Recalling songs

I went to see Richard Thompson performing his 1000 Years of Popular Music last night in London. As the title suggests it’s a little tour of songs from the 1200s (or perhaps before) to the present day (Nelly Furtado). Several songs required some mention of their original context – played in the court, in a music hall or wherever, a reminder of the fact that until relatively recently music existed only in live performance (or in notated form where it could only be “heard” by real experts).

I was reminded (ho ho) of Steven Rose’s point in The Making of Memory that a written language vastly increases the human capacity to remember, to recall both experience and knowledge because both could be placed beyond the individual consciousness. The internet takes this further. Before the internet knowledge was partly a matter of what you retained in mind, partly a matter of knowing where to look for further detail. With the internet an increasingly vast store of knowledge is available at the touch of a search engine, and where the infrastructure exists, it’s available to us wherever we are, whatever we are doing. This is likely to change how we think about knowledge, but it may also change how we think about experience.

I don’t mean that it will virtualise experience completely. An interesting consequence of transfer of recorded music distribution to the internet has been a resurgence in the popularity of live performance – interesting because consumers seem to have embraced the unpackaged freedom of internet downloads (where the emphasis is on individual songs, much as it was in the years before music recording) and yet they show an increasing appetite for live performance – where the artist can control the presentation of the experience. It seems we don’t want to be in control. Sometimes we want to let ourselves go.

Recording teases us with the possibility of repeatability, of non-linear experience. A few years ago when my children were younger we were watching a broadcast TV programme together and my son asked if we could pause it for a moment: he had grown up with video recorders and his expectations were conditioned by them. Of course nowadays with a PVR you could indeed pause the broadcast stream and we’re fast approaching the point where the notion of broadcast schedules seems quaint. Science fiction writers have long speculated on the possibility of implanted memory as a substitute for experience. All the same our experience remains emphatically, inexorably linear. The more the recorded world makes it seem easy to grab the new, then pause, and repeat, the more this capability can enrich our lived experiences, the more acute the contrast becomes between our virtual and real worlds.

Or at least it is if we lose perspective. Last night was a great night. I can revisit it to some extent when I listen to the recorded versions of the music, but they are no substitute. Ironically too perhaps that’s why I still prefer to listen to “albums” where the songs have a running order, the semblance of a linear experience. Art which seeks to offer the sense of repeated experience needs to recognise that when the repetition ends you’re not back where you started.

Unacknowledged legislators

Shelley once wrote that poets were the “unacknowledged legislators of mankind”. Well, he was young, but in the mood of the times he could probably be forgiven for thinking the liberal imagination was rising to a new pre-eminence. Where “society” once indicated a tiny elite it was beginning to embrace whole nations. Literacy was spreading in an unprecedented way and with it an interest in literature of all kinds. Tennyson, though always uneasy about being the voice of anything but himself (even when he was laureate) became wealthy on the sales of his books.

This popular success would be unimaginable now. Poets once again address a niche interest. You could point out that from Pound onwards this was a deliberate choice, a reaction against Victorian populist writing, but it marks too a shift in the way writers see themselves in relation to their readers, a shift influenced in one way then the other by technology (cheap printing). Now I don’t want to get bogged down in too academic a discourse here, but I do want to think aloud about how this new publishing technology, the open space of the internet, could affect how writers (or indeed other artists) think of themselves, and what they are doing.

I don’t mean left field experimentation with collaboration and interactivity (though I think that will come into it). I’m talking about a something that will influence practice whether or not it results in formal experimentation.

That probably sounds mysterious, but I hope what it could mean will be clearer over time (not least to me). And there will be a few by ways to explore. It strikes me that in the visual art world the pre-eminence of the artist as someone with “something to say” is practically unquestioned, with dire results. One of the interesting consequences of working in this open space of the internet is that while every voice might find two or three listeners, the availability of millions of voices means that artists will have to work harder to justify the attention they want to claim. Quite how that it is going to work is very much what this blog is about.