Does Music Exist?

If a record plays and no one is around to listen to it, does it make a sound?

In the introduction to his 2005 33.3 series book on Miles Davis' Bitches Brew George Grella Jr. writes that 'music only exists in time and only lasts in memory.' It exists only for the duration of its performance and the collective memories of everyone who hears it. That includes listeners, performers, and those who heard it accidentally or as part of the ambient experience. 

It also includes people who hear the music via reproduction. This involves recording and storage on some kind of media. And that media is generally physical, though recently it's changed to being digital files.

The ephemeral nature of music is likely part of what makes us cherish it and why we linger over the physical representation of a given musical performance. Without that, music begins to seem a lot like it doesn't exist. Like it's just one keystroke away from deletion.

Even without our own individual experiences and biases that color our perceptions of what we hear or make certain music easy and pleasurable to listen to while other music seems like a lecture and still other music seems like an act of aggression towards us. But suppose for just a moment that we were all somehow hearing exactly the same thing the question is still 'What exactly are we hearing?' 

The media or platform where we first encounter or acquire music and listen to has a great deal of bearing on how we remember that music. 

When I was growing up I listened to music primarily on vinyl. Because I was very curious about all kinds of music and often wanted to hear music I might have read about but not yet heard, I would check records out from the local library. Our library had a very good collection of records and cassette tapes that included many classic albums as well as keeping up with current releases and trends in the various genres.

I would listen to these records and then record them in order to be able to hear them when I returned the record to the library. First I would record them on a handheld cassette recorder with a microphone set up in front of the speakers. Then my father got a reel to reel tape deck and I would record some things on there directly from the hi-fi. Finally, we got a proper component stereo and then a dual cassette deck which could be used to record directly from the tuner. 

This was the first way that I came into contact with Bitches Brew. I borrowed the album from the library and listened to it on my own all-in-one stereo record player. I heard the hushed quality that Grella talks about in his description of the opening moments of "Pharoah's Dance", the opening track (indeed the only track on side one) as having a mesmerizing, ominous quality:

"The way it whispers, the way it seems to follow the rules of a trance, the way it does not reach, or even seek, finality, make it existential."

I also heard an intense density to some of the music on that record when I listened to it on vinyl and on a cassette reproduction taped with a live mike to the speaker. But when CD copies appeared and the music was remastered for digital media and again for The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions, I no longer heard the music the same way. 

The instruments were the same. The music was the same. But some of that ominous, whispering, trancelike quality just wasn't there in the way it had been when I first heard it. Of course, nothing was going to sound like my cassette copy. By creating a poorly recorded cassette bootleg of the record I had, for all intents and purposes, created a custom remix of the record. 

You can't step in the same river twice. You can't have precisely the same listening experience twice both for reasons related to the music (either live performance or the media it's recorded on) and to your circumstances (alone or with others? speakers or headphones? What's going on in your life? Are you riding the train or sitting in a comfortable chair with a cocktail?). 

John Cage was getting at this with his piece 4'33" which is frequently described as four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. But it's not. Although no musical notes are performed each performance is unique because it includes any ambient sound heard during the performance. In fact, there is even an app (iPhone only) that allows anyone to 'perform' the song at any time by recording the ambient sounds where they are for 4'33". These performances can be uploaded to the website (johncage.org) and listened to by others.

Music is unique in our lives because unlike other art forms it doesn't leave an artifact behind unless one is deliberately created by the musician, fans, or other players in the music business. Writing creates books, visual art creates paintings, drawings, and sculpture, photography produces a photograph. Dance is like music in that it too leaves nothing but memory unless it is deliberately filmed. Music and dance are inextricably linked, and perhaps this is one reason why.

I guess I'd counter that famous Elvis Costello quote which states that writing about music is like dancing about architecture with writing about music is like dancing about...music. Writing about music is like dancing. It's acknowledging the music and the fact that it only exists while it is performed or while it is listened to on a recording and it's about sharing what it is that you heard when you put that record on.

When the JayZ song is on. When the Britney song is on. 

It's about being human. It's about stories. And it's about showing us your version of the music because what you hear depends on where you're listening, on what equipment, and what's going on. It tells us just as much about you as it does about the music we're listening to. 

Bonus Tracks

  • In Ten Tracks: Laura Nyro Recognized as a hit songwriter, Laura Nyro is underrated as a performer to this day, especially the second half of her career. In Ten Tracks takes a look at some of her incredible recordings.

  • 2019 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll features an expansive list of 100 jazz titles released last year. Lots of interesting releases in diverse styles, so there’s bound to be something here you haven’t heard yet.

  • Music Journalism Insider is another excellent newsletter if you’re a music writer or have more than a passing interest in the business of music. There’s a great new post about the selling of SPIN magazine once again. That’s five times since 2000, this time to a private equity group (that’s probably bad news). In one scenario he asks a former editor to discuss the strategy he sees the new owners pursuing:

    “The rentier class of music industry techno-capital will be our subject…we will only ever follow the money. No album reviews, no playlists, no discretion.”

    Bleak stuff.

Itsuroh Shimoda is a Japanese actor as well as a songwriter and musician. This song is from his 1974 album Love Songs and Lamentations. Sometimes his work is reminiscent of Dylan or Leonard Cohen, with a folksy vibe that is often lonesome or troubling. This track sounds like it could easily come from a Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez movie soundtrack.

Please let your friends know about NDIM. Forward this newsletter, drop our web address or our Facebook page to someone you know who loves music more than almost anything else.

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