How Music Dies (Or Lives) by Ian Brennan serves as a guide to those who ask themselves, “What’s wrong with our culture?” Along with possible answers are lessons in using the microphone as a telescope, hearing the earth as an echo, and appreciating the value of democratizing voices.
To find more books that pique our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.
A pitfall of capturing music in any permanent, reproducible medium is that it can arrest the artistic growth and progress of that musical form. The archetypal field recordings that Alan Lomax did throughout America’s South in the 1940s (or the forefather of all sonic “exotica” documentation, Jesse Fewkes in 1889), more than exemplifying exact musical genres like the blues, were in fact reflections of individual aesthetics at one exact moment in time. The assumption that bluegrass music always sounded like it did in the era in which it was first so faithfully documented is to disregard the fluidity of all musical creation. Not only would bluegrass have sounded different one hundred years earlier, it probably sounded markedly different even five years before (and would have more so five years later, had it not been for the permanence of the recordings themselves which led to more precise mimicry, turning music-making from a process, instead, into a “thing” that could literally be held and examined).
More than sacred scriptures, most folk music has been constantly retooled and adapted by each successive individual performer. The greatest pieces were cross-generational works in progress (e.g., The Iliad’s being seven hundred-plus years in the making).
The first recordings essentially caught improvisations that arbitrarily became benchmarks, snapshots stolen from an epic film, that was then disrupted violently, damming up its stream, mid-narrative. And, those pictures will inevitably be, in the first place, blurry ones, for they are capturing something elusive and in motion, much like the ambiguous images offered as evidence of UFOs or Loch Ness monster sightings.
Art is designed to reveal, not to show us what we already see and know. Yet, the gigantic copying machine that is the music industry, by necessity, thrives on repetition. And when a system ceases changing, it has become a cadaver.
A psychological appeal of fixing something vaporous into a physical state is that it appeases people’s fear of their own impermanence. But one hundred years from now — if we have even survived as a species — no one but the most erudite will know or care who sang “Sexual Healing” or “Every Breath You Take” or the like. But the sturdiest songs — the most unshakable melodies, a lyrical bit that hooks listeners’ psyches — will have lived on in some altered and evolving form, liberated from celebrity.