The Gasping End

OK Yes so I’ve been working in this “album” of “songs” – actually closer to spoken word – although intsead of my own voice it is the standard Macintosh text-reading software. Scroll down for two new songs in the text-to-speech style! Also: RFID, banging rocks around the mastodon carcass, Kafka freaking out, a host of related links, all that. Welcome to Warm Not Cold!!!

Music starts with the human voice. Well, that’s what they say. It could just as well start with listening. Leaves move against leaves. Would you shut up and listen to that???? So it comes down to two paths: music as the creation of ordered vibrations and music as listening for ordered vibrations.

OK. We start with creation: European geniuses and bureaucrats work long and hard to take loose rhymes and rhythms – products of social noise or spiritual excitement – and turn them into a string quartet, a marching band, a symphony: now everyone is reading from the same script. Someone says, “Do you have the music?” And what they mean is, “Do you have the script?” Then someone – probably Edison – starts to scratch lines in a wax cylinder. The physical energy of sound vibrations vibrates a needle while the cylinder turns against it. Later, you put a less-scratchy needle in the groove and spin the cylinder, setting off a set of analogous vibrations. If you’re quiet, and listen closely, you can hear – amidst the surface noise – an echo of the original sound. No electronic amplification necessary. Wow. Recording is born. Forget the script: music becomes an object holding the potential for recreating a sonic event. “Bring some music!” and what they mean is – “Bring some cylinders, some acetates, some cassette tapes!!!” Tapes – yes – because once you have electrical current coursing through wires you can start to effect that current through fields of electromagnetic vibration. Sound pressure encoded in electric current as amplitude, frequency. Measure that 44,000 times a second and pour the results into an array: a block of digital data. “Bring some music! Bring some data files for processing!” The data is the script for playback (which the device reads) and a record of the sonic properties (encoded samples of amplitude and frequencies): both at once. But our music – if it started with a voice – was born in our mouths and throats: right next to language. Even when we are “La la la” -ing we’re right in there with language. Signifying “nothing” but doing it with syllables speaks volumes!!!


“The Only Crow in the Tree” – Al Larsen – text | mp3
“Boom Boom Kah” – Al Larsen – text | mp3

We’ve come a long way from what we used to call music – back when it was just you and me banging rocks around the mastodon carcass, and, sure we’ve got music as fields of digital data – the script and the record at once – but this data doesn’t say anything about its origins in oral communication. How about an endless field of typing run through some standard text-to-speech software? The coded representation of oral communication and the playback script joined at the brink of nonsense: let it try to make English words out of everything – the more crude and off-the-shelf the text-reader the better. The semantics and the sonics – the script and the storage and the syllables and the performance – joined in a field of unicode text. Music starts with the human voice – and it ends with a text-reader endlessly voicing the accumulated internet? A full circle to the end of music? No social vibrations. No spiritual excitement. A mountain of data, an endlessly churning performance for no one at all.

But as soon as this vision is manifested it begins to fade into the background, just another gasping end, amidst gasping ends…

It’s 1912 and Kafka is having nightmares about communications technology: suppose a Parlograph called a gramophone on the telephone? The pornography of a blank postcard sent through the mail. The horror of being there and not being there. Noise and silence. Communication and unintelligibility.

But the specter of machines in communication doesn’t scare you and me. We’re certainly more sophisticated than that! And yet, there is a new music forming, and it represents a return to social vibrations, only without a care for human hearing: we live amidst a chorus of tiny devices, listening and transmitting back and forth to each other. RFID tags are just tiny things – not much more than a single circuit – embedded in our id cards, consumer products, pets. A passive RFID tag has no internal power supply but comes to life within the transmitting field of a transceiver. The incoming frequency gives the circuit enough power to backscatter a reply. The attention of the listener provokes a response. Performer and audience acting in concert. Call. And response. Cheap and small and proliferating at the rate of 150,000 an hour, the big companies are falling all over themselves to embed them in everything: every item in the store micro-tagged and ready to transmit. Take a moment – or 4′ 33″ – and contemplate this field of singing from a machine’s-ear view.

Our text reader continues to crawl the internet, programmed to turn typing into some sort of sonic semantic experience… meanwhile, the new music of ubiquitous computing builds and builds, humming exponentially more complex harmonics.

Surely, another gasping end… even now fading into the background.

Related Links

“In the Presence of Noise” in Relays: Literature as an Epoch of the Postal System -Bernhard Siegert

RFID production to increase 25 fold by 2010

Abe and Mo Sing the Blogs

The Online Diaries of Franz Kafka, 1910-1923

With Hidden Numbers – RFID-enabled sound performance

4′ 33″ – John Cage

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