Saturday, September 27, 2008

McLuhan, Medium, Message and Music

In his 1964 book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan first produced his now famous opinion that "The medium is the message."

This statement has been interpreted widely, but I'm going to limit the meaning of 'message' in this case to mean 'effect'. This speaks directly to McLuhan's argument that while content maybe significant, the medium itself by which content is delivered produces an independent effect (on the person or persons consuming given any given media).

More to point, this effect, McLuhan argues, overrides any effect produced by content alone (were one even able to divorce it from medium).

Agree or disagree, McLuhan nevertheless presents us with food for thought when we consider his statement in regards to the method by which modern music is composed and produced.

Philosophers have focused primarily on Television as The Medium, but McLuhan didn't limit himself to TV. It simply so happened that nothing else so well illuminated McLuhan's points as the example provided by Television.

One could similarly ask whether or not one's experience of consuming music changes whether one listens to vinyl on a turntable, or an mp3 from a hard drive. Instruments themselves can be considered mediums. Is a melody different when 'broadcast' from a Stratocaster than from a Stradivarius?

Yes and yes.

Jay W. Wilkey, in his 1969 article, Marshall McLuhan and Meaning in Music, rightly notes, "A medium may be thought of as an extension of man." But if that is the case, network and cable TV is an extension of the entity originating the broadcast, not the viewer. In the same way for instance that light may be thought of as an extension of the light bulb, not the eye, which reacts to it. Now contrast traditional media with the multipurpose personal computer. The PC is not only an extension of those distributing content but for those using the machine at home to produce it.

For the end user, a TV screen is a canvas, but a computer monitor is also an interactive tool.

Today, (convergence aside) it appears that the personal computer is quickly replacing TV as The Medium –if it hasn't already. Unlike TV, or a light bulb for that matter, our engagement with the PC is not so direct. However symbiotic our relationship with computers is, unlike TV, a PC doesn't simply invite consumption; it also invites engagement. Significantly, we use an interface system to fulfill the task of engagement: usually a mouse, a keyboard and a Graphical User Interface (GUI).

One might even now say it's not the computer that is the medium, but that 'The Interface is the Medium'.

McLuhan suggested content specificity is of little importance, relative to the effect the medium upon which it is delivered also projects an independent message.

If we take McLuhan's concepts and apply them to music, the inevitable conclusion is it doesn't much matter if a composer's output is symphonic in nature or a sample-laden hiphop track. What should really spark your interest is that both traditional-sounding music and (the modern equivalent of) musique concrète today share similar production processes, given the ubiquitous use of Digital Audio Workstations by creators of both.

I can tell you from personal experience that copying and pasting marcato strings is not so unlike copying and pasting funky drum hits.

[FYI: Per Wikipedia: Musique Concrète is avant-garde music "...that relies on recorded sounds, including natural environmental sounds and other noises that are not inherently musical, to create music".]

Certainly, various genres of music –symphonic music, pop music, country, jazz, hiphop, etc– all sound quite different from one another. But whereas thirty years ago the phrase 'electronic music' was nearly synonymous with 'experimental music', that notion has since changed. In fact, both phrases are anachronisms by today's standards. Today, much modern recorded music –from Nashville Country to Nigerian Hiplife– is created using the same formerly experimental techniques. Well, how experimental can one work be relative to another if everyone is using the same techniques to piece together samples and loops, and executing wholesale copy and paste treatments?

An age of collage cannot be also be entirely an age of originality.

But what collage does very well that wholly invented works can only rarely accomplish by themselves (the works of Charles Ives come to mind) is illuminate new perspectives by simply contrasting existing ideas (manifest as graphic, visual, audio or otherwise) within a novel context. In this regard, PC tools invite collage and collaborative techniques, and as a direct result present new context –at least more so (I would argue) than a pencil and a piece of paper.

The old sounds aren't simply being rehashed or recycled; they're being presented in a way that teaches us something new about the component elements voiced within the work, the world and ourselves. One indirect result is the now oft circumstance of sample-heavy works reflecting new light on the works they borrow from, frequently refreshing old content with contemporary insight.

Returning to McLuhan, content may very well be incidental at an empirical level, if the medium by which we create content and then distribute it produces an overriding effect (however subliminal to our senses) on the audience/consumer/user.

On the other hand, instead of having to rely solely on content itself for connection with an audience, content creators now possess an increasingly larger opportunity to manipulate context in such a way that it invites a wider audience, assuming they also have the talent to make a connection in the first place (something the technology also facilitates).

This is a profound concept, because now astute composers, well informed in electronic media techniques, can hope to win listeners over with the mere idea of a musical work, potentially earning fans before the piece has even been performed. This is already especially true for core fans of any specific genre, because the overriding genre concept defining a given work will often endear a bit of forgiveness in fans in regards to actual talent, artistic literacy or skill set of the work's creator.

This can be accepted two ways:

1) Today, everyone has the opportunity to sound like a professional.

And that may be true, but:

2) Equally significant, today even accomplished composers and sound designers can use the same digital tool kit (as amateurs) to produce art well beyond their own however-well-trained abilities.

–Meaning: the opportunity for interesting new works by amateur and professional alike grows exponentially. This is good news for audiences, spectators and the public at large.

In a way, this paradigm also speaks a bit to the power of branding. In fact, it may not be an accident that both the public embrace of branding concepts parallels the widespread shift to digital tools and distribution. But that's another article.

For the moment, consider how much the (digital) medium (by which music is now created and distributed) shares with design creation and distribution. Both rely heavily on digital technologies. Both are produced via engagement with a Graphical User Interface. But not only do Composers and Designers use many of the same commands to produce their respective works, many commands also have a history of usage in Text-only programs, such as Microsoft Word.

Copy and paste a word, an image or a melody: Is the artistic skill informing the various arts really so different? To my mind, they merge once one accepts the notion that a GUI levels differentiating skill sets in favor of a common virtual tool kit.

As a result, Designers and musicians (and writers for that matter) are now using the same tools, and they are using them in very much the same way.

I suspect future music theory and appreciation studies will include techniques and analysis whereby (seemingly) traditional music scores will reveal evidence of collage, collaboration and creation via Digital Audio Workstations. It may be that music educators will also be in a position to produce corresponding design corollaries –visual art and images produced using the same tools and techniques– among the gathered artifacts.

But why wait for the future, when we can do this now?

McLuhan was not the first to argue that communication technology (The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man), be it print or electronic media, affects cognitive organization, but he is perhaps the most popular to expound this idea. It behooves musicians to consider the relationship between their tools (i.e. musical instruments and production equipment) and their own cognitive processes.

Does music shape the mind or is it the other way around?

One needn't limit this consideration to digital interfaces, either. Multi instrumentalists already know how the improvisational composition of music with a keyboard engages a different cognitive process than when referencing a fretboard. The former feels horizontal and linear. The latter resonates with diagonals and feels dimensional, independent of how the resulting music actually sounds to the listener.

Either way, one can't help but notice how partial composition using one instrument is enhanced when the process is completed using an altogether different instrument. (For instance, writing a harmony with a piano and creating a lead melody with an electric guitar –a composer is apt to produce something far different melodically than if he or she composed both harmony and melody via keyboard)

It will be equally interesting when composers tire of the kind of inspiration digital tools provide, and use them as one would a traditional instrument in the hands of a competent performer. That is, with a sense of transparency, influenced only by the innate capacity of one's own inner ear and gifts.

1 comment:

John T said...

Bravo, Terry! This piece is a tour de force. Your views on the relationship among artist, art form, and medium of expression are enlightening, uplifting, and often dizzying. I "see" more creative possibilities with the mind's eye, feel lighter in my body, and try to keep my balance while you negotiate among the various media and messages.

The traditionalist eschews future technologies, the avant gardist pretends there is no value in the "out-moded." In truth, the old and the new are simply different means for achieving different effects. In fact, working in one sheds new light on the other. Experiencing all reveals the unique value in each. For example, I believe vinyl albums produce a fullnes of sound absent in CDs and MP3s. The latter two seem to better articulate multiple instruments and voices. MP3s afford greater portability, and hence a greater intimacy, than CDs.

Perhaps logic advances by mutual exclusions, but art does not use this method. In fact, art does not really advance so much as grow-, in all directions and from all sources. Isn't this the way our senses and thoughts work when we let them? That is, when we relax the relentless pursuit of a future that lies just beyond the horizon? Standing along the shore line at Jones Beach, memory after memory rise up from surf and claim my present, the future recedes toward the distant past.

There is much more food for thought in your article. I will need more time to reflect. Thank your for sharing your insights and your vision.

Be well,


PS What is Amy's last name?