Tag Archives: music

Virtuality

Some time ago I discussed multimediality as a means to study and understand some artistic experiences. Virtuality is another such concept. With all the “virtual reality” hype of the recent years – perhaps even decades already – the term has become part of the vernacular without too much “resistance”, or people wondering about it. So I’m going to do some “wondering about it” right here.

Let’s start from the beginning and look at the etymology of the word. “Virtual” has three meanings in dictionary. From its Medieval Latin roots it carries the meaning of “effective,” as in “the company is effectively bankrupt.” It also means something that exists only in our minds; imagined. The third meaning is probably the most familiar to many relating to computer simulations of aspects of life and rendered through some virtual reality technology.

The word “virtuality” comes from the old Latin word “virtus”; “virtue”. Given the central place “virtue” – moral excellence – has had in western philosophy from the Ancient Greeks to our days, our “virtual realities” seem to be normatively positive imaginations. Here we could think of the Cartesian mind-body dichotomy. The current forms of virtual realities through devices such as VR glasses create an experience which largely neglects the body, although we’re already seeing the technology developing passed this limitation. Being divorced from the physical reality virtual “realities” are “safe” in that what happens in them has little consequences in the “real world.” For deeper discussion on a phenomenological approach to virtuality, see here.

Multimediality of Hieronymous Bosch's Garden of Earthly pleasures
Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Pleasures (1500), oil on oak panels, Museo del Prado, Madrid

There’s also a strongly music-related term pertinent to this discussion. “Virtuoso” stands for someone with excellent skills in some area, but most often the term is connected to musical skills. This is rather interesting considering the changing valuation of music and musicians. I’ve previously discussed The Garden of Earthly Pleasures by Hieronymus Bosch which places music – through musical instruments – in the depiction of hell on the right. Even more interesting, however, is perhaps the way in which musicality – depicted through musical instruments – became a highly valued skill a century later and is displayed in a much more positive light in some paintings of the Dutch Golden Age. The virtues of music and musicians have since varied, also depending on the context, but it seems that this connotation of “virtuoso” has been established rather recently.

Portrait of a member of the family Van der Mersch, Cornelis Troost, 1736. Source: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Portrait of a member of the family Van der Mersch, Cornelis Troost, 1736. Source: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Musical virtuality

Music as sound is by nature – if not by definition – virtual. Assuming the view of Heideggerian phenomenology, I’ve discussed before, the already-in-the-world nature  of music meaning – and I would extended it this case to experience – exists in our minds without a material counterpart in the “real” world. As professor Henkjan Honing would say, music is a cognitive phenomenon; there’s no music without a listener.

Musical virtuality

The abstract nature of music enables it to conjure images and impressions of “other” realities. In other words, sounds are very effective in triggering our imagination. Certain instruments, scales, harmonies, etc. call up associations. Due to the abstractness of sound and the constant evolving of cultural practices such associations always remain “virtual” to some extent. They’re of course also dependent on the listener’s prior experience.

Recorded music is a prime example of musical virtuality. It’s the art of creating an illusion that what you’re listening to is an actual performance of actual musicians in the way you hear them. What you listen to, however, is a result of production processes where musical performances are recorded together and/or individually and the recordings are edited, mixed and processes in many ways resulting in the final product you hear.

I’ve previously discussed Janelle Monae’s Tightrope and how it references – creates virtual connections – with the past, present and future in various ways. Next I’d like to discuss a song that takes up the topic of virtuality quite literally.

Virtual insanity

Futures made of virtual insanity now
Always seem to, be governed by this love we have
For useless, twisting, our new technology
Oh, now there is no sound for we all live underground

Jamiroquai’s Virtual Insanity is an excellent commentary, but also a demonstration, of the steadfast believe in technology we hold in the western world and beyond. The title is a funny word game referring – in my interpretation – to the way technological mediations remove our experiences of the world further away from the “real” into the virtual realms. People have the tendency to do what they can and technological advances – or “innovations” – are often inspired by aspirations to do something not previously possible or do it in a new way. Sometimes these innovations result in “useless, twisting” gadgets, other times to something more lasting.

The way the last phrase of the refrain is sung makes me always think of how sound – in my experience – is often the first victim when something goes wrong with these new gadgets, whether there’s a gable loose or a software glitch. But the song text is actually talking about a more serious scenario, possibly even an apocalyptic one where people have had to retrieve living underground – perhaps due to something gone seriously wrong with our blind trust on technology.

The refrain also talks about “futures”, in plural. An essential aspect of virtual reality technologies is that multiple “realities” – and also “futures” – can be created with them. It’s not hard to imagine how too deeply submerging into these alternative reality might result in difficulties dealing with the “real” world, i.e insanity.

The video combines the various meanings of “virtual”. The room with its soft walls could be a mental asylum for the “insane” but there are also various “virtual”, illusionary, things going on. While the floor seems to be moving, it’s actually the walls that move. The cuts between the scenes when the camera shows the floor remind moving between levels in a computer game – a sort of virtual reality. There’s also some early CGI in the video with the bugs crawling around.

Oh this world has got to change
‘Cause I just, I just can’t keep going on
In this virtual, virtual insanity
That we’re living in, that we’re living in
That virtual insanity is what is…

Virtual insanity is what we’re living in
Yeah, well it’s alright now

Towards the end the protagonist of the song seems to come to terms with the conditions of the world. While he’s determined to see the world change, he realises that it’s not going to get back to the way it was. There’s no turning back the time. For the full text and further analysis, see here.

 

Multimediality

Approaching arts – and human experience in general – from the perspective of multimediality can be fruitful in opening different ways of understanding these experiences. We perceive the world first through our bodily senses and then construct various understandings and experiences of this sensory data through complex cognitive processes. While much of these experiences are non-conceptual I will here discuss mostly the ways in which music is conceptualised by using terminology from other artistic media. I. e we understand – or communicate our understandings of – music using words originally, or more often, used to describe other artistic media or realms of human experience.

Multimediality in music begins with one of the oldest ways of music-making; singing.  Although, as discussed before, singing may actually have preceded language and been a sort of “protolanguage”, singing as we usually think of it includes text, lyrics.

Performance of music is always multimedial.
Performance of music is always multimedial.

Intermediality and intertextuality

Multimediality cannot really be discussed without also addressing some neighbouring terms. Intertextuality became hip in the academic discussions of arts since at least in 1980s. It’s a helpful tool in analysing and understanding the ways in which meanings are created in multifaceted ways by various techniques such as quotation or some sort of reference. As discussed before, these techniques have been central to black American music-making since the times of slavery to the contemporary hip-hop.

Intertextuality tends to fall short when applied to performing arts. While there are certain benefits in reducing everything to “texts”, two dimensional layers of meaning, this comes with a cost when studying music as a performative phenomenon, e.g. through Christopher Small’s “musicking”. Multimedality is a more helpful concept in helping us study and understand how different artistic media are used, and can be used, to reflect and create rich human experiences by drawing from the tools and strengths of the different media in our disposal.

Multimediality in music

Multimediality in music is an old idea as music has always been a part of some “extramusical” performance or context such as a ritual. In fact “pure” music is one of those 19th century Romantic ideas still to some extent holding our experience of music captive. But more about that another time.

The gesamtkunstwerk of Richard Wagner‘s opera remain perhaps the most iconic examples of effort to bring all the art forms together. Whereas Wagner’s operatic works might stand as the ultimate artistic expression of modernity, the 21st century post-modern artists produce more fragmented works.

Whereas black American music has got from the cotton fields to White House (see below), western Classical music is now performed by native orchestras and singers all over the world – here also conducted by a woman, something which in Wagner’s time was quite unthinkable. Multimediality here includes also video projections and TV production.

Earlier I discussed how Jacob Collier presents his multifaceted talent in his YouTube videos and how Janelle Monáe implies multiple – or perhaps fragmented – identities in her performances of the song Tightrope with means of music production, the “music itself” (e.g. melody, harmony, groove), lyrics, video, live performance, etc. The Dutch group Tin Men and the Telephone is also a very interesting example of musical art that draws from multiple media in a very interactive way on and off stage.

Janelle Monáe’s performance in the White House by Barak Obama’s invitation has various multimedial layers. As discussed earlier, her performance style is rich in references to other black American artists, perhaps most notably in the James Brown steps in her dance moves. In this performance the “Funkiest horn section of Metropolis” becomes that of White House, opening up a myriad of interpretations.

Here’s Jacob Collier embracing the social medium of music making in a contemporary digital manner enabling music-making together across temporal and spacial boundaries.

Tin Men and the Telephone do various things with different media from “musicalising” recorded speech and other sounds to typing with the piano keyboard and collaboration with their audience through a special app.

Music in literature – Toni Morrrison’s Jazz

One interesting form of multimediality is that of music in literature; the use of description of music in literature and use of musical techniques in writing. Describing music in words requires quite an effort from the writer and reader alike to convey and share an artistic experience across the media. To describe art of one medium with the means of another requires sharing cultural understanding on a deep level and the ability to imagine, in this case, music described with words.

When I first tried to read Toni Morrison’s Jazz, in the age of around 15 or soI  expected it to be “about jazz”. I didn’t understand much about it and quickly gave up.

Jazz by Toni Morrison, 1st edition cover

Recently I picked up the book again and was better able to appreciate the ways in which Morrison took jazz as a metaphor and method and used its compositional and performative techniques to tell the story of her book.

Like a jazz performance the book has a main theme, a story it wants to tell. However, the main characters are also given “solo spots” to elaborate on their personal stories giving depth to the main story and enabling the reader to approach – perhaps even experience – the story from the individual perspectives of the characters; much like in jazz performance the “tune” is approached differently by each of the soloists.

Jazz in Morrison’s book is also a metaphor for the black American struggle and experience. As briefly discussed before, jazz has come a long way from an unappreciated folk music symbolising the worst of human kind – even among some black Americans – to be heralded as the “American Classical music”. Whereas Amiri Baraka in his Blues People elaborated on the idea of “music as the history of black Americans”, Morrison gives the bones of this history the flesh of her characters.

Amiri Baraka’s Blues People elaborates on the idea of music as the history of black Americans.

At the time I’m typing this the first black American president has just stepped aside to make space for another yet white male, one whose rhetoric and first deeds clearly show how the struggle for human rights is far from over. Morrison’s story takes place in a period prior to the Civil Rights era when many – as some of the characters in the book – still had vivid personal memories of the Jim Crow treatment of blacks.

Music and visual arts

The painting on top of this article is the Garden of Earthly Pleasures by Hieronymus Bosch from 1500.  As sound is difficult to picture music in visual arts is mainly pictured through instruments and musical acts such as dancing and singing. Bosch’s painting is a classic one portraying music as a sinful – or at least not respectable – activity through placing some instruments of the time together with people busy with Earthly orgies.

The pianist Bill Evans wrote liner notes for the 1959 Miles Davis quintet album Kind of Blue, I’ve also discussed earlier. In his text Evans makes an analogy between the Japanese calligraphy shodō and jazz improvisation. He stresses the temporal nature of both media; just as the stroke of a brush leaves its mark on the paper and cannot be undone or altered, a musical sound cannot be taken back. Further challenge in jazz improvisation is the group setting in which it most often happens; there are in fact many “brushes” making strokes simultaneously to the “canvas” of temporal framework set, in this case, by Miles Davis.

Copyright – Part I

I’ve always found it peculiar that the copyright laws applied to music are the same ones – with slight adaptations – applied to tangible creations of the human spirit, most importantly literary works. Of course this shouldn’t be surprising as these laws date back to the invention of press and the control of this powerful means of disseminating written word.

Motivations for creating legislation to protect intellectual property have mostly been economical. The Licensing of the Press Act of 1662 in England granted the king the control over printed works. The Statute of Anne of 1709 is considered the first copyright law granting the authors some specific rights to their works.

As the copyright laws have later been extended to cover works in other than strictly literary media, such as music, film and visual arts, some interesting ontological questions have come up, a few of which I’d like to take up here.

Copyright in the age of mechanical reproduction

Around 1900 technological reproduction had reached a standard at which it had not merely begun to take the totality of traditional artworks as its province, imposing the most profound changes on the impact of such works; it had even gained a place for itself among artistic modes of procedure,

Walter Benjamin, The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction (1936)

Benjamin wrote the above at a moment when, the still relatively novel art form of, cinematography was approaching its golden era having just moved from silent films to the “talkies” (see here for more about silent film).  In music a similar  moment could be said to have been reached half a century later when the emerging hip hop musical practices “changed the game” and started a whole new development, or at least gave it a boost.

As discussed above the whole idea of, and need for, copyright arose from the necessity to control the implications of the “mechanical reproduction” of art Benjamin writes about. But as often happens with objects, technologies, and just about everything people invent, others think of uses for them no one could imagine at the emergence of these novelties.

One of the rights copyright legislation grants to the author is a control of, and compensation for, derivative works based on his/her original work. The emergence of hip hop and rap in the late 70s and early 80s challenged this legal – as well as artistic – relation between the “original” and “derivative” work.

The way this new music challenged, not only the legal norms, but the norms of Western music in general transforming in the musical context the whole notion of “traditional artwork” Benjamin refers to above, deserves a larger discussion than possible right now. In his thesis about hip hop and Afrofuturism Chuck Galli explains how hip hop got started in South Bronx partly as a result of urban planning isolating a group of mainly Blacks and Latinos without means of relocating themselves and leaving them with few socio-economical opportunities. Making ends meet also artistically in lack of musical instruments record players – or turntables – were turned into instruments using records as musical material. The DJs began looping some of the grooviest parts of the records they got their hands on to give their audiences something to dance on. While the DJ was sampling the grooves off of his records an MC would pick up the mic and improvise – later dubbed as “freestyle” – rhythmical verbalisations on the grooves to further engage the audience with the moment. Later these creations were also compiled into remixes recorded onto C-casettes and distributed.

Stevie Wonder’s still relevant Living For The City from 1973 describes the reality many Blacks faced during the period.

As discussed before,  African Americans have a history of reinventing their musical culture as it gets appropriated by the mainstream culture. Hip hop continues this tradition but turns on another gear. The DJ’s adaptation of the turntable from a tool of reproduction to an instrument of creative musical production, not only turns around the role of this piece of technology, but also challenges our very definition of music as the audible result of certain creative practices and processes.

In the late 1980s James Brown released his musical response to the “copycats” who had been sampling his music for a long time. For more about this multifaceted statement see here. Here‘s an interesting discussion about sampling with some legal experts and Mr. SHOCKLEE from Public Enemy.

It’s therefore not surprising that the copyright legislation, dealing with tangible representations of music e.g.  in written/printed and recorded forms, has had difficulties dealing with this form of artistic (re)production challenging the notions of originality and authorship of a musical work. This difficulty in many ways culminated in the 1991 case  Grand Upright Music, Ltd. v. Warner Brothers Records, Inc. in which the judge ruled in favour of the plaintiff and changed the way hip hop has been made since by stating that every sample of another artist’s recorded work has to be licensed.

Whiter shades of the Grey Album

The DJ takes a sample to create out of it both a unique sound and a unique emotion. Having one’s music sampled, far from being an insult, can easily be interpreted as a compliment since, the logic goes, an artist’s work was so good that there is no point in trying to imitate it – just use the actual piece. One’s work is thus taken whole and placed into a new work and, most importantly, manipulated through various DJ techniques (altering the tempo or pitch, scratching the sample, etc.) and through the juxtaposition of the sampled bit with other samples… hip-hop takes data and synthesizes it into a new “whole” which provokes emotion not only from the primary experience of hearing the sounds, but from understanding where the sounds come from and what impacts such an understanding may have.

Chuck Galli, Hip-Hop Futurism: Remixing Afrofuturism andthe Hermeneutics of Identity

Cover of the Grey Album by DJ Danger Mouse
Cover of the Grey Album by DJ Danger Mouse

The Grand Upright ruling was directly against the very essence of hip hop as a musical practise, as Galli above describes it. From the early days of the art form hip hop artists embraced sampling in all forms and also encouraged their fellow artists to use their samples by releasing them separately. This is also what Jay-Z did by releasing an a cappella version of his Black Album, which indeed was subsequently remixed by many DJs.

In late 2003 DJ Danger Mouse, aka Brian Burton, set upon himself a challenge of mixing the Beatles’ album The Beatles, also known as the White Album, with Jay-Z’s above mentioned The Black Album.  The resulting mashup album was aptly named The Grey Album and came out in 2004. Burton’s intent was to do a limited release of his experiment but it became something bigger.

The initial limited release of The Grey Album received a lot of attention within the hip hop community and soon also attracted the attention of EMI, the record label owning Beatles’ copyrights, who pursued to cease further distribution of the album based on violations on its copyrights.

The still living Beatles members Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr had no objection for DJ Danger Mouse’s “uncleared” use of their music but it took it as a tribute and Jay-Z was also cool with it well understanding this cultural practise.

The Grey Video

A group of music industry activists took an issue with EMI’s actions and organised a Grey Tuesday event on which the album was distributed online for free on so many websites that EMI couldn’t possibly pursue them all. The Grey Tuesday event can also be seen in a broader context of digital rights campaigning, but that’s another discussion all together.

I will leave this at here for now and come back later with another example of a more recent copyright case that also raises questions about the nature of music as an artistic and commercial practice.