The Sacred Song Of Entropy

In the liner notes of the first null/point album I discussed how, although the music of contemporary western civilization is filled with endless variations on rhythm, timbre, and instrumentation, the similar systems of recording and playback technology used to listen to that music form a certain strata of "sacred instruments" all of their own. The humming signal of an AM radio or the warm crackle of a turntable stylus unite generational swaths of our technological society much more closely than the actual music that may be intertwined with those sounds; almost any two turntables or any two radios sound exponentially more similar in their own sonic idiosyncrasies than the disparate musical styles also coming from their respective speakers.

I have always been interested in exploring, particularly in the context of the null/point project, the additional element of music which takes place between the performer and the listener. Even from several feet directly in front of a musician playing an acoustic instrument, differences in temperature and humidity and the nuances of the reverberant surroundings will have an effect on what sonically passes between the musician and the listener. And while these factors may be inconsequential, the deeper subtleties of the context of the performance, and even the thoughts and emotions of the listener, can almost completely alter what is heard. And this is simply the case for direct listening, with the listener and the musician (or source of sound in general) in the same physical space at the same time. With recorded music, however, the spectrum of possibilities becomes infinite. And this is where fidelity becomes an issue. At the dawn of recorded music (Edison's first phonograph cylinder was invented in 1877; thus a relatively recent milestone made incredibly ancient by the seeming compression of technological time in the 20th century and since), while the express purpose of recording was to capture sound in as lifelike a manner as possible, the limitations of the available technology made only a rough facsimile of the original acoustics possible. But as each advance in equipment for recording and playing back music as accurately as possible became available, it was quickly adopted as the new industry standard. Higher fidelity, it seemed, was always preferable, and the willingness of the listener to invest in higher-quality equipment would directly correlate to their listening enjoyment.

The advent of the digital age has corroded this paradigm. The sound quality of the first commercially available compact discs was a poor substitute for that of vinyl records, but nor were they meant to be a serious competitor in the eyes of an audiophile. Instead, they were designed to replace the cassette tape as a higher-fidelity means of portable storage, since vinyl is relatively heavy and fragile to wield anywhere except in the close proximity of a home stereo system. This was the first major step in the direction of a new paradigm: listeners, faced with a new choice between convenience and audio quality, preferred convenience. And musicians and listeners quickly adapted, making and mixing music to fit the new medium. Listen to a recording from the 60's or 70's on both vinyl and on an early CD re-release. It's not even that the digital recording sounds bad (although, chances are, it does); it just sounds wrong. On the other hand, listen to a pop or electronic album newly released the same year that the older album was re-released, and chances are it will sound much more listenable and almost comfortable. Obviously, CD technology has continued to progress since its introduction in the early 80's, and the possibilities and limitations of digital recording now and then are a much deeper topic for discussion on an acoustic level. But the cultural (or even, to some degree, pan-cultural) connotations we attach to these media themselves remain relatively constant between listeners. Music of the digital age sounds better in a digital format to almost any listener who can apply some historical context. Granted, while the sum of human history is ever-more-rapidly being digitized and consumed by the carrion-feeding digital zeitgeist, it is less and less jarring to hear recordings from the 30's and 40's (and, on occasion, even earlier) emanating from a car stereo or a pair of errant headphones. But imagine a pop album from last year being played through an Edison gramophone, and you'll have some gauge of how closely we associate a musical style with its contemporary medium.

In the modern age, the scope of the music-listening experience continues to extend, to purely digital files played back on devices which are simply too small to offer any semblance of audio quality (players built primarily as telephones and computers, playing through miniaturized speakers and ear buds; the ultimate in convenience over fidelity), and to a resurgence of appreciation for the highest possible fidelity (lubricated by the renewed interest in vinyl, something which can actually still be physically sold by a music industry still grasping for physical objects to sell). But above the absolute floor of simply not being able to hear anything (and even then, a more philosophical argument could be made for the fidelity of silence itself in an increasingly noisy world), audio quality is completely relative, and every method of storing and delivering music is to some degree imperfect. While a degree of cultural memory (or even nostalgia) like that which we place on, for instance, the sound of a cassette tape rewinding, or of the needle dropping on a 45 rpm record, may take some time to crystallize, we can still see the context of its own storage and playback media emerging around modern music. In some ways, its extremes mirror those of how music itself has increasingly become disparately omnipresent and meaningless, like a sonic fog to be ignored; and as an almost fetish-like symbol of individuality and tribal identity in an increasingly homogenized world. But while neither of these assumes the original sacred role music once held for humanity, there is still an emerging cultural sacred music. It sounds like the over-compression necessary to make music audible on ear buds with an extremely limited frequency response. It sounds like the distortion of a low sample rate coming through a cellular phone speaker. And it sounds like the chirp of a digital glitch, replacing the skip of a CD, replacing the screech of cassette tape being ingested by the playback head, replacing the repetitive pop of a needle stuck in a scratched vinyl groove, and becoming simply the latest in a long and proud lineage of things we've been listening to while trying to listen to music.