back to

e-flux conversations

How Music Takes Place: Excerpts From “The Post-digital Manifesto”

How to decide what music to listen to? Presented with boundless access, this is the perpetual question today. The standard response is to propose the use of automated systems of recommendation. Instead of spending all that time choosing music ourselves, we could just let software identify patterns in the statistical data we have left in our trail. Next, this software goes on to offer us radio stations specially tailored to our individual preferences, stations which often prove themselves shockingly adept at opening our ears to music we didn’t even knew we liked. In spite of this, the underlying principles of these recommendation systems remain quite primitive. “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought …” is the basic functionality, familiar from online bookstores. At the center of it all we find the individual, whose preferences are to be compressed and reduced into a statistical profile.

Why assume that preferences come firmly lodged in the individual? The transitory bodily relations to music are constantly being reshaped, suggesting that what we usually call “personal taste” might be better understood as an aggregate of the supra- and the sub-personal. The everyday musical choices we make are influenced by factors like time of day, day of week, or season of the year. Other factors include weather, metabolism, intoxication, and the almost random way in which various sensory inputs seem to trigger associations with our earlier personal musical experiences. But above and beyond anything else, it is the people around us who exert the biggest influence on our musical choices—in our relations, through our desires. It is never the case that people who get together automatically and iteratively start to adjust their presumed internal preferences until a mix arrives that makes everyone happy. In real-life situations calling for musical selection, direct democratic ideals must remain inapplicable.

Music unfolds in the charged field separating the opposing poles of responsibility and irresponsibility. If there is no one present who is willing to step forward and assume responsibility for what is played, then it can scarcely be held that there is any music taking place at all. In such a situation, it would be more accurate to say that the room is being drowned in Muzak. And, on the other hand, if full responsibility were assumed by everyone—something verging on the hypothetical—no one would dare make a sound. The situation turns into silence, albeit a musical one. In musical improvisation, aiming for such a state of full and collective responsibility might be possible. And if that aim ever gets fulfilled, the music will have ended, with everybody present reverently holding their breath.

In the impulse to set the tone, to proceed from silence into the beginning of a new tune, there will also inherently be a backing off from individual responsibility. The first riffs of a saxophonist, the first beat of a drummer, the first track laid down by a DJ—these are all actions that cannot be justified on their own merits, precisely because they are (and must be) clichés. In order for music to begin, its initiators must temporarily cloak themselves in something recognizable. Here, the overflow of associations generated by any given musical genre makes for a lot of material for cloaking. The musician might choose to hide behind the name of a famous composer, behind stage clothes, or behind the mythic persona of an artist. In those first few bars of music, there must always be a relinquishing of responsibility, even if only momentarily.

Read the full article here.