Where Does the Music Live?

Much of my own philosophical work is done through examples and cases — I find it helpful, at least for my own purposes, to explore concepts and arguments through attempts at application. For this reason, I’m always delighted when the world drops another example in my lap, especially when I’m not sure exactly what I want to do with that example.

According to a recent BoingBoing post (for instance), the band YACHT has hit upon a clever way to explore their own ideas about music, about how it is created, about how it is produced, about how it is sold, and how we (as listeners, as creators) are related to the technology involved. They meditate on the compact disc as technology, and about the future of technology and music. Importantly (I think), they talk about the relationship between how a song looks and how it sounds, and the process of design and presentation in the context of which music as a product is made and shared; “making a CD about CDs, in a landscape where CDs are growing obsolete, was an interesting design challenge” for the band’s latest project, Where Does This Disco? They ultimately created a clear CD (no foil) containing their whole music catalog that was deliberately unplayable: “In a sense, this useless object allows the CD to retain its integrity. There’s no way to listen to the songs etched into it, but there’s also no way (that we know of) to release the digital files from their prison.” This disc, as a physical, packaged, marketed object, is as much a comment on cloud storage and streaming music as it is on the CD as a technology (whether treated as obsolete or as nostalgia item). The band openly asks where the song really is — in the files, in the performances, in some other “ineffable” inbetween place — and suggests that even human performers, as the medium for transmitting ideas to consumers, are not “future-proof”. They conclude with the suggestion that one might think of a song as “a point of departure for a process of design.”

While I’m thrilled to bits with a band that cites Walter Benjamin in the midst of a meditation of this kind, I find myself not altogether on-board with their account of songs, performances, or players (although their approach is fascinating in the context of a study of the philosophy of information). So much of what’s in question here depends on a set of assumptions about what a song is that go unquestioned (for instance, the unquestioned treatment of performances as objects subject to the same uncertainty as recordings and other musically-related or musically-derived objects). The song as point of departure for design is an ambiguous thing — is it the song (whatever that means) that constitutes this starting place, or is it the process whereby songs, treated by practical/economic necessity as commodity-objects, drive design processes? So much of this treatment of songs is built in the context of commodification (with all of its attendant metaphysical baggage) that it’s not at all clear that there is anything like a “song” (as a process, as a thing, as a “point of departure”) to speak of.

I don’t have an answer to any of the puzzles here yet. I look forward to spending more time thinking about it!

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About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. Otherwise, I labor to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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