True or false: audio playback is a generator of fake memories, of concerts and performances we never attended in the flesh.
Never attended? Let's think about that for a moment. 99.9999% of all the music we listen to is not a replay of something we just heard live on stage. What a relief. There's no inbuilt frisson, no absolute sound to chase. The memory doesn't have to match the original. It is the original. As such, it's no longer even a memory. A memory is what you make it when you talk about it. Afterwards. That's the peculiar thing about music (and dance). Both art forms only exist in one fleeting moment. They're not like paintings or books which you can return to in that regard. Paintings and books are their own record. Dance requires video, music audio to intercede as -- and substitute for -- the human witness at the scene of the original event or production.
About memory in general, we can agree that it's an amazingly elastic and selective filter. It's a real champ at creating uniquely personalized mental-emotional playback loops of whatever we remember (many memories we can't even access at will no matter how badly we want to). What's more, memory is often wildly different from pass to pass. It's not reliable as a forever-fixed data carrier that always amounts to the same string of 1s-and-0s output. Now consider the passage of time and its effects on memory. It's rather in flux, isn't it?
Audio playback as original memory generator then? Unless you listen to a tape, CD or record of a performance you were actually present at, playback isn't concerned over being fake, over not measuring up to the original. It is the original. It's a fiercely cocreative or bidirectional enterprise. Our life experience, personality and subconscious cache of impressions and memories are the filters and forces that manipulate the outcome. Three audiophiles in one room listening will all have different experiences. Additionally, they'll subsequently use different translation software to evaluate and explain their experiences to one another.
Discrepancies are thus doubly profound. Even if each listener had the same experience to talk about -- which isn't possible since they don't share a common nervous system -- their post-experience assessments of the experience still won't match. The common example of this is accident reportage. Five people at the scene interviewed by the police render five different accounts of what happened. By comparison, audio is far more complex. Very few listeners have formally mastered the hidden language of music as practicing musicians. They merely have a sympathetic response on an emotional and mental level. Yet they lack a formal framework of technique and form. When asked to communicate their responses, they can't simply recall that a blue car careened around the corner when the light had just turned red, probably doing about 65mph and slamming into a green car that just pulled out of a parking lot. Musically speaking, they can't even identify the make and model of the car. Neither can they assess driver speed, technique or skill.
The same doubly-removed standard applies to music playback when dealing with recordings projects that involve musicians who've never met before and will never meet again. There was no concert with concert-going witnesses, period. Listening to this studio production (which could involve e-mailed-in tracks and plenty of post-production trickery when the musician had long since left) does not render you a pale ghost or echo of the flesh'n'blood concert goers. With such recordings, you become the primary witness. Even over the recording engineer. After all, he didn't listen to the final commercial pressing during the mastering process. What he handed over to the commercial pressing plant was his master. Let nobody claim that a commercial release is identical to the original mike feed or master tape.
Based on that last statement, we have to in fact amend the above exception about live recordings. The doubly-removed standard applies to all recordings, live cuts or produced. There are translation losses between the microphone and commercial pressing (never mind that microphone placement choices are the first filter of many in the actual recording process). There are translation losses between the source playback machine and loudspeakers. There are translation alterations (not necessarily losses) once the actual sounds trigger perception modified by individual human nervous systems. Finally, there are translation difficulties (losses and alterations) when a human witness reports -- after the fact -- what he heard and how he feels about what he heard.
By the time we get into audio discourse, we're at least quadruply removed from the alleged original event. Is it any wonder audio reviewing is so rife with subjectivity? When you consider the matter, how could it be different? It's thus no great surprise when key players at The Absolute Sound recently went on record to opine that the very best of audio systems (cost no object) still fall well short of reproducing the absolute sound or recreating the original event. Whoppee!
What original event? Let's give this nonsense a rest. The original event is the playback of music in your home, there in that preciously fleeting moment, missed the very heartbeat you begin to even think about it. That's why music listening is so similar to meditation. It makes tremendous demands on your focus of attention. Unless your mind is still in both content and place, you're missing half or more of the action. Unless your higher mental and emotional powers are at the ready to be played upon by the music, you're hearing mere noises and sounds. Not music. That's the great open secret. Music listening is participatory. It's an extremely transient affair that requires great skills to engage fully (and arguably can be practiced and further benefitted from music education).
When we talk about "musical meaning", we're talking about listener participation. There is no meaning other than what the listener provides. That addition of meaning occurs in the moment. Moment after moment like the proverbial necklace of pearls (the moments) connected by the silk thread (our cocreative participation of attention that connects the pearls without gaps). Listening to music is thus original each and every time. Music doesn't exist outside of this participation. Make no mistake - what's on a CD isn't music. It's encoded sound patterns. That's not music. What transforms sound patterns into music is human participation. As soon as your emotions and daydreaming mind of imagination are added to the picture, the transformation occurs. Sounds become music. It's the human reactions that make it so. If the encoded patterns don't encounter recognition patterns in the listener, the end result is only noise. (Listening to completely foreign music like Chinese Opera or Indonesian Gamelan for Westerners can bear this out. Hearing it for the first time can create a complete disconnect. You initially don't recognize it as music per se, just noises).
Next time you worry about the absolute sound, rest assured that any such concerns are far removed from what's important. There are no absolutes. There are merely individual bodyminds and their nervous systems which can be brought to bear on the playback event. "Can be brought to bear"? They are in fact inseperable from the notion of event. No participation, no event. This event occurs in the moment. Fresh and new and meaningful each time. Regardless of whether you heard the same music yesterday or five minutes ago. Regardless of whether both times, your CD player read identical 1s and 0s without invoking any error correction. Same sound patterns, different experience. Hence different music. That's the truth of the matter. All else is simply nonsense where it concerns music. And isn't it music we're after?
Music listening is a cocreative pursuit pure and simple. As such, it's alive. Anything alive, by definition, is original. Original means one of a kind. Even two snowflakes can never be alike. If that' so, the same goes for our hobby with the unique experiences all of us have with it all of the time. That's what's original about it. Not some bloody original event that got canned and captured at some point in the distant past and ended up freeze frozen on your silver disc. That event died the moment the last note faded on the air back then. If your participation doesn't first thaw and then cook to perfection those sound patterns each and every time you hit play to regenerate them and bring them back to new life -- your life -- you're consuming frozen fare. No wonder you suffer an upset stomach, lack of nutrition and never get any. Real satisfaction. If that's your dilemma, don't blame the food. Don't blame the kitchen utensils. Blame the cook. And perhaps bad music. (There is such a thing. Lots of it in fact.) To me, that's the first and last truly relevant thing on this complex and endlessly fascinating subject about which much more could be said while missing the boat entirely.
True or false: audio playback is a generator of fake memories, of concerts and performance we never attended in the flesh. I'm afraid it's true each time that we don't truly attend to the event to make it an event. Once we make it an event, it's the real and original deal. If we don't, it's a fake memory alright - of something that could have been and should have been but we were too lazy or ill-equipped to make happen...