Saturday, December 12, 2009

More signs of the decline in listening

I prefer live music to recordings, to the point that I actively avoid recordings. I do listen to the radio when I drive or do chores and I do own hundreds of cds, but I've only bought a couple which were immediately connected to compositional projects. The rest just accumulated, mostly as gifts or calling cards from musician friends. I don't encourage recordings of my own works, and I prefer getting to know the music of others, both new and old, through score reading, which means making sounds, however rough or approximate, with my own hands and mouth. I like to make music on my own or with friends, I like to listen to and watch others make music, and I prefer that recordings not be used as an economical substitute for these activities, that is to say, I think that, whenever possible, recordings should not be used to put musicians out of work.

While recordings are clearly valuable when music has been composed expressly for recorded media or as documentation of performances — historical or distant — which are otherwise inaccessible, I dislike the constraints to audition posed by mediated through loudspeakers, the lack of control over my physical position with regard to the sound sources, the tendency in sound design to flatten dynamic contrasts, and, to be perfectly honest, I have an uneasy relationship with the temptation presented by recorded media for the the user to skip through and mix up composed works.

Once a work has been packaged for a recording (and often even composed specifically for the constraints — in time or dynamics, for example — of a recording), it becomes an indefinitely divisible and recombinant commodity, over which the creator has virtually no more control.

Recent technological developments in the most widely used forms of recording have not been encouraging for other reasons: for the first time in the history of audio recording, the most prominent new format has been one without a significant increase in sound quality in any aspect or parameter. The sole virtue of an mp3 file is its portability (small digital files, perfectly reproducible and cheaply transferable), useful, in principal, in a commodity, but not one which has proven to be particularly or sustainably lucrative. It is especially disheartening, now, to read that:

In February, a music professor at Stanford, Jonathan Berger, revealed that he has found evidence that younger listeners have come to prefer lo-fi versions of rock songs to hi-fi ones. For six years, Berger played different versions of the same rock songs to his students and asked them to say which ones they liked best. Each year, more students said that they liked what they heard from MP3s better than what came from CDs. To a new generation of iPod listeners, rock music is supposed to sound lo-fi. (Read the whole thing here.)


Justin G B said...

I would like to say that I am new to your blog and I find it quite inspirational and stimulating.

The recent evidence that listeners of my (younger) generation prefer lo-fi MP3s may be true. But, it is not widely known that portable digital music files have the capacity to be higher in fidelity than the standard 16 bit CD thanks to lossless audio compression called FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec). A FLAC file is essentially a .ZIP file for sound -- it reduces the size (compression) without losing any data. A decent number of portable mp3 players support this codec. There are some who are in to archiving -- converting a good LP into 24 bit 96/192khz and then compressing it to FLAC.

Appreciation of hi-fi digital music is a niche but it is not stagnant. I think those my age that are in to art music are more inclined to prefer better quality sound.

Adam Baratz said...

As a possibly interesting point of comparison, Phil Spector once said he preferred making mono singles because they limited listeners' ability to control the "performance," giving the most power to the producer.

Matthias said...

Hi Daniel,

I agree with most you are saying. Yet I think you need to consider one additional and important aspect of recordings and that is the marketing power that comes with them.

Recordings allow musicians and composers to easily distribute music to rather anonymous audiences. Especially the digital file formats allow listeners of your music to share it easily with friends and others who they think might be interested.

People who have listened to a recording of a piece are more likely to come to a performance of that composer' music in the future.

Thanks for an intersting post!

Samuel Vriezen said...

Hi Daniel,

"Once a work has been packaged for a recording (and often even composed specifically for the constraints — in time or dynamics, for example — of a recording, it becomes an indefinitely divisible and recombinant commodity, over which the creator has virtually no more control."

Indeed, but perhaps all we need to do as artists, really, is to see the .mp3 and its extreme availability on the web as an instrument and use it for, let's say, flarf composition.

Kraig Grady said...

I guess the problem with this type of test is that more and more music is mixed to work in this medium.

Ben.H said...

I can't see a link to that article in your post, but the issue of mp3s is one I've given a little, but not much, thought. The immediate parallel that comes to mind is with kids in the 60s and their transistor radios. 20 years later those kids had grown up and bought hi-fi stereos (while their kids listened to cassettes on stereo boom-boxes) and still today insist the music they grew up on sounds better on vinyl.

Dan Harper said...

I saw that same report, and it prompted a similar emotional reaction in me. I don't listen to much recorded music; and honestly I don't even like amplified music much any more. Whether it's recorded, or live-but-amplified, let's face it: most sound systems suck. Even when they don't suck you can hear the difference: there's always hiss, there's always a flattening of the dynamics, there's always some distortion. One example: I went to hear Philip Glass and his ensemble perform Music in Twelve Parts, and the sound of those electric organs was frankly disappointing; the only thing that saved the piece for me was the fabulous singer (I'm blanking on her name), who managed to sound good in spite of the fact that her voice was somewhat flattened by the sound system -- and then to listen to a recording of that?... no, thanks.

So in the visual arts, David Hockney did some fabulous pieces using fax machines, newspaper printing technology, etc. -- but he used a variety of low-quality printing techniques, each of which was different, and he doesn't release all his works via one low-quality medium. I could see doing a few compositions that deliberately make use of the low-fi character of mp3 recordings, but it's really a pretty limited medium.

On a somewhat positive note, vinyl records are making something of a comeback. They're still recordings, but an LP still sounds better than an mp3. -- But I still want to hear live, unamplified, music.

Nathan said...

I'm new to your blog and am really enjoying it. I thought I'd contribute a little something regarding technology and the arts.

More interesting still is the following article:

It is attempting to argue that the accessibility that technology provides to the arts is a signifier that the arts are in better shape than ever.

Frankly, I completely disagree. Plus they refrain from asking how the artist is to adjust in this new technological age. How is compensation changing? Especially considering that methods of being compensated are still framed within the mindset of the gallery and the performing arts center. If attendance is down in these areas and accessibility is up elsewhere, how is the artist to adjust?