Sunday, 5 December 2010

The Weight of the Past

(This is a companion blog to my previous entry, which used 4'33" to think about what happens when the medium used to (re)produce music shifts. The current entry thinks about photography, with the help of a book and a television programme.)

A few weeks ago, in a cafe or a restaurant, I noticed a couple looking through a set of photographs that they had just gotten back from being developed - a commonplace sight as recently as perhaps six or seven years ago, but much less so now.

Nostalgia touches photographs in many ways. In her beautiful book On Photography, Susan Sontag wrote:
A photograph of 1900 that was affecting then because of its subject would, today, be more likely to move us because it is a photograph taken in 1900. The particular qualities and intentions of photographs tend to be swallowed up in the generalized pathos of time past. Aesthetic distance seems built into the very experience of looking at photographs, if not right away, then certainly with the passage of time. Time eventually positions most photographs, even the most amateurish, at the level of art.
Looking at the couple looking at actual, material photographs, not images on a screen, I felt nostalgia for a photographic process that is now a residual technology.

In On Photography, Sontag has a lot to say about the relationship with the past that photography invites. At times she is markedly critical. When she states that 'photographs furnish instant history, instant sociology, instant participation', she is pointing to what she sees as photography's illusory offer of easy access to complex realities.

In another passage, Sontag suggests that photographs act as a substitute, and perhaps a poor one, for an older kind of link with the past:
Fewer and fewer Americans possess objects that have a patina, old furniture, grandparents’ pots and pans — the used things, warm with generations of human touch, that Rilke celebrated in The Duino Elegies as being essential to a human landscape. Instead, we have our paper phantoms, transistorized landscapes. A featherweight portable museum.
I recently revisited Sontag's book alongside the BBC television drama Shooting the Past. The latter tells the story of a photographic collection which is threatened with destruction when the old building it is housed in is bought by American developers so that it can become the site of a business school. The developers arrive under the impression that the staff are aware of what is happening and have made arrangements for the collection to be re-housed, but find out that they are wrong on both counts. The matter then becomes, as the chief developer puts it, one of hard economics: the photographs have a monetary value less than the cost of even a few days' delay in construction, so they will have to be destroyed.

The problem that the collection represents, and that those who wish to preserve it face, is that, en masse, these photographs constitute not a 'featherweight portable museum', but a bulky, decidedly material, set of objects. One could facetiously observe that if it were a collection of digital photographs, there would be no story: the staff could put their memory sticks in their pockets and be on their way. But as well as all the other questions this leaves unanswered, it runs the risk of succumbing to a form of digital utopianism which ignores the material basis of even these new technologies, a hubristic blindness which both their producers and consumers often participate in.

The point is that just as media have a history, so too does the way we think about those media. What seems featherweight to one generation, whose point of comparison is something that came earlier, becomes bulky to another, who have moved on once again. The current pace of technological change means that we can witness this process take place over the space of less than five years; think of mobile phone technology. Now that celluloid is on its way out (and the stars of classical Hollywood are almost all dead), theorisations of film based on movement, or even absent-presence, are receding, and newer theories linking the moving image with death are coming to the fore. We ought to be at least a touch more precise and acknowledge that, like nostalgia, death has been associated with photography, including moving photograpy, for a long time (Bazin once observed that if photography were subject to pyschoanalysis, one of the key motives behind it would be the embalming of the dead). So it is more accurate to say that whilst there will always be competing theorisations of media at any given moment, there will be a historical variation in the prominence of these models.

There's another way of reading Shooting the Past that appeals to me at this particular historical moment. The programme tells the story of capitalists encountering an institution which they now have control of, even if they do not understand it. And all of a sudden, the guardians of that institution are told that they must face 'reality', or, to decode that term of blackmail, a certain brand of economics (as if up until this point they had been living in a dreamworld). The imperatives of a balance sheet and a timetable become the only ones that matter. In this situtation, the value of what is preserved and disseminated by the institution can only be conceived of in financial terms, terms which, of course, completely overlook the institution's real value.

But that's another blog entry...

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Four minutes thirty three seconds of silence

I was hoping to have a blog about Jay-Z ready on the occasion of his forty-first birthday, but, having made very little progress with Decoded so far, that has not happened. So I'm going to write on another musical topic that caught my attention a while back (and whilst a blog about Jay-Z will still be pertinent even if it lacks the touch of being posted on his birthday, this blog needs to be written before Christmas).

On Desert Island Discs a few weeks back, Ian McMillan, a South Yorkshire poet, chose John Cage's 4'33" as one of his Desert Island Discs (along with tracks by Vaughan Williams, Andy Stewart, Doris Day, Love, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, Bing Crosby and Leonard Bernstein). In fact, he chose it as the one track he would, if push came to shove, take with him, stating that it would be the one that 'always renewed itself'. I don't know if he's right about that, but it is certainly the case that it is the track that is most dependent on its listening context for its meaning.

I can't remember now if I found out after this or before it about a campaign to get 4'33" to Christmas number one in the UK. In a nod to 'Killing in the Name' having achieved the same feat last Christmas, in our era of musical downloading, the campaign is entitled 'Cage Against the Machine'.

It is interesting to think about what it means for a piece originally experienced by a crowd gathered in the same room as the musicians to become a downloadable audio file, and what it would mean for that audio file to be number one at Christmas.

A huge amount of the music that we listen to is created and recorded in the knowledge and with the intention that it will be heard by individuals, or small groups thereof, on their radios, or stereos, or personal stereos (to use that slightly antiquated term), at home, at work, or on the move. The amount of attention given to and respect afforded the music will vary, but the fact will remain that it is a recording to be switched on and off at times convenient to the listener, and that it is received in spaces which do not have the sole purpose of housing musical performances. In this sense, even though recorded music is a record of a performance, it is more like a book - a personal object to be picked up and put down at will - than a theatrical performance - which one must attend and which has a set performance time and duration, and which cannot be stopped at will by any individual audience member.

It is a less unproblematic transition if the recording is of a piece of music originally written to be performed to a gathered and present audience. 4'33" highlights this troubled transition to an unusual degree. All music written before the age of mechanical reproduction was not written to be reproduced outside of the occasion of the original creation of the sounds we hear, so all the music composed by, let's say, Vivaldi, undergoes a change when it is made available to us via the medium of the compact disc recording. However, when I listen to Vivaldi, I am not particularly troubled by this fact. What's more, the recordings I have were performed to be recorded, much like contemporary popular music. That was the purpose of the performance, even if the piece was not originally composed with such a possibility in mind. We are not 'overhearing' a performance to a gathered audience (although of course there are recordings which fall into that category).

It is strange to put it in these terms (conceptual art will often lead us to strange formulations of our experience of less experimental material), but when I hear Vivaldi, or Springsteen, then the sound of strings on the one hand or an electric guitar on the other provides the evidence, if you like, that such instruments were present at the recording, and created the sounds that I hear. I was not present at the event, but its traces are preserved to some extent (even if I cannot be sure in some cases whether what I am hearing is a synthesised equivalent, or whether all the elements I am hearing were created simultaneously - sometimes, as when Marvin Gaye double tracks his own voice, to wonderful effect, on What's Going On - I can be sure they were not).

But with 4'33"... the silence means that the instruments are not proving their presence in the same way. (Again, a strange formulation, though it does point towards the pleasure of anticipation when we know that there is a saxophone in the E Street line-up but haven't heard it yet on this or that track, or that of surprise when an instrument we did not know would be contributing to this particular piece makes itself heard.) Indeed, one could create four minutes thirty three seconds of silence with no instruments whatsoever. In a performance space, the presence of a latent piano, or full orchestra, is an important part of the experience. What about during the production or reception of four minutes thirty three seconds of silence on a CD, or a digital audio file? (It is worth noting parenthetically that 4'33" consists of three movements, and some cd and digital versions honour these divisions, but the Christmas number one candidate is a single track.) (I hope it is unnecessary for me to explicitly state that I am not attempting to dismiss Cage's work with one of the most common arguments levelled against 'modern art' - 'I could do that myself' - even if in this case it is partly true.)

The Christmas campaign is valuable in that it can help to remind us that not every artistic experience can be bought and taken home without destroying the original meaning of that experience. It is a challenge to the 'platform neutrality' of the contemporary consumer.

It is also something more. When I pay good money to play on a jukebox songs that I have on cd at home, I am partly paying for the pleasure of making other people listen to what I want them to listen to. 'Cage Against the Machine' and last year's campaign represent this logic writ large. Those who download this piece will not just (and perhaps not chiefly) be buying the track itself and the experience it offers. They are, of course, casting a vote for what they want everyone who is going to listen to the Christmas number one on radio or television to hear (and also for what they don't want everyone to hear: The X-Factor is the object being protested against by some who support the campaign).

This does not quite take us full circle, but it does reinscribe the situated social occasion of listening so crucial to the original meaning of 4'33". We may not have the latent instruments in the same room as us, but on Christmas Day, the track will exist not just as an audio file for us to treat as we will, but as a broadcasting event, part of the meaning of which is the fact that we are all listening together.