"Genuine aura appears in all things,
not just in certain kinds of things."
~ Walter Benjamin
These days, if you want to buy music, there is no shortage of ways to do so. But there is more going on than the usual tug-of-war between compact discs, downloads, streaming and vinyl. So far, this narrative seems to have been moving towards greater disembodiment: CDs have given way to downloads, which have further given way to streaming as the favored means of ‘owning' music. Vinyl and, for some inscrutable reason, cassettes seem to have found niche favor as well. But some artists have taken the opportunity to reverse the seemingly unstoppable process of disembodiment, and turn the digitization of sound to their advantage. If sound can be stored as easily as any other digital file, they reason, why shouldn't there be a proliferation of media in which that sound can be contained and represented?
To be clear, convenience and practicality still rule the roost when it comes to the secondary market. Twitter user Tom Corremans posted a picture of a stall in an open-air market somewhere in Mexico, a beautifully composed shot that shows off the neat boxes of USB sticks, all grouped by genre: 'Rancheras Mexicanas,' 'Cumbia Villera,' '70-80-90.' I like the notion that you are buying into a grab-bag of music on each stick. How much music does each stick have? Does each box consist of copies or is each stick unique, so one stick will have more 70s hits than 80s? Who gets to decide what gets put on each one, and is there a note from your curator saved on the stick? There must be a fascinating set of social practices that constitute the development and maintenance of this form of music piracy, but the only thing that I can say for certain is a variation on the caution one should exercise when sampling the street food of any foreign country, however delicious it might seem: I'm sure that, in additon to tasty grooves, there is plenty of indigestion awaiting the incautious consumer, in the form of whatever malware happens to be lurking on those drives.
This abiding preference for some form of physical media may, in the case of the Mexican marketplace, simply be a function of practicality. But there are deeper forces at work here as well. Writing in the online journal Real Life, Eric Harvey notes that there is a real demand from listeners who see physical media as a means of disentangling themselves from the snares of unchecked data collection and surveillance, which are part and parcel of the streaming paradigm:
In the current predominant form of networked listening, users are mildly monitored in exchange for convenience and access…certain music listeners not only prefer possessions, but specifically possessions that do not transfer data when played, that are stored locally, and that are built into private domestic spaces. Streaming services, by delineating the post-possession future, are also stoking demand for its opposite.
Let's extend this further. As artists, musicians can and should recognize that insisting on a particular form of embodiment offers not only an opportunity to assert the value of their work, but also creates terms that prevent their output from being reduced to the lowest common denominator of a stream, whose compensation paradigm is so poorly regarded that streaming itself is nearly indistinguishable from piracy.
A few years ago I wrote about perhaps the most famous and extreme example of embodied music: the Wu-Tang Clan's 'Once Upon A Time In Shaolin'. Issued as a single copy, the album, ensconced in an extremely ornate and bespoke silver box, was bought at auction by an anonymous bidder. Wu-Tang fans buzzed with anticipation and dread as to the album's fate, since the winning bid had complete sovereignty over the product: it could be enjoyed privately, or shared without conditions, or simply tossed in the garbage. The Wu-Tang Clan's intention was to take those risks in favor of stoking the conversation around the value of music.
But in a Pynchon-esque twist, the high bidder turned out to be reviled 'pharma-bro' Martin Shkreli, a cartoon villain with a suitably cartoonish smirk. Shkreli is a chancer and cheap provocateur that American society seems to produce with distressing frequency. He first made his mark on the national psyche in August 2015 by having his pharmaceutical company Turing purchase and then raise the price of the antiparasitic drug Daraprim, whose patent had expired sometime in the 1970s, from $13.50 to $750 a dose. This hike occurred practically overnight, and from a legal point of view he was able to get away with it, as there is no generic available, but this did not stop him from being branded as 'the most hated man in America'.
It was in November 2015 that Shkreli made the anonymous winning bid for the Wu-Tang album, having paid a whopping $2 million for the privilege (his identity emerged not long after). About a month later, he found himself in court facing charges of securities fraud for a previous series of hijinks, and on March 9th of this year was sentenced to seven years in federal prison. Relevant to our story, the court ordered Shkreli to pay a penalty of $7.4 million, and if he doesn't have the money, to sell his Picasso, pharmaceutical company shares and – yes – the fabled Wu-Tang album. Whatever the ending to this story may turn out to be, I think it's safe to say that it has already poignantly illustrated the risks of what might be termed a too thorough embodiment.
While 'Once Upon A Time In Shaolin' is perhaps the most extreme example, there are plenty of other musicians pursuing compelling physical media. Consider the mysterious producer Apkallu of Enmerkar, whose diaphanous ambient drone album 'DTCB:07/15' can be secured via Bandcamp. As a physical vehicle for this album, Mr. or Mrs. Apkallu (if that's the correct honorific) has created an MP3 player that seems to be molded from Play-Doh, and then stamped with physical controls similar to a first generation iPod. A close examination of the picture shows the palimpsest of fingerprints left marking the clay. Together with the evocation of a music player technology that already seems unimaginably distant to us, there is something strikingly primitive and immediate about it. It reminds me of the contrast inherent in ancient Sumerian seals: a carved order being stamped on the amorphousness of a creation that isn't ours, except that this is a clay that sings back to you.
Other artists choose media that make their music not less, but more difficult to access. 'Cinnamon Fog' by Owlbinos of Northfield is a short EP that the group has made available as – wait for it – a floppy disk. There is so little space available on one of these that it requires an audio quality downgraded to levels equivalent to a mediocre telephone connection. Honestly, I'm not sure what the purpose of this is. As a card-carrying member of Generation X I can't even fathom the renewed interest in cassette tapes. But the band is quite cognizant that this is 'a new experience in super low fidelity sound & audio frequency degredation [sic].' Perhaps there is a sense of accomplishment to be gained from making an obsolete technology work again, and a certain frisson when one is forced to view an artist's output from the opposite end of the telescope.
In this same vein, Jan Jelinek, an electronic musician about whom I've written previously, has staged a sardonic rebellion against the tendency to privilege ease of use über alles. His 2012 work 'Temple' is described with deadpan precision as a 'USB concrete cube (size: 31 cm x 31 cm x 31 cm, weight: 70 kg) containing the WAV files of Jelinek's compilation (Faitiche8-11)'. To be clear, the USB stick is not completely entombed in concrete; anyone with a laptop and a USB cable can access the files, but they have to make the pilgrimage to wherever the cube happens to be. This peculiarly Teutonic rejection of convenience is not completely unyielding, though: anyone who can get to the cube is free to copy the music on the drive.
In all of these examples, though, the music itself has remained unchanged. It's only the means of presentation that has diversified. To go this extra distance, we can look to composer Spyros Polychronopoulos, who has embraced the possibilities of black-boxed electronics. 'Live Electronic Music' (LEM) is a very limited edition sound object released in December 2017. A nearly featureless black polycarbonate box, with only a headphone jack as its interface to the rest of the world, it clearly aspires to be a sonic descendant of the 20th century's most iconic design totem of inscrutablility, the Monolith of Clarke/Kubrick's '2001: A Space Odyssey'. As Polychronopoulos describes it,
This album consists of four musical pieces. The music that you are going to listen [to] is not prefabricated or stored in the device memory and every playback is unique. Five independent audio channels are processed, mixed and reproduced in real-time. A different sample is loaded on each channel, chosen randomly from a sample database. Additionally, each channel introduces a different filter featuring unique parameters. The parameters' values are varying constantly between two points, resulting in a fluid development of the layers across one another in time.
Polychronopoulos's compositions, one possible instance of which can be heard here, bring up an interesting conundrum. Much of the development of media-centered technology, both in terms of the flexibility of its distribution as well as the physical means through which it reaches its final consumers, has celebrated the idea of uniqueness. 'You' – whoever that is supposed to be, and I do have my doubts – get to watch or listen to what you want, when you want it, as countless advertising tag lines have huzzahed. Still, what's consumed remains determined and discrete: a podcast heard on the train, in a car, or in one's living room is still that podcast, and is the same podcast anyone else can hear in any other circumstance. Similarly, a Spotify playlist consumed anywhere may in fact be unique to any given listener, but is still made up of songs that themselves do not vary.
'Live Electronic Music' dispenses with these restrictions and creates a genuinely unique sonic presentation that is limited only by the ways in which the composition is programmed. Not only is possession of the sound object a sine qua non condition, but what the object produces is itself specific to that moment in time. So if art is partly about eliciting a diversity of reactions that come from a shared experience of a single object, gesture or construct, then how do the potential meanings of art change when no iteration can ever be repeated? If each fixed object is the sole fountain of infinite variations, how do we, as listeners seeking to critique something like 'LEM', come to a mutually accepted and acceptable understading of what 'LEM' is?
Of course, it's one thing to consider these questions within the context of the abstract electronic soundscapes of something like 'LEM'. Because whatever 'LEM' is, it will never not be bounded by its status as an abstract electronic soundscape. It's entirely another notion when these generative principles are applied to something more broadly legible and multivalent, like story-telling. Recently, I have come across two signposts pointing toward this future. Not surprisingly, one is a video game. But the second is a podcast. Next month I'll look at these and other examples, and the affective implications for the way technology and art continue to make odd bedfellows.