On the transformation of everyday culture in an era of liquid modernity

Mp3s and ‘thisness’

In art, mp3, music on March 11, 2008 at 2:54 pm

Mp3, as a format, might lack tactile dimensions, and its nature as pure code might render it ontologically vacuous. Yet, it presents fantastic hope for the song as artform.
I wrote in a previous post about the verisimilitude of mp3s, the fact that in technical terms the digital file is always an approximation; never really the “real thing”.
However, there’s a paradox here, and that is that I believe mp3s, because of their virtual nature, bring back the ‘thisness’ of the song itself. Evan Eisenberg writes about the ‘thisness’ of songs in The Recording Angel (1987): the medieval term that he revisits for this is haecceity, the ontological concept that basically talks about those aspects of a thing which make it a particular thing.A clone of an mp3 is a new instance of pattern engraved onto a surface, identical to its preceding copy. In this sense, it is a new physical entity of its own, identical but still not yet another instance of the preceding mp3, but an instance of the same song. This is illustrated by the example when there is a glitch in the mp3 file. (In other words, the technological carrier breaking down; these instances of technical breakdown is also where their ontology makes itself most visible, if we are to believe Bruno Latour.) Despite annoying glitches, we still recognise it as “being” the same song, while the nature of the file as a duplicate — as merely a carrier — makes itself painfully visible. Another example is when being involved in music production, one often has got earlier versions of the one and same song, versions which are subsequently improved upon. Ultimately, before being pressed onto CD or vinyl, they are mastered; a process which further moulds the product, rendering its qualities subtly different. (Not that subtly, actually: one of these days I will write about the drastically distorted mastering practice within pop music that has become norm only very recently…)
Now, is the song still the same before and after mastering, or in its previous, embryonic forms? Of course it is, you say, but note that this is an observation that is unique to humans to make: where we feel the same vibe, the same chords, the same melody — “the demo version is so much better than the single!” — a computer comparing the artefacts in pure code form will only see formal difference in that the data patterns diverge (only if its algorithms are sophisticated enough might it discover some similarity after all).
As I wrote about social networking sites recently, the nature of the technical mediator has little bearing on the emotive weight of a particular event: what tends to move us is the event itself. Similarly, with mp3s I believe the connotations and attachments we make are to the song itself, not to the copy or mediated carrier of the music. We fall in love to the soundtrack of a particular song, not the particular bitstream of data delivering this song to us.

File-sharing networks make so much violence to the technical mediation of music.
I don’t mean this in the simplistic, RIAA/IFPI-indoctrincated way, but simply in a purely technical sense. Plenty of papers in computer science have illustrated the lack of network integrity especially among the earlier generations of p2p networks (the pre-BitTorrent examples of Gnutella, FastTrack, eDonkey etc. all fall into this category), due to the unmoderated character of the material uploaded: empty files, broken files, misnamed files, glitchy files, deliberately damaged files.
Jian Liang et al. (2005) found that popular contemporary songs can be present in a remarkably large number of different versions, as many as 50,000. They emphasise that pollution was indeed pervasive, with more than 50% of the copies of many popular recent songs available through KaZaA (FastTrack) being polluted.
It is almost as if on a purely technical level, mp3 files are the travelling troubadours and each instantiation of a tune is a slightly varying rendition offered by these mobile carriers, circulating on file-sharing networks worldwide. These instantiations all differ depending on encoding, bitrate, and more importantly means of playback: the nature of a song shifts depending on it being played from a mobile phone in the back of a bus, as muzak in the aisle of a shopping mall, in a club, or on a £3,000 top-of-the-range home stereo. This variation of playback situations is of course widening daily, as the ubiquity of music reaches further and further. And with other, more complex media forms, the variation gets even wider: think of the many many ways film and TV can be consumed today.
With video, the ‘thisness’ of the particular text is particularly clearly exacerbated: Think of how a low-bitrate YouTube clip — although not managing to invoke the same mimesis or emotional rollercoaster as the IMAX version — still invokes the very same text, the same narrative. Indiana Jones is still Indiana Jones on avi (ripped video), flv (YouTube), VHS, DVD, Blu-Ray, celluloid.
Think also of how a trailer for a film is meant to connote not only the film it advertises but in many ways becomes the film, and becomes mediated in endless ways. There are some good present examples. Cloverfield! Be Kind Rewind!

Yet, I am a music person more than a film person, and I’m dreaming of a renaissance of the pop song, a new golden era for songwriting, thanks to all this. Mashups almost did it, too bad they are a stagnant musical form in that they inevitable rely on the past and far too rarely break out of a very particular formatting. Essentially, they are covers. What I have in mind is something more metaphysical; a realisation on behalf of the artist that his/her song is malleable in shape yet unique in spirit. Maybe songs should be released with their constituents laid bare; digital releases with each individual track accessible, each note sequence available as MIDI, open for endless remixing? Or with the partial tracks (bass, kick drum, snare drum etc.) available on request, for those who would like to remix the track itself.
Ultimately, the mp3 file has put a renewed emphasis on the song, which I think is absolutely great, and in many ways a return to the glory days of the 1950s and 60s and the mediation of 7″ vinyl singles (think jukeboxes and radio DJs over tinny transistors). Today, it’s MySpace playlists; audioblogs; mobile phones blaring out tinny ringsignals and mp3s; files searchable and indexable mainly through their individual per-song metadata. Only BitTorrent and, to an extent, SoulSeek tend to focus on discographies and whole albums. The rest of the file-sharing world sees music sequenced into golden nuggets of a couple of minutes’ length each.
Which is a fantastic thing for all of us who believe 12″ and 7″ singles are superior art forms over albums. Albums are the high modernism of pop; pompous, often pretentious, too often relying on filler material. So 20th century!
Single songs have to prove themselves in their own right, and they have an ontological oneness of themselves; unlike albums they can hardly be broken down into their constituent parts, and the relationship of these interlocking parts in creating overall unity is in itself endlessly fascinating. Yes, artists have had all the availabilities in the world to experiment with musical form, but at the end of the day all those experiments with field recordings and/or strict formal regimes (examples: make an album entirely from samples of groceries, strictly from household items, or from surgical technology) that artists like Matmos and Matthew Herbert have indulged in ultimately make me realize that when this conceptual music really works is when simply managing to conjure magical songs.
Out with pointless minimalist drones, in with “Here Come the Warm Jets”! In an era of violent remediation of music, textures are too fragile. Melodies are the only musical parameters strong enough to withstand extreme master limiting, lossy 48 kbit/s bitrate compression, and the patchy, glitchy reception that poor transmission conditions and bad data management gives rise to. Besides, texture is boring. When did you last hum or whistle a well-executed wah or flange effect? When did an “accomplished” bass kick pattern last make you break down emotionally?

This is part two in a series of blog posts on the materiality of music in the digital era. See here for previous entry. Next in the series: Is there hope for the album after all?

  1. […] This is the first in a series of blog posts on the materiality of music in the digital era: the second one is focusing on songs, the third one will be on albums. ▶▼ View 1 Comment /* 0) { […]

  2. […] ten years have seen the partial death of the album, the definitive death of the CD single, the rebirth of the individual song, an increase in the sheer loudness of music (“loudness war,” effectively decreasing the […]

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