- Mobile Performance
- Electric Speed
- Schematic as Score
- (Re)purposed Clothes
- Collaborative Spaces
- Device Art
- Digital Dub
- Rise of the VJ
- Sample Culture
Music is sound that someone has taken the time to organize. Generally speaking, that person is called a musician. Not all sound is immediately enjoyable as music, which means that achieving the goal of music can require widely varying levels of exertion and ingenuity on the part of the musician. Some everyday sound has an inherently musical quality, such as the beat of a windshield wiper or the hum of an apartment radiator. This sort of sound is so self-evidently musical it can be said to self-organize, requiring no effort on the part of a musician, or on the part of the listener.
Everyday sound is the sound nearly universally thought of as background noise, noise even further back than background noise – it is the sonic backdrop to background noise. Such noise can take on the qualities generally attributed to music depending on the effort a listener is willing to make. Far less effort is usually required on the part of a listener than on the part of a musician. What helps sound take on the appearance of music is the model provided by music. The inherent musicality of the sound environment is, by some tellings, a byproduct of the patterns that music has imprinted upon our mental faculties, patterns that then surface in the world around us – unexpectedly at first, but later as a matter of course to the listener who elects to pay attention.
Everyday sound may have a musical quality, but that facet is drowned out by fully conceived music. This tension creates a parallel tension between listener and musician, and an occasional hiatus from the presence of the musician can benefit the listener. To take two weeks off from actively immersing oneself in recorded music—to shut off one’s stereo system, to pull the batteries out of one’s MP3 player, to leave one’s earbuds in a drawer—is to open one’s ears to everyday sound. To do so is to experience recorded music only as a chance element among many such sonic elements that comprise the broader and more diverse soundscape. To take a break from recorded music for a period as long as two weeks is for the background noise, for the backdrop to the background noise, to come into the foreground, often forcefully so.
What follows is a narrative of two weeks without recorded music. The trip came in two consecutive parts during the summer of 2011: half in New York, and half in Las Vegas.
Part 1: Island Sounds
Porous Border: The voice on the other end of the phone was Russian. This was the voice of the car service. When the car, a shiny black SUV, arrived a few minutes earlier than scheduled, its driver took a standing position on the curb, alongside the rear passenger door. He was heavyset, and Asian. When he opened the door and said good morning, the voice was not the phone voice, but it was a Russian voice nonetheless. If travel is a source of disorientation, then the disorientation hit early on in the trip, barely a minute after the front of the house was locked shut. A flight from San Francisco to New York awaited, and then on to Long Island. Later the trip would take us to Las Vegas.
Fly Fidelity: What was the last movie or TV show that did justice to just how loud the interior of an aircraft is? The sound that airplanes make in a movie when turbulence hits is the sound most major aircraft make from liftoff to landing.
Radio Silence: If you visit New York, especially Long Island, here is a fun game to play: count how many hours pass before a song by Billy Joel is heard. I was at my parents’ house for nine days straight, and did not hear one such song. Nor, for that matter, did I hear such regional high priests as Bon Jovi or Bruce Springsteen. That is a trifecta beyond the range of statistic possibility. This despite being in numerous cafes and restaurants, taking various forms of public transportation, and having the radio playing during car rides. (Come to think of it, I also didn’t hear Strong Island rap legends De La Soul or Public Enemy, or Mariah Carey, who was born in the same town where I was raised.) The only time Billy Joel made an appearance was in a story in The New York Times (“Record Industry Braces for Artists’ Battle Over Song Rights”) about how musicians like Joel and Springsteen might claim property rights to their recordings that are at least 35 years old. The matter is remarkable because it shows how the record industry has managed to make enemies not only of consumers but of musicians as well, and shows that anyone who bemoans the increasingly frailty of the record industry (paging you, Megan McArdle) is likely engaged in something resembling willful ignorance or rhetorical shenanigans.
Sounds of the Times: In an excellent series of articles this summer, various of the critics at The New York Times reported on what was called "The Art of Summer," in which they "reviewed the inadvertent artistry of everyday life." An art critic found conceptual works on the walls of a self-service restaurant, a book critic looked at words on menus and street signs, a theater critic observed the drama of a restaurant kitchen, a dance critic took in the mass of human motion at Grand Central station. Even a reviewer of video-games got in on the action, looking at the city as the game of life. A classical music critic at the paper, Anthony Tommasini, visited Yankee Stadium and wrote in his "Music of the Spheres," "For most fans attending a baseball game is a summer diversion, an addiction, an act of devotion. I’m a music critic, so for me it’s something else too: an immersion in bustling, jumbled, enveloping sound." The popular-music critic Jon Pareles, in "The Contrapuntal Sounds of Gridlock," wrote, "That’s why I was there, on a Thursday afternoon, with a notebook, a digital recorder, a pair of omnidirectional microphones and some of the spirit of John Cage, who showed us how to find music everywhere. Critics for The New York Times have been observing the city’s unintentional artistic experiences this summer, and a rush-hour bottleneck is a smorgasbord of sonic interactions. Besides, I’ve always liked horn sections." The one disappointment is that sound was seen as the province of the music critics and not of the art critics.
Public Art: The most impressive work of sound art on the trip was a chance installation at a big-box store. A massive grid of motion-sensitive stuffed dogs made noises—plaintive barks far more realistic than the physical object emitting them—when people walked by. As standalone objects, the dogs looked quite artificial, but because they weren’t acting in sync, they seemed all the more lifelike. It’s quite possible that the containers, a combination of thin plastic and cardboard, were themselves creaking and crinkling, as well as being brushed against from the inside by the dogs. Some customers took it upon themselves to wave, in movements that seemed to have been honed during lengthy sessions on the Microsoft Xbox Kinect. The chaos reached a threshold that suggested that the dogs were triggering each other. A teen with wheels in his sneakers and headphones over his ears rolled by, blissfully unaware of the effect he was having on the automatons.
Volume Control: Let’s take a moment to join in collective praise for all those individuals who design noise-making toys for children and who think to add a volume-level switch, so there isn't just off and on, but also a mid-level volume setting.
Circuit Babble: My parents, now in their 70s, somewhat suddenly have three grandchilden under the age of three, one of them ours. That high per capita of children underfoot meant a lot of noisy toys, many of them battery-operated. The hit of the visit was a plastic toy that looked like a small boombox in the shape of a barn. It has space for two pieces, which were to be selected from a batch of animals divided in two, front and back, like a tiny Damien Hirst installation for the preschoolers. If you matched the pieces correctly—the front and back of a cow, the front and back of a pig—then a little song played. (One observation regarding the farm theme: The cheap fidelity of children’s toys lends itself to the banjo.) The cool thing is, if you don't match them up right, they still fit, and you get a funny song about an animal that doesn't exist, something with the head of a pig and the rear of a sheep. The mismatch songs are arguably more enjoyable than the less genetically speculative songs. And you don’t even need to get the pieces in the barn for the toy to make noises. Those little animal-half pieces trigger the songs thanks to little nubbins inside the device, nubbins easily triggered by the plump little fingers of children. Baby’s first bent circuit is a developmental milestone.
Rhyme Time: Not actively listening to music doesn’t mean not performing it. We sang the "ABC" song (“Next time won’t you sing with me”) for 15.7 miles straight, according to Google Maps. This was on a drive on a rainy night back from Jackson Heights, while our (nearly) one-year-old cried in the car’s backseat. The song helped usher in sleep. The crying abated, and it became clear that we had matched the beat of our rendition to the pace of the windshield wipers.