26 June 2011

The “real” thing...

I have always had a strong æsthetic preference for physical rather than purely electronic media in my acquisition of information content. Practical considerations often outweigh that preference when the content is utilitarian; but they never eclipse it.

I've mentioned this before, in relation to text. If I am seeking facts, or must carry a lot of content at the same time, then one or another electronic reader makes more sense than paper and ink. The reader can give me a thousand documents, or more, for the same weight and bulk as one. But when it comes to reading for pleasure, I would rather carry the bulk of a novel in paperback than the weightless downloaded version. I value the electronic reader1 (though I'm in the process of ditching it in favour of software on a tablet computer; more of which another time), but I can't love it.

So it is, too, with music. Except, of course, that I have no utilitarian reasons for choosing downloaded music over physically purchased media beyond cost and availability.

Matt Revell commented to my previous post that “The beauty of a book is, I believe, that I just need a little light and my specs to enjoy it. It's not like listening to music, where you do need some kind of equipment whether you're listening to an Ogg file or a vinyl record.” A good point, and one which reverses to the case that if one is listening to music on the move2, it makes little difference how one came by it. I never have a need to consult Stockhausen's Helikopter-Streichquartett or Craig Davis playing Sister Sadie in the middle of a meeting, the way I might have to consult legislation or published papers ... but, if I did, I could do so just as effectively from digital copies of purchased CDs (or even shellac 78s, for that matter) as from digital downloads.

Some music is no longer available on physical media. Some new music never was. In either case, I am quite happy to download it as my primary means of procurement and store it not only on my hard disk and back it up on the cloud but also save it onto a CD of my own. Much music, however, is still (so far; it may well not always be so) available for physical purchase – and I prefer to buy it that way if I possibly can.

There are the obvious advantages and disadvantages. Electronic copies are usually at a quality level compromise which is good enough and small enough for a particular purpose, and if I have the original physical medium I can go back for a better conversion at any time (see note 2 below). On the other hand, two and a half thousand albums fit as neatly in my shirt pocket as one, on a hard disk, but represent an increasingly demanding storage problem in physical form.

None of that, however, whilst true, really has much to do with my real reasons for preferring physical ownership. When it comes right down to it, my real reasons are æsthetic. I love the complete artefact which an album (or book) represents, and that is the true basis for my preferences.

There is a process of fragmentation in cultural forms, at the moment, which for the first time seems capable of excising those forms from our cultural stock. I don't suggest that there is anything wrong with fragmentation, and certainly there is nothing new about it. From my earliest reading memories, I have returned to favourite passages in a novel without reading the whole; from my first LP purchase as a teenager, I often put a disk on the turntable to play just one favourite track from an album or one favourite passage from a long work. But there is now a broad tendency to only hear the fragment, rather than choosing it from the whole. Downloading did not start this ... radio stations which play tracks from albums, arias from operas, extracts from concertos, predate downloads by a long way ... now the process has moved to the point where it is legitimate to wonder whether production of long, structurally coherent cultural forms such as the novel and its musical equivalents might not face a future redundancy.

In music, the continued existence of the long form is often (not always) tied up with the physically æsthetic object. I bought The defamation of Strickland Banks, which is an exception: while I get real pleasure from the sleeve note booklet in general, and from two of the black and white photographs in general, this is a brave attempt to carry the concept album into the new nonphysical era. Defamation relies on its narrative continuity, and planned video form, to bind itself together as a single long entity.

At the other end of the scale from Defamation, I have recently been given Emily Barker's Almanac and Kate Bush's Director's cut, both of which, in different ways, play on my desire for a physical æsthetic.

Almanac, like several other albums in its genre (Joanna Newsom's Milk eyed mender, for instance), dispenses with the usual jewel CD case in favour of a fold out cardboard one. There's a thumbnail picture of it on the left; click it for a large view showing inside and outside, including slotted disk sleeve.

This sleeve, as I hold it, triggers in me all the responses which I usually feel towards a craft object ... including books, particularly hand made books. I am aware that I am being manipulated to respond in this way; but both art and crafts are, always, manipulating our responses. I'm so glad that I don't have a download version, even though I have stored the music itself on a music player from which I listen to it without any need to go into the sleeve.

Director's cut also abandons the jewel case, but instead of a handicrafts approach it takes the form of a hardback book of the same size – with the disk itself sleeved inside the front cover. The book contains the song lyrics, but also a set of intriguing, humorously linked, photographs reminiscent of Penny Slinger meets Duane Michals (for example, the one shown on right, linked to the song lyrics for "And so is love"; again, click the image for a larger view). Many of these images depict people wearing fish heads3.

Both of these I handle with tactile and visual delight which synergises with my enjoyment of the music to produce an æsthetic whole which is so much more than the sum of its parts. The download version of Director's cut includes, in PDF form, a copy of the booklet ... but that really wouldn't (excuse the pun) cut it, for me; I would value it highly, if that were all that was available, but I value the inclusion of the "real" thing, the physical, touchable thing, so very much more.

  1. I say "electronic reader" rather than "Kindle" because the Kindle, being tied to one supplier, is both barely useful to me and philosophically less open than most of its competitors.
  2. Listening to music at home, in high fidelity, may be a different matter. By way of experiment, I downloaded and bought copies of the same Bach choral recording from the same supplier. Played through good speakers, the difference was palpable: the download lacked depth and dynamic range compared to the CD.
  3. Clearly a reference to the Fish Heads label on which Bush's holding companypublishes her music. This sort of play is not isolated. The holding company itself is "Noble and Brite"; Bush's son, around which much of her life and one explicit song title revolve, is "Bertie", short for "Albert"; and the name Albert means "bright, famous, noble..."

  • Plan B (aka Ben Drew), The defamation of Strickland Banks. 2010, New York: Atlantic Records (679 Artists).
  • Emily Barker and The Red Clay Halo, Almanac. 2011, London UK: Everyone Sang.
  • Kate Bush, Director's cut. 2011, London UK: Noble & Brite (Fish people).
  • Joanna Newsom, The Milk Eyed Mender. 2004 Chicago: Drag City. DC263CD.


Julie Heyward said...

Numbers and bullets! Can I just say I hate my Kindle? That when we have a thunderstorm I leave it plugged in and if it's not plugged in I plug it in?

Completely OT, when I read "cut it" above, I was reminded of "cut one" as in [holding one's nose] "did you just cut one?" of my childhood. Does anybody still say that?

Felix said...

JH> Numbers and bullets!

[grin] I do like to keep you amused... :-)

JH> I hate my Kindle?

If you wish! :-)

Care to expand?

JH> ..."did you just cut one?"
JH> ... Does anybody still say
JH> that?

Dunno ... but then I've never heard that exact expression before, either. I have heard very similar ones (the most common being "did you just drop one?", just last week) over long periods so it's probably a geographic thing?

Julie Heyward said...

Kindle -- I can't jump around. I often want to go back and review a relevant or connected segment (or, as often happens, I can't keep track of names, places, etc. in complicated histories). I can't fiddle with linked footnotes so I end up reading them all at the end where I have no idea what they were noted to; books either have no index or I can't manage them; maps, illustrations ... forget about it. And I absolutely hate the hideous screensavers that one can't get rid of without a "hack" (available on Amazon's blogs). Text formatting sucks; headings suck; titles suck; tables of content are impossible.

And it leads me into sin. Because of the cheaper cost and the somewhat invisibility of what I'm reading not to mention the guilt of disposing of it afterward, I use it to sneakily, furtively, read books that I would not otherwise do (sort of the book equivalent of reading People magazine, which is the main reason I go to dentist and doctor waiting rooms).

Dr. C said...

Definitely geographic. More common in the USA Southlands (where "A full 24 percent of Americans still can’t identify Great Britain as the country we ditched on July 4, 1776").
Very interesting piece, Felix. I refuse to purchase a "Kindle" (this will become like the Kleenex or Frigidaire of the future; a whole 'nother thread.) I have so many unread books (as many as I have good intentions) that to decimate my library in favor of some fancy pixels would be a cultural sin. Speaking of the joy of libraries, might I recommend "The Library at Night" by Alberto Manguel.
CAUTION: The Surgeon General has determined that if you read this book on your Kindle it is a mortal sin!

Matthew Revell said...

By email, I promised to comment on this post but I wanted to wait until I had time to say something thoughtful. Rather than wait another fifteen years, I'll write something less thoughtful now.

I bought a Kindle and don't regret it. Two reasons:

1. I'm reading a lot more. Books are beautiful but awkward, heavy and I lose bookmarks. My Kindle always knows where I'm up to, is light weight and I can even read my Kindle books on the mobile phone that I always have with me.

2. I decided I had two options: give in to the Kindle and so enjoy books far more or buy books that would sit on my shelf.

I can't overstate the importance of the convenience that the Kindle offers me.

As for my comment about renting books and a feeling of sadness that something as simple as reading should require electronic paraphernalia, well, I've got over it. When I buy a physical book, I'm effectively renting it, because most books I'll read once and then either give away or leave on my shelf to get dusty.

If there's a book I want to keep forever, or give to my children, I'll buy the physical item.

Now, any time I have a little spare time ... I'm reading; largely thanks to the Kindle app on my phone.