Music as collected

The advent of recordings, and more recently of digital sound, has had a profound effect not only on how people can experience music, but on how they often think about it at a more fundamental level. Not only can one listen to music alone, without playing it oneself, but the sounds themselves are no longer ephemeral. They can be heard again & again. They can be possessed. Here I will focus not so much on the lack of shared ritual behind isolated passive listening, but on possession. In manuscript form, music has long been a thing to be possessed. It was carefully copied into personal or institutional collections, and eventually printed in quantity for sale. This fact is as true for e.g. China as it is for Europe, but of course it was not true everywhere. Some music, whether improvised or not, has always been more ephemeral than writing, including innumerable performances in the West. Even under such circumstances, it may have been a possession of memory, to be taught to one's students. So how have things really changed in this regard? The difference is that now a musician or musicianship is not needed to continue possessing music once recorded.

That such a situation could be problematic is not immediately evident. After all, music has often prospered artistically under patronage systems, and individual commission continues to be one of the most important ways to finance new music. The issue then is not so much possession as it is that music has become a commodity to be used by non-musicians, in short that this new functionality has been coupled to an economic shift based on success through numbers. So it is not about personal patronage, or indeed any personal relationship at all, but about quantities of unknown people buying recordings of one's work. It means one cannot rely on finding the right person who believes in one's work, but more than that, it means that one must satisfy collectors, because it is collectors who actually pay. Again, is this even problematic? It may be too early to say, but the signs are ominous. Collectors are certainly not "bad people" but they do have a rather obvious personal eccentricity: collecting. And the correlated personality traits associated with that eccentricity are making themselves felt through the market. Collecting has become a broad phenomenon in our society, with such items as sports memorabilia and stuffed toys becoming "collectors' items" and consequently big business. There is even talk of addiction in the popular press. We seem to have developed a culture of consumption which consumes almost indifferently. One can perceive a basic divergence both driven by and soliciting a new iconoclasm, one born first from smashing religion and political ethics, and then reacting against the basic glut of junk which people pile around themselves. Emotionally in need of icons, but finding the traditional ones gone, people turn to collections of cute little items. They count them, they arrange them, they compare them on points of trivial detail.

All of this seems relatively harmless. However, these are often the same people railing about "the death of classical music" and generally bemoaning its state while panning almost anything new. To what extent does their negative feedback have a tangibly negative effect on music, and to what degree is it self-fulfilling? What they insist upon, really, is that new work fit neatly into their collections. The peril is twofold: A creative artist will naturally resist simple categorization, especially when conscious of it, and the space open to interpreters has contracted precipitously. I have discussed the latter, and I fear that the entire HIP movement has become bound too closely to the idea of definitive recordings, in short to collecting. There is a call for everything to be clearly defined, for every interpretation to minimize its own possible distinctiveness, and in short for everything to fit neatly into categories. The situation as described (hopefully the description is not as accurate as it sometimes seems) has put a stranglehold on the creative process, primarily because it is locked into place by people who do not understand creativity. Oddly, despite this lack of understanding, these are the same people who worship heroes of the past most strongly, the ones who engage in true idolatry, in short the ones who have made it fundamentally impossible for anyone in the present to measure up to the larger than life predesignated icons of their past. This removal of process by which a person one might meet can become comparable in mind to the deified dead men of one's obsession is hammered home by insistence on reams of ad hoc detail which may or may not have come in the wake of one or more instances of creativity. Despite no such intentions on their part, these people have come to be seen as elitist or even racist precisely because of the impossible demands they make on the process of turning man into master, a reaction which further distances the great music of the past from the present as the past becomes a token for itself.

The idea that possession affects perception is inescapable. A thing one can hold in one's hands, a thing one can command (through technology) to perform, inevitably becomes more toy than grounds for respect. In this case, the respect is projected almost entirely onto the long-dead composer, often distorted into something unhealthy in the process, and retained for the performer and producer only to the extent that they obey the possessor's will. The price of CDs is frequently bemoaned, treated as a commodity. I say: If it costs fifty cents to make a CD, and you think that should be an important fact defining its price, then buy whatever CD you can find for a dollar (and I know you can find some). You want more specific contents? Then it is not a commodity. And what of comparisons involving minute details of individual performances? Such an activity, dependent entirely on memory prior to recordings, draws its strength from today's relativism, and effectively avoids real communication by dwelling on useless facts. It is a nearly inevitable consequence of collecting; when one possesses more recordings than one can possibly hear, the locus of activity must shift from listening! One can view every painting in a museum in a day, if one wants to rush, but one cannot possibly listen to a thousand CDs in fewer than a thousand hours. At that point, they become like baseball cards or beanie babies. So collectors are one group of people who will actually pay for things on the Internet, but soon the anarchy of it will confuse their collections. That may give art some breathing space, but will collectors be happy, and who else will pay? I admit to a basic aversion to possessing, and so perhaps to a skewed view of this issue, but when online discussion of classical music is already thoroughly dominated by collectors, the concerns seem real. Collectors are usually pleasant, personable people, but the effect they have on the direction of art music could easily be very different from the one they intend.

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Todd M. McComb