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tom moody

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Thanks to Eyebeam and* for reblogging the recent post here on Paul Lansky. That writing's been revised a bit, including fixing one unfortunate flub: the phrase "now a kind of parallel universe to the academic camp" in the second paragraph was missing the "the," which made it sound like the post was calling "music department music" camp or kitsch. Some of it is, but not Lansky's. Some more late thoughts on Lansky's essay "The Importance of Being Digital" follow.

A possible contradiction in the essay: Lansky describes in great detail how analog recording errors can mar the pristine perfection of a digital music composition (such errors are called "artifacts," whether analog or digital). He recounts anecdotally, from the bad old days, all the steps involved in transferring a computer music piece of his to vinyl, each of which introduced artifacts. One of his philosophical selling points for digital technology is its ability to make an artifact-free copy, which is then nearly infinitely reproducible on a mass consumption level. (An aside: Lansky's irritability over intrusive sounds explains much about his music, which is remarkably smooth even at its most boisterous.)

Yet while praising the perfect copy Lansky argues for digital music's ability to exploit the "loudspeaker as instrument." In other words, the speaker is not just a window through which a pre-existing sound reality passes. Woofers and tweeters (and the creators who control them) can actively shape and define their own sonic reality. But if that is the case, why is purity of signal such a virtue? Does clarity even exist if no comparison is to be made to a pre-existing sound?

Lansky describes how analog copying procedures carry with them their own history. A grainy xerox of a smudged newspaper image of a black and white photo, for example, tells a story as much as the underlying picture. Setting aside the fact that digital production has its own artifacts, such as the non-stop yodeling of a skipping CD: this "history" can be just as much a part of that "loudspeaker reality" Lansky champions. In other words, it can serve as content to be actively used by the composer, whether through the deliberate introduction of skips and errors into the recording process, or by adding a patina of age or "period" to music, as in the distinctive mellow hum of an old tube amp: a mix of fact and fiction to be sorted out by the listener.

The point of all this being not to challenge Lansky's core arguments but simply to demote "purity of signal" in the pantheon of digital music's virtues, significantly below "ease of copying," manipulatability, and "ability to define its own reality." If clarity has a virtue at all, it is, as Lansky suggests, that it allows infinite cutting and pasting in the composition process without changing the sound in undesired ways due to accumulating artifacts. Being able to create a "richer," "fuller" sound from the rich pallette of prior recorded or previously unrecorded sounds allows the composer to more accurately trigger associations in the listener while at the same time plugging this data into the composition's imaginary patchbay of abstraction and representation.

*Update, 2011: Eyebeam reblog archives are dead. The Rhizome link has been changed to Please note that I authored the post, not Marisa Olson.

- tom moody 8-15-2006 9:09 pm [link]