of labor and rent are understood to be really beside the point.

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