Technology and Humanity: making healthy music

New Music and popularity: is it the mastering?
A former classmate of mine, who is now a (very good) composer, performer, and educator, recently posed this question on a social media site: “Why does classical music insist on using an antiquated poor recording process?” He went on to explain that he was annoyed by the wide dynamic range used in classical recordings because it makes for long passages of very quiet audio playback with only occasional louder sections. This makes listening to classical music difficult in less-than-optimal situations, like during long car commutes, for example. 

In contrast, pop recordings have been mastered at ever-hotter levels in recent years, and also compressed (some call it “hypercompressed”) to make the volume difference between loud and soft passages negligible. This difference in how the music “pops” in a car or on the radio, my friend observes, might be one factor contributing to small audiences for classical music, simply because the recordings are produced to be effective in listening environments most folks simply don’t have any more like "hi-fi" rooms dedicated to careful listening.

Much has been written in the last decade about the “Loudness Wars,” happening both at mastering houses and again at radio stations, but this was the first time I’ve heard anyone have a distinctly positive attitude toward heavy compression of recordings. Personally, I have been irritated by too-loud recordings that sound harsh and brittle, rather than letting the music breathe with actual dynamics. While I still listen to a lot of music, I have found myself experiencing the “ear fatigue” often mentioned in connection with Loudness Wars.

It’s true that classical albums with a huge uncompressed dynamic range don’t fit nicely into the routines of those who might listen to music on a long car commute. It would be interesting to see data on how many people listen to music on long(ish) commutes to work or school by car. I’m sure the numbers are higher in sprawling car-centric places like Los Angeles and Denver, but I suspect that the numbers would be much less significant in big cities with better mass transit like NYC and Chicago (and the dynamic range issue doesn’t seem as pronounced for ear bud listening on trains), or in places with smaller populations and short commutes.

Perhaps “radio mixes” could be made available for those who might prefer them for practical reasons. It couldn’t hurt to give the idea a try. But the “traditional” mixes should remain available, too, for reasons I’ll go into below—and I don’t think dynamic range is a primary reason behind New Music’s lack of popular acceptance.

The resurgence of vinyl
The effects of ear fatigue in my own music listening routines have led me to a much-renewed interest in vinyl. I used to buy vinyl when it was the only available format, or when the used price was too good to resist, but in the last several years I’ve been buying new music on vinyl whenever it’s available. I have discovered that I can listen to records more deeply and for much longer stretches than I can handle with new CDs or mp3s. I notice myself becoming distracted or even irritated with digital formats. I think that was probably happening for a long time, but I couldn’t articulate precisely what was bothering me until I started finding articles about the Loudness Wars and ear fatigue. The contrast between formats seems to have increased in recent years, and indeed CD mastering has been pushed to the limit over roughly the same span of time.

Consider the seeming resurgence of vinyl: “the kids” who are downloading mp3s aren’t buying CDs anymore—but they are buying some vinyl. It’s a small market, to be fair, but it’s also a growing one. Many indie/weirdo bands have reached a point where records are more desirable than CDs on merch tables. And one of the biggest differences between CD and vinyl is a reduced dynamic maximum in analog media—that is, records are “quieter” than CDs. In spite of physical playback limitations to volume, vinyl mixing/mastering jobs tend to take fuller advantage of the available dynamic range, certainly in comparison to the brickwall radio pop mixes we’re getting lately.

Some have been cynical about the uptick in vinyl sales, dismissing the purchases as consumer totems of hipsterdom, but many vinyl junkies describe the sound of records as being better than CDs. I’ve grown to agree. In spite of pops and crackles on older/used records, I’m finding that vinyl almost always sounds better to me. More precisely, it feels better in a way that is difficult to quantify but is easily experienced when you’re immersed in the sound. What vinyl lacks in terms of added self-noise, possible clicks and crackles, narrower stereo field, or decreased dynamic and frequency ranges, it somehow compensates for with that ever-elusive concept of “warmth,” often described in comparison to digital playback as more “natural.” 

I notice this difference less on older, quieter, or less compressed CD releases, but once you’ve focused on the distinction, there is almost always a little more of that “warmth” on vinyl. I don’t think of myself as either a hipster or a retrogrouch, but I do think I’m experiencing something that amounts to more than just an aesthetic difference—there is a subtle difference in mood. While I see validity in the possible utilitarian need for more compressed mixes, this phenomenon points to an issue of health/wellness that forces me to lean hard in the other direction where my own listening needs are concerned.

I'd already been thinking about the idea of music and health/wellness from another perspective--tuning and temperament. I'm not sure precisely what got me wondering about tuning systems lately, but I've been reading a lot about the history of tuning and temperament and seeking out recordings made outside of the equal-temperament tradition. A quick definition of "equal temperament," for readers who aren't familiar with the notion: the octave is divided into 12 equal intervals, allowing for easy transposition and modulation on instruments like the piano and the guitar.

I remember briefly touching on systems other than equal temperament (ET) in music school, but it was more for the sake of trivia. As compositional practices in the West leaned increasingly on modulation, the ET compromise was the only practical solution, making everything sound the same in all keys. But at what cost? I wonder how much communicative potency we lose in our music when pure intervals are compromised, or even if modulating heterophonic musical approaches communicate with less depth than more centered tonal approaches. I want to write music that is effective, communicates clearly, and is "healthy," for whatever that's worth. To that end, I think it's worth taking a serious look at alternative tuning and intervallic systems.

The talk around alternatives to equal temperament gets quasi-mystical at times. It's all vibrations. Frequencies are made of standing vibrations, art is essentially using a portion of the electromagnetic spectrum to (hopefully) communicate or "resonate in consonance" with others...but it's impossible to dismiss biological components to hearing and our responses to auditory information. Music is indeed made of powerful frequencies that become even more powerful in harmony, and the vibrations from music and other sound stimuli do effect skin, bone, and body resonance. Perhaps these subtler contributions to hearing are themselves sensitive to particular shifts in tuning/temperament, or the difference in waveforms (analog) and close approximations (digital). And maybe the subtle differences become more substantial in combination--for example, is the difference more obvious when comparing a raga record to a hypercompressed pop CD?

I've long been attracted to contrapuntal music. In counterpoint, one is focused primarily on horizontal listening (melodic phrases and their interactions), rather than vertical implications (stacks of chords supporting one melody at a time). While counterpoint doesn't solve the problems of tuning and temperament, it does take a lot of the emphasis away from vertical sonorities. And in musical moments where phrases stop and focus on a given chord, wide vibrato can serve as a way to both impart emotion and to blur "true" pitch, letting listeners' minds do the tuning. 

In my own writing, focusing on melodic lines intersecting instead of writing "chords & a melody" heterophonic musical textures, and frequently ending phrases with wicked vibrato, seems to have protected me from the most acute intervallic problems introduced in equal temperament. But I would like to incorporate "pure" thirds and fifths into my music whenever I can, and I'm also interested in exploring the changes in different key centers' "moods" in other systems like just intonation and well temperament. Because there were small intervallic differences between key centers in non-equal temperament, we see historical descriptions of particular keys having different "moods." The effect is a variation on the basic major/minor duality and the subtler emotional/communicative distinctions introduced by the modes of major/minor scales. I'm excited to have more potential forms of compositional nuance available, so the idea of keys-with-moods is appealing.

Cultural values and music
These tuning/temperament issues were incredibly important in ancient China. The Chinese shared an underlying philosophy that musical forms--and their tuning--could represent the relative health of society, or even contribute in some way to social decline by falling "out of tune." To the extent that music written in equal temperament wouldn't meet their requirements for real consonance, let's look at the value placed on music in our society as viewed through the times and places in which it is performed.

When wondering about the lack of popular appeal for New Music, there is always an elephant in the room that must be acknowledged: with few exceptions, this kind of music has never had popular appeal. Performances of New Music, or "art music" as it's sometimes called in delineation from music that appeals to more commonly-shared aesthetics, was mostly heckled when presented to concert audiences in the early 20th Century. It continued to evolve in small salon performance formats, mostly sharing the music between people who made it and wealthy patrons supporting it for cultural cache. Larger concert audiences have never taken much of this music to heart, and it continues to evolve mostly within the protective walls of academia. Performance environments of salons and universities meant that New Music never had to succeed in terms of popularity.

I share the desire to bring this music "to the people." I believe it has much to communicate and express to non-academics and non-musicians. And it's worth exploring every possible method to help that mission succeed. However, I think that success will be more likely if the effort is based on a realistic understanding of this music's (non) relationship with the general public. An honest analysis of the situation must acknowledge long stretches of anti-public, anti-popular activity by the ranks of the avant-garde, New Music, academia, etc. Fortunately, many friendly and open communication-based vehicles for bringing this music to wider audiences are already at work: ensembles playing in non-traditional venues, group performances/improvisations that invite audience members to collaborate, and the act of teaching itself, staying in contact with upcoming generations of musicians.

Public Performance
Club gigs almost always start late in the evening and end in the middle of the night, later than most folks can justify being out if they take their jobs seriously. The establishments hosting these shows mostly rely on alcohol sales as their primary revenue stream. The economic context of shows-at-bars points to some form of musical devaluation in the sense that audiences at these shows must have as much or more interest in intoxication and potential hookups as they do music. Consider also the deafening room volumes at most club gigs, largely necessitated by the many conversations happening throughout the audience. The result is a sensory overload experience in which subtler musical detail is lost.

The low cover charge at the door has generally stayed $10 or less for decades at most clubs, explicitly placing a pretty low value on the music. Bands playing small and midlevel clubs have long been lucky to merely break even on tours with tiny $50-$200 payouts after many gigs. Now that albums themselves are ubiquitously available free online, even merch sales are tumbling, save for vinyl enthusiasts and t-shirt sales. At least you can't download shirts.

More famous bands and commercially successful jazz and classical artists still play swankier venues with earlier start and end times and much higher ticket prices. The continued success of these musicians and venues, mostly still solvent even in our current economic troubles, is a positive sign that at least some forms of music continue to enjoy a stature of social value. And outside of performances, the massive popularity of illegal downloading in the last decade, and the growing popularity of streaming catalog sites like Spotify, last.fm, and Rhapsody, show that people still love to hear lots of music if the price is low or free. But the ticket prices for big shows have increased very, very rapidly--returning to the ancient Chinese perspective, it could be argued that the decline of the middle class in our country is mirrored in musical performances, as music is made by and for the extremes of the wealthy and the working poor, with less and less content in the middle.

Insights from art movements
Early 20th. Century art movements, particularly Dada, Surrealism, and Futurism, generally started among enclaves of "outsider" intellectuals, and as they declined as organizations, many of their techniques and ideals were preserved among academic art traditions. But there was a period where those art movements worked very hard to attain prosperity and stability within their societies. They weren't simply making weirdo art to exchange among one another; they were socially and politically engaged, doing their best to support the working class, especially in the case of the Surrealists. Their best work is rich in collective human experience and largely in opposition to bourgeoisie ideals of their day, which they were already observing as contributing to a certain hazy disconnection that ultimately matured into the postmodern detachment of television culture: lowest common denominator stuff, but with a self-referential and self-congratulatory laziness instead of consonance with basic archetypal building blocks that communicate more substantial collective values.

I first saw the communicative potential in avant-garde forms of creativity while reading "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" in middle school. Wolfe's descriptions of the Pranksters' colorful clothing, exuberant style, and willingness to talk to anyone struck my young mind as a beautiful and effective way to show the public new forms of art while nurturing collaboration and community values. In retrospect, the mood of change present in the culture-at-large gave them certain advantages of time and place, but their activities still reveal valuable ideas for artists who want to share their work beyond cultural boundaries, real or perceived: make it fun! It can be easy to lean toward negativity and observe that our culture has largely grown apathetic, lazy, and not particularly thoughtful, consumed by consumption itself. One artist or a group of artists won't change that course alone, but we can all make meaningful strides. Through our actions and our art, we can show that learning, thinking, and feeling can be fun and rewarding--that a well-considered life is an enjoyable one. We can take care of ourselves and each other, sharing our values and aesthetics at the community level, and in doing so we will empower and inspire.

Living thoughtfully
So I don't have all of this stuff worked out. I think all of these issues are interrelated, or at least they are in my work and life, and after wrestling with most of them for what's staring to add up to decades, I'm not waiting for a singular epiphany to part the waters. Reconciliation of the whole is a long process that continues to unfold as I grow and experience more. For me, the core value is living thoughtfully, participating in an open-ended process in which you first strive to understand yourself, and from an individual position of health and stability you can communicate more effectively with others and nurture your community. 

Of course there are many ways to live thoughtfully and assess yourself, many combinations of personal growth and getting ideas and strength from those close to you. Some choose to describe the process in spiritual terms, and that can be helpful. For its simplicity and directness regardless of spiritual/religious leanings, I'd recommend "Tracking the Gods" by James Hollis as a resource for organizing self-growth plans (and thanks to Brian Alt for introducing the book for a book discussion group several years ago). It's a short book drawn from Jungian principles--simply put, it lays out the concept of archetype as a way to identify issues of growth and renewal common among individuals of cultures throughout history. You can establish what amounts to a "personal mythology" built on cultural and individual values that resonate with you, from which you can draw strength and purpose while knowing you're on a journey which will continue to evolve and amaze you through the years. What I especially like about the concept is how it lends itself nicely to the creation of common ground at the community level. You can apply it to particular spiritual/religious practices if you choose, or you can look at it as secular common ground--the value to the human condition, individually and collectively, is preserved either way.

As I try to comprehend the connections between these issues of music, art, culture, and community, I'm trying to listen to my body while also addressing the more intellectual implications. I often struggle to achieve a balance between the cerebral and the visceral in my own life, but the effort is more than worth it. I want to enjoy music that is healthy for mind and body, encourage others to experience it, and make it myself. Looking back, I think that a lot of my musical efforts over the past decade focused on social critique, highlighting the negative aspects of control systems, addiction, consumer culture, fanaticism, etc. Rather than continuing in that direction, I intend to make music that can be part of a steady diet of healing, growing, and togetherness. This is only one aspect of living thoughtfully, which in my case has led me toward choices like bicycle transportation, eating healthier with a focus on local, organic foods, and avoiding most television/cinematic products as forms of entertainment. I think it's important that artists try to participate in thoughtful living in their lives and work, toward individual and societal health. When our new creations resonate with people, new lines of communication open, and creative acts move us all forward.

To 2012!

I'd love to see this post turn into a discussion--please feel empowered, even obligated, to add your thoughts in the comments. Anonymous comments are fine. Sometimes the anonymous ones get pulled into the spam filter, so don't be alarmed if yours doesn't show up right away. I'll look for those and move 'em over as needed.

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