Damon Krukowski imagines a different analogue metaphor for our digital music making tools
Cut and paste is a gesture fundamental to our digital life. But in music, it’s always driven me to distraction. Perhaps because I am a drummer first, I’ve never gotten used to hearing beats repeat without any variation. When the technique is extended to an entire chorus, I can’t help but see a flashing cursor in my mind’s eye, rather than flashing stage lights.
Compared to an LP, digital music is itself a version of cut and paste. Play a digital track – play it again – there’s no variation. But vinyl frustrates an identical repeat; the record itself degrades with each play, for one. There’s the dust that settles into the grooves and collects on the needle, constantly shifting. And there are all the inevitable fluctuations of analogue sound reproduction that high end audio strives to minimise: the speed of the turntable, the vibrations in the room, the variability of the current, etcetera.
Listening to an LP is a rather Cagean experience of an unrepeatable moment, in other words. (Despite Cage’s famous hostility to the format – see David Grubbs’s recent book Records Ruin The Landscape for much more on that.)
What if instead of cut and paste we borrowed a different analogue metaphor for our digital tools? ‘Fucked up and photocopied’ (to take the title of a compendium of punk rock flyers), for example, would certainly lead somewhere else again. Indeed, there are many musicians and producers who work with digital sound to do just that – à la glitch, generative music, electroacoustic improvisation, etc. But what about on the receiving end: Might we initiate a more varied experience when we simply push play for a digital track, as we do for an LP?
A number of iPhone/iPad apps that represent the vinyl experience for MP3s would seem to reach for this – VinylLove, Turntable, Vinyl Mini, AirVinyl, and so on – but sonically they offer little more than kitsch, the audio equivalent of nostalgic filters applied to digital photos. Like those visual filters, the effect can be fun, even beautiful – but it is unvaried. As a result, listening at length via one of these apps starts to feel as tiresome to me as a drum machine.
Can we imagine and build a digital audio system that seals our music listening in a single, unrepeatable experience? Until that arrives, perhaps external factors are the only way to keep digital listening attentive to the moment. What we see, what we touch, what we taste and smell – whatever sense we leave open to the analogue vagaries of the environment – remains variable and immediate, while MP3s drone on in the background.
And maybe this – even more than economics – helps explain the demise of recorded music, in favour of live bands or DJs?