Live Music; or, the Song in the Age of Digital Reproduction, an Essay in Eight Tracks

 

Track 1: This is me, around 1991. I still had long hair in my dreams for years after I cut it.

Track 2: Eight years, age 15 to 23, I could only imagine music, being a Famous Rock Star. It’s hard to say how many hours a day or days a week I practiced, because it was never work.  Even then, I loved that English used to the word “play” for an instrument, because that’s what I felt I was doing. But it was as much as I could: a few hours a day, not including at least six hours a week of band practice, not including at least two shows a month, not including going to other bands’ gigs twice a week.  I held down a job (record store) and earned easy A’s in school, but I lived music.

Track 3: And then, suddenly, I didn’t.  I spent the next decade learning to be a reader, writer, teacher, husband, and father.  For years, I didn’t even have a guitar. No one knew who I used to be, who, in some sense, I really was.  Music was the secret identity I left behind.  It was too hard to be everything.  Like the mopey tween calendar montage in Twilight: Breaking Dawn, or the mopey tween sun rising and falling montage in Beastly (I need to lay off the mopey tween monsters), time passed.

And as time was passing, something interesting happened, almost behind my back: music went digital.

Track 4: I am no vinyl purist. I’ve always preferred electric to acoustic. Unlike the fans who booed electric Dylan in 1965, if my favorite heavy rock band showed up with acoustic guitars, I’d boo them. (I’m looking at you, Nirvana.) Thank God the unplugged fad of the 90s is over. I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s Farm no more, either.

Yet I can see why the folkies didn’t feel that electric music was authentic. The electric guitar puts more steps between the player’s fingers and the listener’s ear.  Not just the vibrations of the string, but the pickup, the signal, the wire, the amplification, and the distortion—sweet, dirty, deliberate distortion—of the signal. The electric sound of the guitar’s amplification is then further captured electronically by microphones, processed even further into the analogue of reel to reel tape, then mastered onto vinyl.  So many steps in the process of producing and reproducing the sound, each step, for the purist, one further away from the original.  Not the reel but the real.

But going electric and going digital are not the same. Something about listening to all music in MP3 format seems different, the final step that remasters once more, finally and irrevocably converting the analogue sound into binary computer code, Dylan’s plaintive wail (is there any other kind?) and guitarist Mike Bloomfield’s rich squeals into a cold series of ones and zeros, compressed, then uncompressed.  Look, overall, I love the iPod, love having 6332 songs made portable, love the slightly junky, slightly tinny, slightly robotic tone, love the intrusive insertion of the earbuds jacked directly into your brain, rather than warmly, maternally enveloping  your ears like the admittedly superior hi-fi earmuffs of yesteryear. (Yes, I know you can still get them. No, I never see anyone wearing them.) But I don’t mistake what I’m hearing.  Not music exactly, but an excellent simulation: “I’m not the song, but I play one on an iPod.”

Track 5: Walter Benjamin, from “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936): “That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.…  By making many reproductions it [the technique of reproduction] substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence.”   The part that messes with people today is that Benjamin, a Marxist when the word still meant something, saw this AS A GOOD THING. The destruction of the aura could only benefit the masses.  With the artwork’s aura destroyed, the work’s hegemonic power, not artistic power, its elevated class and economic status, would disappear, since the same picture would be available to all.  Technology, and ultimately “the capitalistic mode of production,” could “create conditions which would make it possible to abolish capitalism itself.”   Yet that is not what has happened to art in the time since Benjamin wrote his essay.  Instead, the more frequently a work of art is reproduced, the more expensive and more coveted the original becomes.  Look at yesterday’s New York Times article on the subject of rich, famous art—including Munch’s Scream, mentioned in last week’s entry, now likely to “fetch” (Times’ word choice)  $150-200 MILLION.  That’s some puppy.  But music is an altogether different animal. It wasn’t records or tapes that finally destroyed music’s aura, but digital reproduction.  Music, in every sense of the term, now is free.  

 Bad joke. Sorry.

SIDE B

Track 6: Jean Baudrillard, from Simulation and Simulacra:

“Such would be the successive phases of the image:

it is the reflection of a profound reality;”

[me: i.e.,  acoustic guitar string]

it masks and denatures a profound reality;

[electric guitar string –>pickup –> amplifier]

it masks the absence of a profound reality;

[electric guitar string  –> pickup –> amplifier –> analogue recording]

it has no relation to any reality whatsoever; it is its own pure simulacrum.”

[electric guitar string –> pickup –> amplifier –> analogue recording –> converted to digital recording]

Track 7: But I started to listen to music again, and play.  A few years of noodling, riffing, realizing that the hours of play had hardened into neural muscle memory and that there was no remediation needed.  My first real foray back into playing came when I bought a new amplifier last year, a Fender G DEC 3. Not to get all ad-speak with Walter Benjamin in the room, but it’s a clever idea: build MP3 backing tracks right into the amp and loop them to simulate playing with musicians. 

As an actual amplifier by itself it doesn’t sound that great.  In fact, it sounds exactly like a digital simulation of an electric guitar amplifier. But with the simulated tracks, the simulated sound is perfect. And as recorded by my digital camera, and uploaded onto my laptop, and linked to the world wide intermesh, and fed through your speakers, who can tell?

Electric guitar string –>pickup –> digital amplifier –> digital recording –> my laptop –> internet –> your laptop

  But because it’s digital, we could reproduce it a thousand times, a million more times, and it would sound just like the original.  Benjamin missed his prediction for art, but foresaw the future of music.

Track 8: Then, not long after I got the amp, I started playing again, for real, with actual people.  And it’s not like playing with simulated tracks at all.  I could hardly eat before or after each rehearsal, and when we were done I left wracked with stomach pain. I thought it was the stress of singing after a long hiatus, the churn of old pipes and machinery, or even nerves.

But later, I realized I recognized and remembered that pain.

It was called excitement.

Same guy, same guitar, one haircut, 21 years later

Jesse Kavadlo

Time: Over again, which is becoming the new norm. Eighty minutes, not including making the amp video just for this occasion. Time to go back in time to 60 minutes.

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3 thoughts on “Live Music; or, the Song in the Age of Digital Reproduction, an Essay in Eight Tracks

  1. great post. great video, you really kill it. IStillGotMyGuitar

  2. jkavadlo says:

    Hey, thanks, istillgotmyguitar. Your comment made my day. I clicked over to you and saw you’re playing a Les Paul. I want one. Jealous.

  3. Pingback from a reference in a later blog:
    […] paying gigs for six hours of playing this month, y’all—after a seventeen year hiatus, as I wrote about here.    And although I teach a class on rock music (early version of the syllabus posted here) and […]

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