Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Wire contributor Sam Davies makes an interesting point:

"I think there's a case to be argued that, increasingly, the spectral or disembodied isn't only to be located in the thematic (names of songs, tracks, albums), but the very way music is experienced.If you look at the all-conquering iPod, it can only function because of compression: whether AAC or MP3, frequencies deemed 'inaudible' by psychoacoustics are left out. Certain sounds are factored out, because it is believed the human brain doesn't really notice them when certain other sound-events are happening, or because they're beyond the range of human hearing, etc. Personally I think I can recognise compression: it does funny things to the human voice, and also acoustic guitars and cymbals. But the point is, people are definitely listening to 'less' of the original recording than before, to a 'disembodied' version. And the iPod is now the only way that many people engage with music - witness those home docking systems, which mean the iPod (and massive compression) is what they listen to whether at home or on the move.

"Admittedly all this does beg the question whether ALL recorded music, vinyl/CD/cassette, partakes of the spectral condition (and I think it does), but 1) I think it's the first time the general drive for higher fidelity has run backwards, towards a greater 'ghostliness', and 2) I think it's hilarious that after years of sales discourse on 'sound quality' and the hi-tech, arguing that CDs are essential and demand-driven, people/consumers have become so obsessed with dematerializing their music collections. The 80s Holy Grail of sound quality has quietly absented itself from the debate."

to which I chimed:

"Actually when i first heard ipods (and also mp3s through my computer) my standard riff-of-curmudgeonly-complaint was "there's something missing in the body of the sound", which is totally akin to your point. this kind of omnipresent spectralisation of sound maybe relates to the syndrome i've been gesturing at with the term "anechronesis"--that sensation you get off cultural artefact neither of this time nor of an earlier period, but somehow stranded in limbo. An undead quality. Sort of spectral but nothing like the "ghostly un-body" that me and David Stubbs used to talk about in re. My Bloody Valentine/AR Kane/Sonic Youth (which might have been our pre-reading-D&G pre-echo of body-without-organs, come to think of it).
MBV in particular used to talk about trying to achieve "the not really there sound," a quality they identified with music that had been recorded over and over, a tape of a tape of a tape. Or that you get in classic-era dub or psychedelia that was recorded on four-track and therefore relied on dumping of tracks onto tracks, "bouncing down" i think is the term they use, resulting in degradation of the sound, the numinous wispiness of that Perry-produced Congos album, say. These kinds of effects really do feel "ethereal" whereas the kind of thinning out of sound that you refer to, the ubiquitous and insidious reduction in the thickness of experience, I would relate that not to Deleuze & Guattari but to Virilio's writings on speed. Mp3s et al, that is the right texture of sonix for a culture based around acceleration, skimming, overload... an age where we're flitting about and processing insane amounts of data and therefore experiencing things in a brittle, flighty, inconstant way, as opposed to immersive listening, aural contemplation, protracted rapture."

to which Sam offered further concurring and elaborating remarks, viz:

"In really out-there dub you feel like there is some presiding spirit moving through the ruins of the original rhythm/arrangement (I've made it sound overly Gothic, but you get the point). Whereas the MP3 effect isn't one of uncanny possession but rather a draining of body and presence: a vampiric sucking dry (even more Gothic, but still . . .)

"Maybe it has something to do with the (trusty old) analogue-digital opposition? With analogue sources (MBV/AP/Lee Perry) you're aware on some level that these sounds are being overlaid on (or erased from) the physical tape. So sounds taped over old sounds can have palimpsest-like effects (Sonic Youth recorded Experimental Jet Set over the Sister master tapes, and I'm assured that on a good pair of earphones you can hear Sister in the silences). Or, transferred from one reel to another, mixdowns through old analogue desks etc), the sound gathers dust and loses definition, acquires that sepia patina . . . Whereas digital still feels like a sense-data stored on a virtual spreadsheet, endlessly re-writable, safely sterilized from the messiness of reification into the real, flawed world. Perhaps the brain is able to register (subliminally) the different signatures of analogue decay and digital bittiness, and we then overlay our own cultural associations. So analogue is acquiring the spookiness of Victorian photography, and digital media are still too fresh and new to have this revenant quality. (But then there's plenty of anxiety about computers having minds of their own, ghosts in the machine, AI . . .)I

"I'm thinking out loud now, so better sign off & decide whether I actually agree with myself."

Hey man, no worries: the motto of this blog is "not fully baked".

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