CD Technology is Changing the Way Music is Heard

Since Edison's very first wax cylinders, recorded music has been a linear medium. Once the stylus hits the groove of a record, whether it's a shellac 78 or vinyl album, it embarks on a one-way journey to the run-off groove near the label. Any change by the listener, any lifting of the tone arm to try to find a particular passage or play something again, is an interruption of that journey, and an inexact one. Tape formats are no different: In fact, thanks to their reeled-up playback surface, to rewind or fast-forward to a certain spot is even more of an interruption and even more inexact.When CDs were introduced as consumer products in the early 80s, the primary selling points were the (dubious) marvels of digital sound and the discs' relative indestructibility. CDs are read by a laser beam passing over a digitally encoded surface, without the physical contact of a phonograph needle or tape playback head, so the quality of the encoding never deteriorates.The feature that no one made anything of at the time is that, since there is no contact, and since all the information encoded on a CD is referenced digitally, a CD player can skip around, on, or between tracks and sections of a CD with ease and precision. Soon even the cheapest CD players could be programmed to ignore the linear order of the disc and play it back in a different order without any distracting lag or missed cues. And before long you could buy players that used their on-board computing capability to change the track order for you, completely randomizing it.It appears to be a classic chicken-and-egg situation: Which came first, the ability to randomize -- to neatly tear apart previously linear recordings -- or the desire to do so? Regardless, randomization may be the aspect of compact-disc/electronic-music/computer technology that most affects how we hear music from here on out.David Shea is nothing if not open-minded. As a composer/musician who works primarily with samplers, he continually records, modifies, and arranges bits of preexisting sound: snatches from old easy-listening records, ethnomusicologic field recordings, movie sound bites, environmental noises, other musicians playing live, even his own samples. He names composers as varied as Juan Garcia Esquivel and Iannis Xenakis as influences. He is equally broad in his nonmusic sourcing: He has recorded albums inspired by the work of low-budget auteur film director Samuel Fuller (Shock Corridor), the elliptical TV cult hit The Prisoner (Prisoner), and a 17th-century Chinese allegorical novel (Hsi-Yu Chi). Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that he has embraced the random quality inherent in the digital technology he uses to create and release his music.The Tower of Mirrors, his latest CD on the Belgian Sub Rosa label, is another suite-cum-imaginary soundtrack, this one based on another slab of historic Chinese literature. As the album progresses through the track order, Shea and his instrumental collaborators (including jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas, former Rollins Band drummer Sim Cain, and avant-harpist Zeena Parkins, here on piano) build up a series of distinctive sonic atmospheres loosely based on scenes from the book: the sampled soundtrack cliche cutup "Locus Solus"; the urgent Kraut-rock sequencer pulse of "The Machines"; the rollicking cartoon Asian gangster jazz of "Canton Noir Blues"; the beautiful ersatz John Woo schmaltz of "The Lovers"; the wild animal grunts, jungle drums, and disembodied wails of "Sallambo & Salome." Each between-track jump cut takes you to a different scene, a different mood. Before long you forget you're not listening to an actual soundtrack.But Shea is not precious about his work-perhaps no musician who works primarily with a sampler can afford to be. "I organized the record according to a kind of musical script based on the novels [sic] dream narrative," Shea writes in the liner notes. But he also stresses that "it is not necessary to know any of the influences of the CD. The CD numbers can also be rearranged on your player to create different order [sic] which create new pieces. I prefer putting the player on random search also. The arrangement on the record 1-24 is the narrative as I conceived it but other arrangements may yield more connections."In other words, Shea is saying, this is the album I made -- feel free to make your own out of it. This amounts to heresy for most composers, who consider their work sacrosanct. Ever since the heady days of the Beatles' Rubber Soul, even Top 40 albums have been created and considered not just as random heaps of songs but as comprehensive wholes with internal artistic logic to the order in which things happen. Now CD technology threatens to overturn that artistic hegemony. In a recent article in that house organ of high-middle American culture, The New Yorker, David Denby bemoaned the ways in which the compact disc is ruining music, among them the following:If you reprogram the order of cuts in a pop album, you dissolve the album, at least as the album was once conceived -- as a story that the artist wanted to tell. Played as a selection of favorites, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band disintegrates into a random collection of eccentrically charming songs-not the end of the world, of course, but not what John Lennon and Paul McCartney intended, either. When the artist's narrative is ignored, the artist can be brushed aside as a mere provider of software.Denby assumes a number of things, many of which may prove less true than he thinks. First of all, even in its intended running order, Sgt. Pepper is little more than a collection of eccentrically charming songs -- the song sequence contains no actual narrative, and it seems reasonable to grant that the reason it sounds good in that particular formation is that that is the way we have always heard it. To say that reprogramming or randomizing the order of the songs subverts the artists' intent seems disingenuous: After all, when the Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper they probably intended that it be heard in a beatified state of mind, perhaps sailing on a couple of tabs of orange sunshine on a TM-clear day. Do we subvert the artist's intent if we listen to an altered whole with our modern, jangled, unaltered ears?Denby obviously sees the artist-as-provider-of-software as a diminished role. But there are a few artists on the frontier of contemporary music who see an opportunity to remove ego from the artistic equation and create music that operates at new levels of listener involvement. One of these artists has a track record suggesting he is rarely if ever wrong about these things.Few in the rock era have done as much to advance the recording-studio-as-instrument as Brian Eno. But while he has proven himself a master conceptualist of nondescript knobs, boxes, and wires, as well as the musical visionary who advanced the cause of ambient music and sonic installations, he has also been one of the foremost proponents of pure chance in the same technical creative process. Eno is renowned for taking a page from composer John Cage and using I Ching or his own deck of "oblique strategies" cards to create new inspiration at decision-making junctures. Now Eno is prepared to take the element of chance further than ever before.SSEYO, a software-design company, has created a music-generation system called Koan. The program takes musical raw materials and varies more than 150 musical and sonic elements during each playback so that, while you are technically listening to the same music, it is different every time. Eno, with characteristic forward-looking flair, has embraced this new technology with Generative Music I, a Koan software music title that features 12 musical pieces designed by Eno to be varied infinitely by the Koan software. There are "original" pieces Eno created as the basis for the program, but there is no CD, no tape, no LP. Rather, the consumer buys the Generative Music I software on floppy disc and there ever after hears a new version of the musical raw materials Eno first set down, to the point where there is, by default and intent, no original version.The generative-music paradigm is not new -- Eno himself references wind chimes as a long-lived example of the concept. But the use of this new randomizing technology, brought on by the twinned innovations in electronic music generation and computer microprocessing, represents a new way of experiencing music that breaks out of the more traditional modes of-the-moment live performance and standard frozen-forever recording. "People want a lot of different things," Eno wrote during a Compuserve on-line conference in July. "One of them is music that sounds identical from play to play; another, I've discovered, is music that never repeats. I'm not suggesting that generative music will replace anything-but add to it. What is really interesting is the future in generative -- generative graphics, generative narratives, generative architecture. There is a place for forms of culture also that are evolutionary, which somehow pay attention to your interests and modify themselves accordingly."Generative Music I is much closer to electronic wind chimes than the fully responsive system Eno seems to suggest, but it is a step in a new direction. As Eno himself put it in a press release accompanying the software: "The works I have made with this system symbolize to me the beginning of a new era of music." He also said, "I really think it's possible that our grandchildren will look at us in wonder and say: 'You mean you used to listen to exactly the same thing over and over again?'"Eno has a long history of conceptual musical adventurism, but there is probably no musical entity as currently obsessed with the ramifications of CD playback technology and randomizing as the German group Oval. Like many artists you might find in a store specializing in contemporary electronics-based music -- or "electronica" -- Markus Popp and Frank Metzger take outside sound sources and use sampling, sequencing, and digital-effects technology to capture, order, and alter the sounds into music. But, unlike any other electronica group, Oval doesn't sample instruments or other people's old records. It takes the old recordings themselves -- in the form of CDs -- and scratches them, paints them, and in any other way possible alters the sound. Then it plays back the damaged CDs on a conventional CD player and sample the clicks and pops and distorted, altered chunks of sound that have inadvertently been created. Then Oval builds music out of that.The results are encapsulated on Oval's first American release, Systemisch, on Chicago indie label Thrill Jockey. This is not a user-friendly interface -- on first blush, Systemisch is a chilly, isolating work, with nothing but random clicks and drones on which listeners can hang their ears. But after a few plays, patterns emerge from the seeming chaos. Those skipping CD clicks reveal their syncopated rhythms, those unidentifiable mechanistic drones reluctantly give up their subtle melodic content, the layers of static and hum divulge varied textures and careful arrangements, full of repetition and shifting variations, as well as distinct foreground and background components. Tracks such as "Textuell," "Mediaton," "Gabba Nation," and, tellingly, "The Politics of Digital Audio" sound like little symphonies that our thinking machines might make for each other out of castoffs from the bit-stream.Oval is now prepared to take its subversion of the sanctity of the recorded work as well as its medium just a bit further. Like Eno, Oval is working on a software package, entitled Process, that will open up its music and creative methodology to unlimited experimentation by the consumer. According to an E-mail from Popp, Process "not only features the usual sampling/mixing/editing-functionality, but rather works as some kind of interactive, game-like environment enabling the user to do their own kind of Oval recordings. Process simultaneously serves as a desktop CD-player application for playing any kind of arbitrary audio CDs plus added 'recording' capabilities for entirely remapping the existing CDs as sound files and even adding new 'individual' tracks to other people's otherwise read-only audio discs."Process will most probably get released as a full-scale Oval release, together with [a] set of presets, consisting of assorted loops out of the vast Oval archives, both in Macintosh format and as red book audio, which means that the audio section can still get accessed through your normal CD player in your stereo," Popp writes. "Instead of discontinuing Oval audio as a whole, Process will function as a software playback engine, a hybrid, next-level musical platform, that will get supported by a series of update CDs -- again in mixed mode -- containing more presets and loops as well as audio."In other words, Process will use the broadening possibilities of personal home electronics (CD player, CD-ROM drive, personal computer) to give consumers the tools to take Oval's alter-plunder-paste system home. Process users will be able to use the software to alter Oval recordings, manipulate other artists' recordings by using Oval's technological methods and means, and even, supposedly, alter actual CDs by other artists -- hitherto sacrosanct turf. If Process delivers what Popp and Metzger promise, all the musical sacred cows can now be considered potential cuts of beef."On a 'statement' level," Popp writes, "Process equally represents a general model of our approach and working methods-the 'creative' potential as well as the deliberate limitations involved in Oval music production -- as much as it is a fully functional, well-designed interactive multimedia software product, that clearly delineates that contemporary electronic music itself is software [emphasis added]. From a personal point of view, for me, Process finally overcomes the shortcomings of the audio-only CD format by allowing us to put the user into perspective, enabling us to reintroduce aspects like intentionality and perspectivity into electronic music. Process should however not serve as a design for rendering Oval obsolete, but rather declaring the Oval principle public domain."The activities of admitted fringe artists such as Shea, Oval, and even Eno are unlikely to wreak major changes on the music in the bins at your local Best Buy anytime soon. But these artists are not engaged in airless conservatory theorizing-this is, by some stretched definition, popular music we're talking about, or at least music by musicians engaged in pop paradigms. It's foolhardy to try to predict the ramifications of these new ideas, but with mainstream U.S. guitar-rock-oriented magazines such as Rolling Stone and Spin beginning to take grudging notice of phenomena such as modern electronica and the dance-music scene out of which it rose, it's hard to imagine that some of these concepts won't begin to seep into the mainstream.As Denby points out in his ruing of the advent of CD technology, modern consumers find themselves bombarded with more and more releases, and CDs that are often double the length of pre-CD albums (and double that again in the case of astounding acts of who-needs-it overkill and chutzpa such as Smashing Pumpkins' Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness). When confronted with such overwhelming largess, ostensibly in the guise of offering pleasure, it seems like a natural reaction to want to take a little control over the flood, even if only to give it up to a randomizing feature.Given the bells-and-whistles nature of modern personal electronics, most CD players now feature programming and/or a "shuffle-play" button. And every time you push that button, you commit what some see as a revolutionary act.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

Close