Music Minus One…Technician

Jonathan Bellman

My friend Eric sent me the following:
Inspired by comments Brian Eno made in his book A Year with Swollen Appendices, Duncan Sheik released White Limousine with two discs: One, a CD labeled Mine and the other a DVD labeled Yours. The former contains his stereo mixes, while the latter contains WAV files of the individual elements of the mixes for each song. Sheik is requesting that people remix his CD to their liking, and has even provided a place for people to upload their efforts. The best remixes will be streamed on the remix site, and some will even be released as downloads.

After an initial thought is that this is some kind of gimmick, it struck me that this approach has a good deal in common with a wide variety of historical musical styles. A wide variety of historical musics were offered to the public in which might be considered skeletal form, to be essentially composed anew at each performance. Examples include Corelli violin sonatas (think especially of the introductory slow sections), Italian opera from the mid-17th to the mid-19th century, the standard popular songs found in fake books. What these cases have in common is a performance-based aesthetic: the performance is the real artifact, while the score is merely a kind of general recipe, the product of the composer but useless as long as it remains on the paper, unrealized.

With the Duncan Sheik project, the recordings themselves are “performances,” and he is clearly encouraging a multiplicity of them. Maybe it’s a goof and maybe something deeper, but it’s worth noting the innovation superseding the old, oft-decried the-recording-IS-the-performance pattern; here, the recording is only A performance, one of innumerable possibilities. In this era of Every Man A Sound Technician, with a wide variety of software packages enabling production at a rather high level, this is a way of reintroducing to the concept of general musicking–a favorite word of mine, the idea of music as process and activity and real-time pursuit as opposed to controlled, vacuum-sealed product–into a medium that is recording- rather than live-performance based. The word “democratizing” is overused, but it keeps rearing its head here.

A broader philosophical question pertains to the division between “cultivated” (classical or art musics) and “vernacular” (folk and popular) musics. In a case like this–and I find myself thinking of the Art Rock bands that flourished until the mid-1970s–the music itself might have been vernacularly conceived, approached and assembled from a kind of tinkerer’s perspective, but the recordings themselves were products of the most cultivated technological expertise available: mixing, overdubbing, etc. What does that do to the distinction, and to both top-down snobbery and populist reverse snobbery?

Perhaps that’s a blog for another day.

Welcome home, Phil!

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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