Another One Bites the Dust

Posted: August 11, 2015 in Blogroll, Classical Music, Technophilia
Tags: , ,

Updates to my blogroll are infrequent. I only add blogs that present interesting ideas (with which I don’t always agree) and/or admirable writing. Deletions are typically the result of a change of focus at the linked blog, or regrettably, the result of a blogger becoming abusive or self-absorbed. This time, it’s latter. So alas, another one bites the dust. Dropping off my blogroll — no loss since almost no one reads my blog — is On an Overgrown Path (no link), which is about classical music.

My indignation isn’t about disagreements (we’ve had a few); it’s about inviting discussion in bad faith. I’m very interested in contributing to discussion and don’t mind moderated comments to contend with trolls. However, my comments drive at ideas, not authors, and I’m scarcely a troll. Here’s the disingenuously titled blog post, “Let’s Start a Conversation about Concert Hall Sound,” where the blogger declined to publish my comment, handily blocking conversation. So for maybe the second time in the nearly 10-year history of this blog, I am reproducing the entirety of another’s blog post (minus the profusion of links, since that blogger tends to create link mazes, defying readers to actually explore) followed by my unpublished comment, and then I’ll expound and perhaps rant a bit. Apologies for the uncharacteristic length.

Until recently the reference that reproduced sound was measured against was a live performance, because historically live performances were the way most people listened to music. But today most people listen to music via portable devices using earbuds or headphones. Which means the references have been inverted, and today live performances are judged against reproduced sound. And that is causing a major problem: because reproduced sound differs significantly from that heard in a live classical concert: earbud/headphone sound is louder, has better bass transmission and the sound image is binaural — inside the head — rather than stereophonic — outside the head. This variance between live and reproduced sound may well be a significant factor in explaining why classical music is struggling to engage with contemporary — particularly young — audiences: because audience engagement is the name of the game, and subjectively the sound a newcomer hears in the concert is less engaging than they hear via earbuds or headphones. Many, including me, will argue that the sound of a live concert is ‘right’, and earbud/headphone sound is ‘wrong’. But this debate is not about right and wrong. It is about whether classical music is going to recognise and accommodate changes in audience expectations, or whether it is going to ignore these changes and remain a museum of sound perpetuating late-nineteenth century sonic conventions.

As has been described here in the past, sophisticated digital sound shaping technology — which is not the same thing as the much-derided amplification — is available and affordable, and works such as Jonathan Harvey’s String Quartet No 4 and ‘Speakings’ for orchestra call for score-specific sound shaping. However, to date the compelling argument against reshaping the sound of a classical concert for 21st century audiences has been that it is an all-or-nothing process that destroys the historical reference of a ‘pure’ live sound and alienates the vital core audience. But I use those words ‘to date’ advisedly; because a new development could make listener-specific sound shaping available in live concerts, without destroying the ‘pure’ unshaped sound for the many who do not want their music up close and personal.

Technology start up Doppler Labs is beta testing their clumsily named ‘Here Active Listening’ system. To quote the company, these smart earbuds “puts a computer, speaker, and mic in everyone’s ear … with the primary goal of … enhancing the sound of live performances, custom tailored to the listener’s own preferences and perspective”. Basically, the Doppler system uses a microphone, tiny computer and earbud to manipulate live sounds; giving the option of changing loudness and frequency response (equalisation), plus a whole range of further sound shaping options including flange, reverb, delay, fuzz, and bitcrusher. All these effects can be controlled via a smart phone app. The header photo shows the Doppler smart earbuds, and there is a more detailed description via this link.

If we accept the argument that classical music needs to meet new audiences partway, the Doppler technology offers intriguing possibilities. Newcomers at classical concerts could be offered the loan of pre-programmed smart earbuds, allowing them to experiment with preset sound shaping such as bass boost and compression, together with the option to personalise the sound. Sound leakage should not be a problem as the Dopplers are near zero latency (no time delay), so peak levels on the earbuds would only be reached when the live sound in the hall reaches peak level. Anyway, to minimise disturbance to non-users, a section of the auditorium seating could be set aside for Doppler users.

This post is simply intended to start a conversation about the future of concert hall sound. The classical music community has enthusiastically embraced a fundamental technology and lifestyle driven change from the legacy physical media of CDs to online music streaming; yet it is puzzlingly reluctant to discuss any possibility of a similar technology and lifestyle driven change in the concert hall. Personally, I would be much happier without even non-intrusive sound shaping in the concert hall. But times and audiences have changed and, whether we like it or not, the reference sound has also changed. We need to be more open-minded about introducing new technology into the concert hall. My theory is that offering and promoting Doppler sound shaping could attract a whole new audience; but once those listeners are in the hall they will very quickly realise the sound is more engaging without a smart earbud in each ear. Job done.

My unpublished comment:

I would end the conversation before it starts by pointing out that the classical music concert hall is already a museum piece. Your rather liberal suggestion that times and the reference sound have changed and we must be open-minded about new tech is confounding. Whereas colorizing black-and-white movies is an abomination to auteurs but embraced guilelessly by general audiences, alteration (not the same as refurbishing) of other historical arts media betrays what they are fundamentally. There is no controversy when applying new tech to new artistic expression, such as with Jonathan Harvey. However, I have doubts that hybrids will attract audiences as much as newly imagined forms without so much historical baggage.

From an even wider perspective, abandoning the sensorium (e.g., natural sound) in favor of supplemented or virtual reality is very much the direction the culture is going as enabled by technology. But it’s not salutary. Encouraging ideation (substitution of facsimiles and our ideas about things for the things themselves) has the paradoxical result of furthering alienation from each other and what truly exists. There are no actual superheroes. And it isn’t limited to sound originating inside the head — we increasingly lose touch with reality and project falsity onto it.

Banal concern with audience capture is one of several preoccupations of the blogger at Overgrown Path despite classical music always having had only niche appeal. It must be said that classical music is already a dead art. Has been for decades. Its value lies in performing masterworks from the 17th–19th centuries for a small segment of the population still interested in fine arts. Whereas performance quality continued to rise throughout the 20th century, compositional quality cratered around 1920 (exceptions noted). According to Oswald Spengler, the culture was spent. Out of that vast yet moribund tradition arose various popular musics, each shining brightly if briefly (mere decades, compared to the centuries enjoyed by classical music) before themselves burning out. The musical landscape now is a gruesome mixture of preservation (e.g., geezer bands and cover bands, including symphony orchestras) and cannibalization. All that said, music will never go away while its practitioners continue to perform. It’s far too intrinsic a part of human culture to disappear. But it remains to be seen whether creators/composers working in any genre can forge a new style worthy of comparison with the past.

Offering a bait-and-switch to technophiles — come hear the Doppler-mediated orchestra and maybe discover that natural sound is better — is to my thinking just bizarre. But he is correct about one thing: most of the music we hear is no longer live, or for that matter, new. (It was only in the 19th century that lost and forgotten music began to be recovered, studied, and preserved. Now, nearly all music style periods coexist in active performance.) Playback devices of all sorts are indeed standard, but the experiences they reproduce should not be the model simply because playback is ubiquitous. Opinions differ.

The betrayal mentioned above crops up in contemporary culture everywhere technology-driven synthetics, facsimiles, knock-offs, and reproductions are commonplace. I’ve blogged about this issue from other perspectives here, here, and here, for instance. As I delve deeper into media theory and human cognition, my greatest concern is abandonment of sensuality in favor of ideation and what it means for human experience. (I’ve added Matthew Crawford’s book The World Beyond Your Head to my reading list, since it appears to discuss this topic, at least in part, but I haven’t yet read it.) Here’s a quote I’ve used before that illustrates what’s being lost:

… our ears have become increasingly intellectual. Thus we can now endure much greater volume, much greater ‘noise’, because we are much better trained than our forefathers were to listen for the reason in it. All our senses have in fact become somewhat dulled because we always inquire after the reason, what ‘it means’, and no longer for what ‘it is’ … our ear has become coarsened. Furthermore, the ugly side of the world, originally inimical to the senses, has been won over for music … Similarly, some painters have made the eye more intellectual, and have gone far beyond what was previously called a joy in form and colour. Here, too, that side of the world originally considered ugly has been conquered by artistic understanding. What is the consequence of this? The more the eye and ear are capable of thought, the more they reach that boundary line where they become asensual. Joy is transferred to the brain; the sense organs themselves become dull and weak. More and more, the symbolic replaces that which exists … the vast majority, which each year is becoming ever more incapable of understanding meaning, even in the sensual form of ugliness … is therefore learning to reach out with increasing pleasure for that which is intrinsically ugly and repulsive, that is, the basely sensual.

This passage comes from Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits (German: Menschliches, Allzumenschliches: Ein Buch für freie Geister) by Friedrich Nietzsche, published in 1878. He describes three steps: (1) transferring the experience of the arts from the senses to the mind (rationalization), (2) accepting a higher quotient of ugliness precisely because it can be rationalized (coarsening), and (3) adjusting expectations to the normalcy of that coarsened experience (becoming basely sensual or asensual). Sound familiar? It’s subtle stuff, perhaps, part of our deep culture, but contemporary life — mediated, altered, and transformed by technology — points ever more persistently to substitution of our idea of things for the things themselves (“the symbolic replaces that which exists”), what I often call “living in our heads” (as opposed to our bodies). Maybe audiences can be lured into the concert hall that way, but the object of appreciation is debased in the process, as is the audience.

Let’s take an analogous example more familiar to regular folks who have perhaps never stepped foot inside a concert hall: the former great American pastime, baseball. In its early decades, the only way to take in a professional game was in person, inside the stadium. The advent of radio broadcasting of baseball in 1921 and television broadcasting of baseball in 1939 offered different ways to experience a game remotely, which is to say, through the media (or mediated). Recording and later playback of games (e.g., TiVo) would be roughly synonymous with a classical music recording, though interest in historical games (more than a few days out of date) is minimal. To be roughly synonymous with the in-ear, Doppler-mediated sound of the concert hall, one would have to be sitting in the baseball stadium watching the game on VR goggles (or the like) with user-selectable options for different zoom-in and -out views of the action, instant replay, picture-in-picture, etc. This is not unlike recording a live event on a smartphone or watching the kid’s dance recital on the tiny screen while recording it. Fiddling with devices misses the point of being there entirely.

rant on/

So what other experiences can be had in-person but altered or “enhanced” by technology inserted between the event and the individual? Lemme see …

  • Supplementing everyday life with a constant stream of Tweets, Instagrams, and Vines? Oh wait, that’s already in place.
  • Going on a date but conversing via text?
  • Having sex with one’s partner while watching a psychometric tracker record excitement levels and tally thrusts?

I dunno what new developments await, but for those who guilelessly embrace the device paradigm, there will always be an app for that promising new, exciting, enhanced access but really just distracting attention from actuality. We are in the early stages of Borgification, and that process ends with complete loss of humanity to a parasitic, networked existence replete with information but devoid of meaning or purpose beyond its own preservation. Oh wait, that’s already in place, too.

rant off/

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