Radio & Music

Cut-up musical culture…

Every medium for transmitting music brings with it new practices for listening to it – and these in turn filter back into the way we interact with it, categorise it, manipulate it. The earliest ways of transmitting music were memory and repetition – music at this stage was simple and rhythmic and easy to transmit (think nursery rhymes and folk songs) or was not designed to be played the same way twice – rhythmic drumming tropes playing off each other – again and again… Sheet music required musical literacy, access to instruments and – in the popular fora at least – very clearly separated the music (what’s written on the paper) from the rendition – the same songs might appear in versions for brass, piano, strings, woodwind, etc…

Recorded music brought with it a whole range of new issues. Transmission was now conducted at the level of rendition rather than the iconic ‘music’ level. But whole new ways of categorising music came along with the requirement of ‘grouping’ music into artist or theme, and placing it on two sides of plastic to be packaged as a product. And as the amount of product grew, the need for popular sense of categorisation emerged – was this rock ‘n’ roll, or bossanova? Tapes were more portable and resilient, but also bizarrely a backward-step in accessibility – gone was the random access mode of the record-player’s head. CD’s brought that back, and in the process removed the need for each side of an album to feel like a coherent entity. Albums ceased to be structured around two arcs that would last twenty minutes (records), moved past the longer side-structures of tapes (each side lasting potentially up to forty or fifty minuts) and settled on a CD format in which the listening experience is uniform, discrete and self-contained. Seventy-eight minutes played end-to-end created different listening arcs. And the randomise function? Songs began to be removed from the album-context, to be viewed once more as individual entities. But they weren’t fully removed – after all, a listening experience randomising one album still limited what music you might hear next – a Beck album will only have Beck tracks on it. No matter what order you decide to hear them…

The resonance we feel, the response we have, and the way we categorise and separate different songs and different types of songs is fundamentally linked to the medium through which we hear them. Which is what makes the experience of listening to music through something like an iPod so extraordinary. Many of my friends migrate whole albums over to their MP3 players – and continue to listen to them as separate blocks, chunks of music. But I don’t understand this at all. My approach was immediately to treat my music collection as categorisable only by the fact that these songs all to a certain extent are ‘mine’. As my co-worker Dorian has commented – they are linked in as much as they are some kind of soundtrack to my life…

This produces some astonishing cut-ups – songs thrust together that don’t seem to be belong together on paper, but which flow together extremely well when you’re listening to them. Take this morning’s passage into work for example:

  • “I’m Your Boogie Man”, KC & the Sunshine Band
  • “White Noise Maker”, Frank Black
  • “Pilots”, Goldfrapp
  • “Oi Provenza il mar, il suol”, Giuseppe Verdi (La Traviata)
  • “The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll”, Prefab Sprout
  • “Little Lies”, Fleetwood Mac
  • “Honky’s Ladder”, Afghan Whigs
  • “Tear Me Down”, Hedwig and the Angry Inch
  • “Manhattan”, Dinah Washington
  • “Crash”, Primitives

There are at least six separate genres in that short selection, but by dint of ‘rescuing’ them from their context and placing them together in sequence, the specifics of those genres – the things that keep the separate if you will – merge and smear. What becomes pertinent is increasingly what unites them – a taste, a sensibility, a listener – and I think this is increasingly why sampling culture and artists like DJ Shadow find themselves working in a genre-less space, and why such a space is likely to increase radically. The walls are tumbling down – and do we have technology to thank? Or blame, for that matter? And what will be the next push in media transmission to extend the tendency even closer towards fluidity of use?