An emerging theme in my recent viewings and readings has been the role of technology. While out at the Saybrook RC I began once again thinking through my dissertation plans. This is a daunting task to say the least, but a worthwhile project that will at the very least better educate me and hopefully some others about the way that creativity in the moment can inspire great music. Anyway, I have been on this sort of literary archaeological dig searching for information about the beginning of music. Not sound mind you, but sound used in some sort of utilitarian way. Sound used as a communication tool, as a ritual backdrop, as a means of technology. Our use of music across time could be seen in just that way, a technology. Now you may counter and say that this precludes the idea of music for the sake of music, but it seems likely that even that has a utilitarian value. After all it is used for the composer of the sound, or for some audience. It is an entertainment, or perhaps a pointer, but it is not nothing. It does not simply emerge of its own accord. Like the tree falling in the forest, there may be a need for an ear to hear to call that tree fall music, or to ascribe meaning to the fall.
In the song “Attics of my life” by The Grateful Dead the line is, “When there was no ear to hear, you sang to me”. The sentiment here seems to be one of deep and abiding care. Regardless of the idea that you cannot hear me, I will sing to you. Sounds like a pointless endeavor yet the idea is that song carries some value outside of sound. Simply the singing has its own life and meaning. I envision a deaf person who is sick, held in a singers arms. The singer bolting out passionately and the deaf person watching this amazing rapturous transformation, no ears to hear. It is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful songs by The Grateful Dead and you can listen to it here if you so choose.
Technology of course has always been a very important part of The Grateful Dead experience. Forget the amazing array of musical instruments that the band use, they always encouraged the recording of their concerts. “Let the words be yours, I am done with mine”- (from Cassidy by The Grateful Dead). In fact Jerry always said something to the effect that the music was no longer his. It had in effect been given to the audience. Another stream of beauty cast into the endless void, a sand painting blown away by the winds of time (“Give it just a minute, it’ll blow away”). Contrast this idea with John Phillip Sousa who did not like the new technology of the phonograph. Sousa was en vogue at the end of the 19th century and he was very skeptical of the new technology. According to Elijah Wald in his book ‘How the Beatles destroyed rock n roll’ , Sousa preferred that the listening experience be a live one. While Sousa did of course record some of his music, he was much more interested in everyone developing their own musical talents and playing their own instruments. Perhaps the same way that we all read and write. Sousa did not decry technology, just canned music (as he called it). Technology was the instrument and it should be played live. The studio recording would then by contrast be called ‘dead music’. Looking forward, many jazz musicians prior to the hard press of putting music onto vinyl would say that recordings were the death of the music. Where jazz is alive, vibrant and on the spot, the recording takes the magic away. It places in standing reserve the sounds that are created on the fly during an improvisational exposition.
This idea of standing reserve was Martin Heidegger’s way of referring to technology. Heidegger did not have a very deep appreciation of technology either. To get further information on this check out this link: Understanding Heidegger’s The Question Concerning Technology So we have this dichotomy of ways of looking at technology. On the one hand, some musicians in the early part of the 20th century were resistant to recording while others much later down the line found the role of the recording to have a place beyond the lighted stage. Just think what the world would be like if we did not have a standing reserve of music. No recordings, just live music. We would never have known Jimi Hendrix, or Chuck Berry, or The Beatles. We would instead be going to more concerts and live events. Virtuosity would not be as prominent as there would be no real comparisons except through written reviews. It is nearly impossible for me to envision such a world. I with my huge standing reserve of music at hand. Music becomes technology in and of itself. It becomes a personal journey, this collection of music. We have learned to at least partially define ourselves as the conglomeration of the music we hoard. We personalize further with statements such as ‘I like Jazz’, or ‘I am a Prog Rock fan’. My guess is that these kinds of self definition would never have happened without recordings.
On the other hand, technology is an amazing catalyst for music. Mickey Hart, former drummer of The Grateful Dead has been bringing more and more technology into the spontaneous creation of music. This begins with his use of technology that translates the sounds of the big bang and other cosmic events into music and now will soon continue with using the Golden Gate Bridge as a wind harp. Mickey Hart to turn Golden Gate Bridge into wind harp Mickey has used technology of this sort ever since the Grateful Dead started, whether it was the use of an I Beam as a musical instrument, or trying to run The Grateful Dead’s sound through the Egyptian Pyramids before sending it into the audience he has been an innovator of sonic technology from the beginning.
So I guess the message is that technology is simply what we make of it. But I think it is important to recognize how technology plays a role in our lives. It can at once bring us all closer together, or tear us apart. I am thinking of the television as a means of escape from the ‘real world’ or the way that children drown out the world in video games. This is not to say that there is not a place for this use of technology. We all need our downtime. I am instead advocating for an appreciation of the intersection between our lives and the life of technology.
I will leave you with this video that I just found earlier today about prejudice and robots. We can easily extend this metaphor to any racism that we have engendered in our own lives. I encourage your thoughts and feedback. Thanks for reading!