Recorded music realizes a dream of pure magic—but at the same time the end and even the death of music itself. A Blakean paradox or mystical dialectic: Every phenomenon has a “good” and a “bad” (in some rough sense), an Emanation and a Spectre. When I worked in radio (at WBAI-FM, the Moorish Orthodox Radio Crusade), and played rembetika, Ottoman marching bands, Irish music composed by supernatural beings (the Tuatha De Danann, a k a the faeries), Anglican church music from the 15th to 20th centuries, etc., I and my listeners (I hope) experienced the first “Emanational” aspect of recording: its magic.
But as the Muzak company understood, recorded music eventually loses its presence—and in its state of absence or deprivation it becomes a potent subliminal form of anxiety, often alleviated by a shopping spree or food binge—perfect Capitalist behavior.
Thus music becomes background—in expensive restaurants one is expected to listen (but not pay attention) to music appropriate to a honky-tonk whorehouse: rock ’n’ roll, which should be a highly presential dionysiac experience, becomes aural vanilla for jaded yuppies. Youth buys its latest “rebellion” from the world of commercial greed and adult condescension called the Music Industry. With headphones and computers everyone composes a soundtrack for their own stupid boring movie, their life as student or wage-slave and consumer—music as anodyne for the constant immiseration (as the Sits used to say) of Too-Late Kapitalismo.
Finally—recording replaces our own voices with dumbness. We let stars sing for us—we let machines come between us and the divine musician within us. Music attains Spectral status. It haunts us with its own non-presence reduced to residual noise pollution.
I had to give up radio (both as producer and consumer) and get rid of all recorded music in my sphere of influence (basically, my house) in order to preserve my relation to music. I don’t dare sing in the street (as everyone did until about 1979), and there is no amateur communal music anymore (recording killed it)—no “music bees,” so to speak. [See Wilson’s Words Without Song in the March 2011 Rail.] Music now lacks all sociality except the ersatz of mass consumption at a concert or music festival, but at least it remains possible to hear live music sometimes. Usually now when I hear any decent live music I burst into tears. I give it my attention—a process that produces a kind of high or rausch.
If we have to hear a recording, let it be a 1911-style shellac disc or even wax cylinder, cranked up by hand, not electricity—a magic music box to baffle the dog with its master’s voice—a cabinet of aural marvels. If we have to be haunted by music’s non-presence (every recording is the tombstone of a live performance) let it be by one of these graceful, ear-shaped or seashell-shaped machines (see illustration), a Surrealist’s delight (Leonora Carrington’s “hearing trumpet”) or spirit trumpet for a charlatanesque medium.
ContributorPeter Lamborn Wilson
PETER LAMBORN WILSON is the author of Ec(o)logues (Station Hill Press, 2011).