Here is what Francis Bacon had to say on death:
Men fear death, as children fear to go in the dark; and as that natural fear in children is increased with tales, so is the other … Groans, and convulsions, and a discolored face, and friends weeping, and blacks, and obsequies, and the like, show death terrible. It is worthy the observing, that there is no passion in the mind of man, so weak, but it mates, and masters, the fear of death.
The storyteller in particular is always hounded by death, as predictably as the ambulance is by the lawyer. Death lends to any narrative such a firm grip on an audience’s heartstrings that, although it continuously threatens cliché, it almost never gets turned away. Death, or the risk of death, is in every story, and always has been.
But if our stories are made largely of death, so the reverse is true. Death is made largely of stories. We know nothing of death – what it feels like, whether it hurts, what, if anything, happens afterwards – and so our concept of it is made entirely of stories we tell to each other. Heaven and Hell, the Grim Reaper, the light at the end of the tunnel… when it comes to death we all become story-tellers, and our imaginations have free reign - who is going to tell us we’re wrong?
You would think that, if we as humans were going to pour so much of ourselves into this symbiotic project, we would do so with a view to reconciling ourselves to our mortality. You would think we would want to comfort ourselves, and persuade ourselves that dying is perhaps not such a bad thing to have to face. There are some examples of this, in the Struldbrugs of Gulliver’s Travels, and in Highlander – but they are exceptions, and rather than trying to show us death as something we can and must embrace, both make the diluted case that one thing, and one thing alone is worse than death, and that is immortality.
Rather, we spend our time further disfiguring Death’s already monstrous visage. With every century that passes, and with every tale we tell, it grows another horn or a new wart. We create and re-design ceremonies and practices around death – be it Vanitas then, or Dignitas now – and each one serves to make death even more mysterious and unfaceable. Like Sex and Tesco, Death’s stock is always rising. Bacon’s example of over-ceremonialising death was the Stoics:
Certainly the Stoics bestowed too much cost upon death, and by their great preparations, made it appear more fearful. Better saith he qui finem vitae extremum inter munera ponat naturae. It is as natural to die, as to be born; and to a little infant, perhaps, the one is as painful, as the other.
Rare to see death treated as naturally as birth in fiction. More common to see the storyteller who wants to avoid morbidity panicking, and turning instead to farce or erotica.
Bacon thought we could rid ourselves of our fear of death by stripping it of these myriad mythical characteristics and powers, and thereby gain a more peaceful, natural, less fearful attitude towards it during life.
But what would be the pay off in life, for a world in which death only appears on our screens or in our songs given the same quiet, warm and natural respect reserved for birth? No Dante’s Inferno? No Edgar Allen Poe? No Dario Argento?
Please. You’re killing me…
The New Yorker ran a great cartoon this week. The scene is a classic wild west saloon, scattered with bandits and deperados. A particularly mean looking character, who has just walked in through the swinging double doors, announces, “I’m looking for a couple of fast guns who ain’t afraid to lay down their life. There’s no pay, but it’ll be a great way to get your name out there.”
While this proposition never seems to get put before celluloid cowboys any more than it does before plumbers, shop assistants or hill farmers, it is one that we in music hear all the time. In fact, it’s not just a proposition we hear all the time, it represents an attitude that completely pervades our line of work.
I should show my true colours here and point out that I come from a background of indie and dance, and all the associated genres – you know, rock, pop, techno, crunk, post-garage… (The field is so diverse now that there isn’t even a word to cover it all. So rather than try to come up with a complicated and pretentious new term, I’ll do what everyone else does and just lazily refer to it all as pop.) I think the issues I want to write about are felt more acutely in these genres, although I can’t imagine that classically trained or jazz musicians are immune.
Anyway, as the cartoon nails so succinctly, at almost every level of pop music people’s creative efforts are framed in terms of self-sacrificial competition. Keep striking at the iron for no reward, and if you’re lucky you’ll get asked to join the big boys. At one end of the spectrum you have the X-Factor (worm-can-opener at the ready…),and at the other end you have the simpler “send us your demo for a chance to win this distortion pedal” type affairs, and the good old fashioned “Battle Of The Bands”.
In between are a whole host of other examples. How would you like your band to be featured in the new film by award winning director X? Three lucky winners will get a support slot for up and coming band Y that you are now obliged by politeness to tell everyone are great!
So far, so familiar. Naming and shaming those elements of the music industry that we don’t like is like shooting fish in a barrel. You’ll have your own favourites, and we don’t have space here to debate the examples. The important point is that pop music presents itself to those just starting out as just one enormous Battle of the Bands competition. Sonicbids, for example (ok, so I need one example), has established itself as one of the main marketplaces for finding work performing at concerts, festivals and on tours. The home screen of their website is a sea of “submissions”, “opportunities” and “deadlines”. Mentions of art, creativity, sharing of ideas or even simply of providing a great 60 minutes of musical entertainment? Very thin on the ground.
So how do we prepare young people to face this ferocious marketplace? Well, they’ll need business acumen, the ability to present an impressive demo, a solid understanding of what this global panel of judges are looking for when they download your Electronic Press Kit…
There are a lot of projects out there that offer young people the opportunity to brush up on this list by forcing them through competitive processes – and yes, in the short term at least, these things are needed. But if we just provide young people with these skills and then send them out to tackle a career in music, then aren’t we just ensuring that these are the terms on which they understand and think about their own music? Won’t they forever consider themselves as being in one of two categories – a winner, or a loser.
On top of that, the industry as it stands rewards the creative status quo, and if we train people up to seek out and achieve those rewards, then we encourage them to make the music that the industry wants, and not the music they want.
So, as well as preparing young people to face the industry, shouldn’t we also be encouraging them to do things differently?
Take “The Great Rock n Roll Swindle”, a project which ran at the St Magnus festival and at Glasgow’s City Halls. While the applicants were asked to submit demos, because there were limited places, there was no rating process, and no big prize. A host of young musicians and bands were offered mentoring, composition and arrangement masterclasses, and an opportunity to perform together. And when they did perform together, it was as equals. Or take Feisean nan Gaidheal’s “Ceilidh Trails” project – several young trad bands trained up over two weeks until they are ready to perform publicly – and then all offered a long, paid tour schedule of promoted concerts, ceilidhs and sessions.
Youth music provision in pop music might do well to learn from projects such as these that don’t rely on the model of entries, judges and prizes.
I know that there is a place for a Battle of the Bands contest every now and again – they are great fun, they really do encourage participation, and I am part of a group that will try to persuade my local high school to host their third one next year. But this approach needs to form one small part of our efforts. We want our young musicians to begin their careers concentrating on their instrumental skills, their ability to write interesting music and lyrics, and their desire to collaborate and share ideas with each other – not concentrating on beating each other to stardom.
So before Steve Jobs died, Neil Young had been spearheading a behind the scenes campaign aiming to get him to work on technologies that would allow us to stop listening to mp3s and start listening to “high quality” audio.
This article in Wired magazine discusses his position and goes on to outline the “better” alternatives to mp3s: “Lossless” compression formats, CD quality audio and “high resolution” WAV formats.
I’m sure Neil Young has a good set of ears on him, and is probably right that a lot of music being released today doesn’t sound as good as some major releases from the 70s – but some of his statement, and some of the WIRED article is based on pretty shaky facts, to steal a bad unintended pun… There are lots of reasons why today’s music might sound bad to Neil, but blaming the mp3 is shooting the messenger, not dealing with the problem.
(This sounds like it’s going to be a really boring and nerdy post, but I’m writing it anyway because I love good mp3s, I hated CDs, and if there’s one thing I agree with Neil about, it’s that having good quality sound going into our ears is important.)
If we start at the “low quality” end and work our way up – there are lots of different qualities of mp3. Basically the trade-off is that you lose a bit of sound quality and you get much smaller file in exchange. Whether or not that trade off is worth it for you is a personal thing, and there’s a very easy way for an iTunes owner to find out if the loss of data involved in shrinking the file size makes any difference to their enjoyment of the music.
1. Find a CD
2. Import the CD into iTunes with the import settings on one of the mp3 options
3. Listen to the CD and mp3 through the same speakers / headphones
Most people won’t be able to tell any difference once you’re past the 256kbps setting – I’d be interested to know what you find.
Once you’ve done this, you might want to try a second test – listen to the CD through in-ear headphones, and then see if you can borrow some bigger, better headphones off a friend and listen to the “low quality” 256kbps mp3 on them.
Which made the bigger difference – the change of format or the change of headphones? (If you can’t be bothered trying it, don’t worry, the answer is the headphones. I guarantee the mp3 will sound better through £ > 50 headphones than a CD ever could through “buds”, laptop speakers etc…)
FLAC / Apple Lossless Format
I’m not even engaging with this one – partly because you might not know what these are, but also because the people who think that transferring CDs to FLAC or Apple Lossless deteriorates the sound quality are just wrong. That’s like saying that you could put a word .doc in a .zip file and open it up to find some words missing, which never happens. Basically, the whole file is slightly smaller, but all the info is in there. End of part two.
CDs / WAV / AIFF
CDs and WAV or AIFF files are basically all the same – uncompressed digital audio information. Off the shelf CDs have a bit depth of 16 Bits and a sample rate of 44.1khz. In terms of listening to commercial music, this is really the bees knees – the stats are better than vinyl, cassette, ¼” tape etc., and yes if you only listen to music in a studio environment on really sweet speakers, better than mp3s.
This is where the anti-digital crowd (and the audiophile crowd) go off the rails – because they start discussing the “limitations” of CDs and WAVs, compared to higher resolutions (24bits) and higher sample rates (48khz, 96khz, 192khz), or compared to analogue formats like vinyl.
Surely a higher resolution and higher sample rates must better approximate the original analogue sound made by the instruments? The idea here, we have to assume, is that digitizing audio signals is like digitizing a photograph. We all know that higher image resolutions is really important to film and photography right? You can zoom further in… more detail… more clarity… So what could be wrong with asking for a higher resolution in our digital audio as well? We don’t want to hear no crumby pixelated digital sounding music.
Fortunately for us, that’s not how digital audio works.
A digital music player like a CD player or an iPod doesn’t present you with a digital approximation of an analogue waveform – it uses the digital information to recreate a completely perfect analogue waveform. If you got the digital photography un-analogy, then instead of thinking of digital audio like that, try thinking of it as like a vector graphic – a series of points which give you all the information you need to draw out perfect curves in between, no matter how far you “zoom in”.
So what are the limitations of CDs? What do the numbers 16 and 44.1 mean if they don’t tell us how much “detail” is being given?
Well – the 16 bits determine how low the noise floor is. Remember tapes? Remember that quiet hissing sound that went on in the background? Or the gentle humming on vinyl. That’s the noise floor. On tapes you could really hear it. Have you ever noticed it on a modern recorded CD or mp3? No? That’s because it’s really f***ing quiet. Much quieter than any analogue format, and more importantly, much more quiet than the ambient noise in almost any domestic listening environment like a living room or a kitchen. In fact, if you have heard a hiss or hum on a CD, it’s either because it is an old album that was recorded on tape, or because some smart-ass producer added hum to make it sound “authentic”.
The 44.1khz determines the range of frequencies that can be recreated successfully using the information available. Basically, you halve the sample rate to get the upper limit, so a CD can reconstruct any frequency from 0Hz to 22kHz. If you can’t remember off the top of your head what the limits of human hearing are – they are roughly 20Hz to 20kHz. If you’re an adult that’s probably more like 20Hz to 17kHz – anyway, it’s well inside what CDs are capable of recreating faithfully.
Unless you’re a studio engineer who’s actually recording and mixing music, the numbers don’t mean anything else – just how quiet the silence on the CD is, and whether all the audible frequencies are there. On both counts, a normal CD performs better than you need to know.
The bit at the end you can skip to if you can’t be bothered reading about CDs
So what are you supposed to make of people offering you really high quality audio – for example George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass” remastered and released to the public at a stunning 24 Bit / 96 kHz resolution…? In short – it’s a con. You may – I repeat MAY – want to look more carefully at this if you are buying the cream of classical recordings and have some £20K listening set-up, but in short, there is nothing of any use to you on that release of “All Things Must Pass” that isn’t on the CD. On top of which – what are you worried about? Are you worried that you are not doing all you can to appreciate the genius of George Harrison? This is a man whose idea of a good time was to fill his boot with ukuleles and drive around all of his friends’ houses dropping them off “just in case”. You can learn a lot about how to enjoy music from a man like that, but not by buying pointlessly over-spec’ed re-releases of his albums.
I don’t want to be seen trying to give advice to Neil Young, but what the heck: Really, Neil – pick up a uke and calm down.
If there is another way to play the lute, I’ve never heard of it.
Not very often, but sometimes, you come across somebody who argues that Skye is no longer an island, now that there is a bridge connecting it to the mainland. Like I say, it’s pretty rare, but I was reminded of it by flicking through Hamish Haswell-Smith’s enormous compendium of all the islands in Scotland, which pointedly excludes Skye on account of the bridge, before going on to include it anyway as a slightly patronising “appendix”. The argument is pretty standard. Somebody says Skye isn’t an island, you say it’s still an island, they say it’s not, you say it is… sooner or later somebody will try and bring the stalemate to an end by saying, “well it depends on how you define Island, but in my book it is/isn’t a real island.” Don’t be distracted by this! This has nothing to do with the definition of an island, which isn’t exactly rocket science: it’s a piece of land completely surrounded by water. Tell them the word they need to look up isn’t island – it’s bridge. A bridge, remind them, is a means of transporting things over a body of water, just like a ferry is. If Skye wasn’t still completely surrounded by water, then we wouldn’t need a bridge. Point out that their theory leads to the paradoxical conclusion that the very act of building a bridge removes the need for that bridge to exist in the first place. Politely suggest to them that when they can drive to Skye without a bridge, then it won’t be an island. And if they respond that it’s not a real island because the bridge makes a cultural difference – an inevitable paradigm shift in the mental states of the people that live there – then, and only then, you can just tell them to fuck off.