Downloading the Siren’s Song

Despite our occasional longing for it, the fact remains that for a human being there can be no such thing as genuine silence. This is what composer John Cage discovered when he entered a sealed chamber at Harvard University in 1951. Instead of silence, Cage became aware of the high-pitched whir of his circulating blood and the pounding rhythms of his heart. The intensity of sound in such environments is something of a revelation, but can also be disturbing. While we might assume silence to be a natural state, the closer our approach to it, the stranger the world seems. It’s not a comfortable feeling being too proximate to our own biological rhythms — the experience of one’s heartbeat, or the sound of one’s circulating blood — especially in a culture bent on denying the finiteness and fragility of the body. Witness the protracted debate over Terri Schiavo — suspended like Kafka’s hunter Gracchus between the realm of the living and the dead. The technological capacity to redetermine the boundaries between life and death seems to have made us less able as a culture to deal with absolutes. Death, like silence, remains largely unimaginable.

Cage took his own revelation about silence and composed a piece of piano music 4’33”, where no sounds emanate from the pianist on stage for the length of the title. Of course, there is no real silence, rather musically empty time, where the normally intrusive and indeterminate sounds in any live performance — coughs, shifting furniture, traffic noise — constitute the content of the piece. Over fifty years later, 4’33” made it into the top 100 piano pieces of all time, as voted by listeners on ABC Classic FM. I’m not sure how Cage would have reacted to such mainstream acceptance, but he would have been delighted by what occurred when the ABC tried to broadcast a ‘performance’ of his work. Instead of four minutes of silence, the station went into default mode after thirty seconds, sending out the standard pre-recorded apology for the breakdown in transmission and declaring that services would be returned as soon as possible. In the end the somewhat vexed announcer had to go on air twice a minute and make some kind of sound (such as repeatedly announcing the title of the work that was ‘playing’) so as to bypass the station’s technological default system. That 4’33” even when broadcast was still able to generate random sound — derived precisely through a technology designed to prevent the possibility of silence — renews the avant-garde possibilities of Cage’s piece. The whole thing had a kind of Dr Strangelove feel, where humans struggle to correct the accidents created by technological systems designed in the first instance to prevent the possibility of the accident.

Indeed, rather than cultivating Cage’s Zen-like openness (one of the aims of his music), we increasingly harness new technologies to control our encounters with the world. If the experience of life in the newly bustling modern cities of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century allowed for both the aesthetic frisson (as recorded by Baudelaire) of random encounters and the ‘shock’ of urban experience — creating a subject both highly stimulated and traumatised — new technologies have created temporary environments that allow us to inhabit public space yet remain apart from it. Perhaps the anthesis of the philosophy behind 4’33” lies in the technology behind the iPod or portable MP3 player, where the sealed aural environment of the ‘walkman’ meets the enormous storage capacity and data-flexibility of the digital age. Such devices remove not only silence, but also the possibility of unwanted or uncontrolled noise. The listener chooses what tracks to download and listen to, bypassing what they don’t like. The MP3 player allows participation in public space but with the ever-present option of withdrawing into an aural environment of one’s own choosing.

In one sense this is nothing new. The portability of culture (novels, newspapers, radios and so on) has always enabled a certain individualisation of public space. However, the degree of total control over one’s surroundings enabled by the combination of high-tech personal listening environments and the flexibility of digital culture is unprecedented. For the newest generation of listeners to pop music, the file, rather than the CD or album is the musical unit of consumption. David Mandl, in a recent nettime posting, observes the changes this has meant in terms of radio. As radio increasingly becomes digital, DJs are encouraged not simply to electronically archive their show, but to provide links to each individual track. This is because listeners increasingly find and download songs through internet searches rather than finding a radio show and listening to it. This in itself is a cultural shift. If the reproducibility of culture (á là Benjamin) helped offset the aura of the original work of art (and hence the artist), the figure of the DJ in pop culture in some ways stood in as an authoritative source. Witness the massive tributes to the BBC’s John Peel as a father figure of independent music. Mandl points out that good radio DJs don’t simply play tracks, they create a whole ‘psychographical’ landscape, moving through different moods and styles to construct a specific aural space. The DJ, now a threatened figure, worked as a mediating figure between the aleatory possibilities of Cage’s composition, and the total autonomy of the MP3 consumer. While digital music allows everyone to be his or her own private DJ, something changes when there is no longer a focal point for specific musical subcultures.

In March this year, downloadable ring tones for mobile phones eclipsed the sale of CD singles for the first time. Consumers are now willing to pay up to four dollars to download a slice of their favourite song to replace their mobile phone ring. The ring tone announces something about us, about our taste. It’s a highly condensed display of our cultural capital, perfect for the speed culture we live in. If digital technology allows us to skip the unwanted tracks on any CD, the downloadable ring tone represents a variation on the filtering process — delivering the peak moment of experience, the great chorus or guitar riff — without any of the messy climatic build-up or contextual information.
To register all of this is not simply to create a nostalgic Baudrillardian list — the end of silence, the end of the album, the DJ, or even music itself. Nor is it simply to castigate a generation whose consumption of culture is different from prior generations. Indeed, the trend towards individual songs is reminiscent of musical culture pre-Sargent Pepper where, as Mandl reminds us, ardent listeners wandered around with cases full of 45” singles. However, what is different today is the environment of consumption. The idea of a shared culture of popular music begins to fragment when the consumer has both the sheer range of choice and the chance to consume music in an increasingly solipsistic environment, with no mediation through either a DJ, or even the cultural meanings attached to the artist. Just musical files and downloadable ringtones. It’s hard to imagine a cultural or social movement based around music arising in such circumstances. Yet there is a tension here. The rise of digital technology has also spawned the creation of a gift-culture enabled through file-sharing technology. There is something like an ethos of co-operation evident in swapping music over the internet.

The degree to which such an ethos can be sustained is open to question. The fragility of gift-culture in contemporary circumstances, and changes in technology and intellectual property laws, will undoubtedly play a role in determining the future of such a movement. Perhaps more important, however, is the way digitally-enhanced consumer choice, in combination with the construction of customised sound environments, limits the actual experience of being in public, of sharing experiences with others. Cage’s 4’33” was meant to cultivate an openness to chance, an awareness of what we normally filter out in the act of listening. It was also meant to be a public event — performed ‘live’. Increasingly, we are drawn to technologies that do the opposite — filtering out both chance occurrences and the public. Undoubtedly this is great for the autonomy of the individual listener, but what are the wider social and cultural effects of this kind of mobile suburbanisation — where we turn public spaces into versions of our own living rooms?

The rightward turn in politics has partially occurred because of widespread fear about a loss of control. The cultural response to terrorism (perhaps the most spectacular display of randomness) in the West has been in the form of ‘cocooning’ — staying at home, securing the domestic front. The consumption of culture reflects this process as it shifts further towards a privatised mode. For now, any cultivation of ‘openness’ is marginal — indeed, there is a sense that the more relaxed tenets of liberal democracies are no longer acceptable. Currently, the two top-rating TV shows are Desperate Housewives and Lost. The former reinvigorates suburban drama, adding spice to the cocooned lifestyle; the latter works as a kind of neo-Darwinian fantasy, where the rules of society and culture no longer apply to a group of plane-crash survivors. One might hope that this dichotomy between the relative safety of the affluent suburbs and the imagined end of the social is merely a delayed cultural response to September 11, rather than a symptom of a culture suffering from the consequences of screening out all it cannot control or accept.

Simon Cooper is an Arena Publications editor.

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