Following the news about HMV’s administrative visitation I got to thinking about music, rather a lot; I did a fair bit of listening, too. Then I got to thinking about listening and I remembered a passage that I’d read from Theodor Adorno and Hanns Eisler’s book Composing for the Films. They argued that the mechanical reproduction of music - and the catalytic effect it had on the procession of style change - was systematic in rendering the relatively attuned ear of the listener (or the modern consumer) ‘indolent’ and docile.
Accordingly, the ear, and listening (to music), is historically bound up in an archaic collectivity which suggests a kind of socially conditioned ear, an ear intrinsically ill-disposed to change. However, the rapid commodification of art beguiled the ear as it failed to keep up with the ceaseless drove of the industrial age and its mercantile megaphone, the hit-machine. Unlike its actively discriminative neighbour, the eye, the ear is a generally passive organ which, for Adorno and Eisler, accounts for the rationalized artistic development of music in the western world as a concerted effort to awake the ear from its supine slumber. That’s not to say it is unable to distinguish difference, quite the contrary, but that under the reified conditions of pop-culture it is increasingly likely to disagree with the alternative and the new.
But not just disagree; plainly disregard! When Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring premiered at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris on the 29 May 1913 the ensuing riots would emblazon the event into the history books forever more, illustrating that most abusive of relationships between the public and ‘their’ music. Personally, I like this idea, from a historic perspective. The prospect of such wild, bodily affections having been induced so by the ‘dreamy’ ear of the bourgeoisie shows a convulsive negotiation with the work of art all but absent from the public sphere today. Moreover, the riots avowedly attested to the artwork’s autonomy, as being something internally mediated, rather than the diarrheic bowel movements of the economy.
Today, the new exists (somewhat), but to the immediate effect of its alienation. It isn’t rejected on any rational basis but shunned out of popular favour/consideration by the exclusivity of mainstream media; and although there has for some time existed concurrent ‘alternative’ canons, if you like, the majority have underwhelmed, albeit providing ample sustenance for the dilettante, or the elusive ‘hipster’, as they sift through cyberspace leaving behind great hulks of freshly outmoded tunez. Ok, let me just dismount my hobby-horse for a moment or two.
We’ve all heard somebody at a party or other blurt the evocation “music is like, better than sex!” which, depending on what’s playing, may betray more about the individuals’ sex life than the power of the music. But this analogy may infact be more consistent with our listening habits than we think. In a recent article in The Atlantic Dan Slater provided a summation of his new book Love in the Time of Algorithms. He argued that the increase in techno-mediated dating services and algorithmic matchmaking sites is threatening the future of monogamy and that the titillation of ‘alternatives’ is rearing a generation of sweethearts flitting from partner to partner. Maybe this is generally characteristic behaviour across all techno-mediated divisions of society where traditional, definitive cornerstones (commitment, concentration etc.) are being flushed out by the immediacy of the medium.
Let’s stick with the sex/relationships analogy shall we? Somewhere in the middle of paragraph 4 I tore away from my desk and shuffled downstairs to brew my final cup of tea for the evening. Flicking the TV on for some background noise I was assaulted by Zeppelin, Floyd and the Beatles, retrieved once again from the BBC archives in another one of those way-back-when retrospectives; it was Danny Baker’s Great Album Showdown. One of the segments consisted in Danny Baker, Jeremy Clarkson and two others recalling the days when they would ‘support’ bands like football teams and listen to albums all the way through! What commitment! In all seriousness, whether or not technology has impoverished monogamy, it has certainly sustained a similar effect on music. Indeed, in my case, I see my relationship history (with music) as a succession of flings and one night stands, with a couple of exceptions. In all honesty, there is some bloody good music out there, but you won’t find it in HMV. And so it is that I break with each of my fads with that most palliative of gestures; “it’s not you, it’s me...and capitalism”.
Hamish Campbell-Legg is currently doing his Masters degree and is also the author of Lost in Pop Nation - the 'go to blog' for musical enthusiasts...