Plato vs. MP3

Today, recorded music has the attributes of divinity: perfection (digital editions erased all flaws), ubiquity (the archives are everywhere and nowhere at the same time), intangibility (they no longer have a physical body), immortality (copiable ad infinitum), omniscience (music collections are now complete, and there is no time to listen to them), and, as with divinity, it is no longer lucrative unless a cult or church finds a way to charge for cathedral echoes and lighting equipment. Sound archives expose the defects of their attributes better than the gods. Like a life-term president who feels no urgency to carry out anything at all, we feel no hurry to listen to what we store (in many cases without paying more than the time it takes to copy it). We have the illusion of eternity in our hands.

One of the defects of immortality is banalization, destruction of the emotion of the irreversible. Before the record, a magical, unrepeatable halo surrounded musical execution, without metaphor: the Appearance and Death of sounds. Composing was the first step in the fight to tie that fragile butterfly to the stave and speculate on frozen time. Even so, scores depend on the art of interpretation, which is transmitted orally like any musical tradition and preserves the fragility of that which is unique and perishable. The record arrived, and musicians felt they could at last capitalize on what was previously vanishing from their hands. They wrote their new artistic and economic history in vinyl grooves whose imperfections still made live music irreplaceable. In the 1950s, values were reversed: the stage burst into living rooms, where hi-fi eliminated reasons to go and hear live versions subject to the risk of error, to the point that performers felt unusual pressure to sing and play better than sound equipment. To top it all, fictitious music in virtual spaces was birthed in the recording studio, and it was unrepeatable live.

Archival deterioration seems to be the solution both for the music business and for emotional health: a native virus that progressively scratches recordings. I remember the spirit that reigned in the era of the vinyl record: you bought only the latest, and this keepsake was the cutting edge of creation, a wave of unstoppable progress. The old record, if it was very good, was necessarily scratched. Today, we are condemned to a flawless “Let It Be” or Pink Floyd’s “Money” for all eternity – a new form of hell. Classical music is spared by eternal repetition of old recordings because the repertoire is constantly revisited by new performers, especially when creative currents of contemporary composition go astray. One of the most paradoxical of Plato’s passages (Phaedrus, 274E) is where Socrates polemicizes, opposing, in the benefits of writing, precisely the defects of its main attribute – the potentially eternal storage of ideas: “Well this invention will bring forth oblivion in the souls of those who learn it, for they will neglect the cultivation of memory…” The same can be said of the toxicity of the universal archive of recorded music. The creative spirit of musicians is kept alive precisely by the deterioration of all traces of the past. Much of creation is in trying to recover the remembered stature of what was lost. Plato versus MP3.

Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland

About pauldesenne

Composer / Writer
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