Music is among the most ephemeral of all arts. When it is written down, it’s in code, a code only understood by the kind of people who made the stuff in the first place, and that might explain why most music in most cultures is not written down with any real degree of precision. The thing only exists in the air.
It is air. Moving air.
We need air to breathe and we need air to hear. I recently discovered that the Italian verb sentire means both to hear and to feel. You could say hearing is feeling with ears, but new revelations indicate that sound acts on our whole bodies. Hearing and feeling become one in the same.
Music inhabits the air, but that air becomes thick, thick like gravy from the seventies, like the smell of a thousand perfume counters. The air from the speakers of your phone is not big enough. You would not date someone an inch high: don’t listen to music through phone speakers. Where is the love?
Headphones can make you feel surrounded by music, but you are then cut off from people around you. It’s a solitary experience, and it’s one I like a lot, but….it’s not a gig.
Recently I made some notes about a gig I was at. I had some fleeting observations, you know, mostly about why one note or gesture over another….but the shaking air all but smashed them and I wrote nothing down. Music is not an absolute, at least it wasn’t that night. Music is the people that it gathers together. To listen to a record is simply to imagine such a crowd around you. Tonight they are here. Sometimes music seems to play time backwards, the people that come somehow summoning the sounds. It radiates experience outwards into memories but with a seasoning of the new. Ghosts live and breathe. If you were there you would know, tonight you would know.
I stream music. A lot. I did a whole series of solo gigs in lockdown where my source of tunes was mostly from a streaming service and a search engine. Streaming is like looking in the footnotes of the Mona Lisa, like sky diving by sitting on a chair and having a friend scroll drawings of the sky past your face. It’s an indicator of a future experience. When you make a lot of money, you say: “I don’t know what I want to do, but when I do I’ve got the finances to pay for it.” The problem is, the finances pile up and the dreams fade away.
We have become used to an all-or-nothing approach to everything. It’s either all live music, wax cylinders and crackling vinyl or it’s a brave new world where music of the future will be released in a gas through the streetlights and suburbs of cities, towns and villages, perfect, odourless, soundless. And it will probably be Beethoven, James Brown and Neil Young because new music will be too expensive to record. Perhaps….we already have enough of it. I mean, how many “playlists to aid work concentration” does a person need?
But we only “have enough” if we regard the final “product” as the thing that matters. But it’s not. It’s the making of it, and the witnessing of that making by the people who crave the soul-comforting, mind-sharpening, puzzling sound of air moving through the world. Music is still communal, and all those people sitting in front of you on the bus with their earbuds in, they are longing for it too, but they are, in the meantime, making do with what has been made convenient. Music’s online availability, utopian perhaps in its early days, has removed the glamour of its scarcity. Rareness breeds value, but music is now lying half eaten in the street, a bag of chips discarded because the prospect of a sausage is a new taste sensation.
It’s not enough.