Sunday, September 09, 2007

Managing Abundance

One of the questions an ethnomusicologist will usually ask of an informant is "how many pieces do you know?" We can argue a bit about what exactly a piece is (is a symphony one or four or more pieces?) and we can argue about what it means to know a piece of music, but I've frequently encountered an answer of fifty pieces or thereabouts. Whether you're a native North American traditional singer, or a master Javanese gamelan player, or a member of the Julliard Quartet, the size of the repertoire over which you have command and control at any given moment is quite probably a number of this magnitude. The best Javanese musician or bar room piano player can wing their way through a much larger number of pieces, but I would contend that a lot of this is done by bricolage from similar or analogous bits and pieces from the repertoire that one active knows cold (i.e. hum, fake).

Growing up in middle class American in the end of the vinyl era, I can well recall the days in which a typical record collection would number a few dozen and a large record collection might have one hundred items, and "the record shelf" was literally one shelf wide. The disc you loved, you listened to often, wearing out needle and record, the mark of intensive listening, really knowing and loving a piece of music. But the days of such containment are far behind us, with enormous quantitative gains in both supply and demand. Consequently, we are now entering into the second generation of composers who could be characterized as enormous collectors and consumers of repertoire, with the not a few proudly identifying at least part of their musical identity -- if not achievement -- with the size and variety of their recording collections, which have expanded or mutated into successive media -- cassettes, cds, dvds, and various purely electronic formats of music storage. But the hours available to us to listen to that music have not likewise increased, and I daresay more recordings now get deleted, without ever being heard, than got worn out from over-playing.

I've never been quite sure how to deal with this phenomena. Personally, I've never competed in the record collection pissing competitions, not having had either the means nor the desire. I won't put on the poor mouth more than necessary, but how did those guys (and the composers here in question are inevitably male) afford those collections? Trust funds? Big allowances? Pot dealing? Shoplifting? My budget's always been limited and I'd always prefer to give out money for scores and concert tickets rather than recordings. Heck, I even prefer that my electronic music not come out of a record jacket or a jewel case (you know the old joke: electronic music is like sexual partners: best when live.)

However, beyond my own isolated (and possibly peculiar) situation, there is the real phenomenon of a numerically large and diverse repertoire forming the musical background for younger generations of conspicuously consuming musicians and listeners alike. We know very little about what this means, or can mean, both in the traditional terms of how well one may be said to know a music, or in the native terms of these new and alternative forms of musical contact. What, in other words, is musical identity in this age of musical abundance?


Charles Céleste Hutchins said...

1. There's a lot of free music out there, especially via podcasts. Kyle Gann just posted his Custer pieces to his blog, for example.

2. Some people have been known to check CDs out of libraries and rip them before returning them.

3. People share their favorite music, so a friend might give you a copy of hir favorite CD.

Itunes reports that about 30 days worth of audio files, including not only music, but also language learning stuff and news programs, etc.

I'm currently on a project to listen to ever single audio file. I started with the shortest ones first. I'm up to 32:20. I've got 3.7 days to go.

Before starting this, I would usually pick out a favorite composer or artist and listen to them. But I realized I had a lot of stuff that I had never heard and also that (when I started) I didn't want to listen to anything longer than 2 minutes anyway.

Also, what the heck was I thinking downloading so much of Wesley Willis' work? There was a reason the label decided to make it free.

Daniel Wolf said...

Les --

My poor mouthing was obviously a sign of my relative antiquity; getting masses of music fast and cheap is now not really a great question of means (at least when one is past the bandwidth and storage threshholds).

But I am still concerned about the phenomena of, for example, the music prof who walks into the classroom with a couple hundred gigs of sound files. While that prof can certainly be expected to bring analytic skills to unfamiliar material, how can she or he be reasonably described as knowing, in the sense of commanding, those pieces well enough to present them in any way other than or with more expertise than that produced through off-the-cuff analysis. My point is simply that the whole notion of knowing music seems to have changed substantially. If so, I'm more or less cool with it, but we ought to be explicit about this and consider seriously what it might mean.

Civic Center said...

My record collecting back in the 1970s in San Francisco was never about a competition. If you don't read/compose/perform music but are nevertheless fascinated by it, recordings have been an amazing godsend.

As a young man, I had a stupid job in a bank in the Financial District next to an extraordinary record store on Sutter Street, Odyssey Records, which stocked treasures from all over the world. In the late 1970s, the parent corporation went bankrupt and they basically sold all their strange stock from throughout the Southwest for a good year at their flagship San Francisco store, which was how I ended up buying just about every important Slavic opera ever recorded on the Supraphon and Hungariton labels for $2 a set, discovering Joseph Suk (both the violinist and the composer), Smetana, obscure Lizst, and all of Janacek.

The collection ended up being about 2,000 discs and when I moved to Canada briefly, I donated the entire thing to a charity. Amusingly enough, a pack-rat friend bought it and if interested (I'm not) I can still visit the recordings to this very day.

Now it's the 155-CD "Brilliant Classics" edition from the Netherlands (for the extraordinary price of $135 U.S.) of everything J.S. Bach ever wrote that's holding my attention. At age 53, I figure it's about time to immerse myself in Bach beyond the basic classics, and pretend I'm a 16-year-old autodidact with slightly more sophisticated ears.

Ben.H said...

We could get some clues as to how our experience of music might change, from how writers were affected generations ago when books became so cheap and plentiful it became possible to amass a collection too big for them to know well.

As always, we find our sources, only now we select them from an abundance, instead of extract them from a scarcity.

Stefan Kac said...

The "knowing" threshold is probably highly variable and dependent on individual traits, both of the musician and the material, but whatever it means to "know" a piece, I hope that we will not feel pressured by the abundance of recordings to attempt to know more than we're really capable of. The increased availability of recordings means that we share much less in common among our collections, and hence, its easy to feel, as I do frequently, that everywhere you go and everyone you talk to, you feel like an idiot for not knowing the musicians or work that someone else is talking about.

There's also the pissing contest mentality you refer to, which I agree is not particularly constructive. To make another example, "learning tunes" (meaning memorizing them) has become a major area of inquiry for jazz pedagogy, yet for most students, this pursuit is either purely ego-driven, or merely imposed on them by an unimaginative teacher. In some circles, the thinking is that the heads themselves feed the player's "vocabulary"; it's also viewed as traditional to not use sheet music in performance. I can agree with both to a certain extent, yet I think that the institutionalization of this as the "correct" way to do things has led to a lot of time wasted by students who think they will be able to memorize and RETAIN hundreds of tunes without having any practical application for them in their daily lives. Memorization, or better yet, "knowing" a piece comes from consistent contact with it; it's neither prudent nor really even feasible to force this on oneself for purely ego-driven reasons.

I still meet people occasionally who are not entirely convinced that the ability to record and play back music represents progress. Personally, I wouldn't trade it for anything, even if it leads to a certain amount of frustration in attempting to balance breadth and depth of knowledge.