An End in Site

One of the items I have seen most frequently on this year’s “best-of-the-decade” lists is the iPod. Mp3 players are so ubiquitous now it’s hard to believe they have only been around for 9 years . When we look at the cultural impact of this device though, the mp3 era is really the end of a long curve of mobile personal audio devices that started back in the 80’s with the Sony Walkman.


JENA WALK (MEMORY FIELD) | 2006 by Janet Cardiff

There are a number of very interesting academic articles about the impact of mass produced mobile audio devices on how we construct our worlds. Mostly, these texts describe the trends in usage of mp3 devices (or walkmen) by consumers who are free to curate their own aural surroundings. There are also inquiries into the differentiation between public and private spheres as defined by shared or isolated sounds.

Besides these analyses that highlight the iPods effects in terms of media and digital cultures, iPods may have also played a role in changing our relationships to live, non-mobile and decidedly acoustic music. I am speaking here in response to the number of articles about how the music business has been forced to rely more seriously on live performances as their main revenue stream since record sales are disastrously low. But I am also referring to the continuous buzz about venue-crossing, including how classical music is becoming cool again by playing to new audiences in (gasp) clubs around the country.

I have been privy first hand to these venue-crossing experiments and can say that they are indeed very exciting. But this is no new trend, either. Jazz and Improvising musicians have been bringing their experimental and avant garde music to cabaret spots and night clubs for decades and ever since the Beatles played Carnegie Hall rock bands with experimental tendencies have found their way onto stages otherwise graced only by those in tuxedos.

Anthony Braxton at the Teatro Metastasio, Prato, Italy

Anthony Braxton in concert

There is an argument to be made, though, that as the iPod has made it easier to listen to whatever we like, where ever we like, our understanding of the relationship between music/sound and site has been shifted dramatically. We no longer associate a specific genre of music or artist with a specific performance environment, because we don’t look for the physical space to dictate sounds. Instead, we look to ourselves and our own personal tastes for curatorial decisions. These decisions may be ironic, or simply novel, but they are always our own.

With this shift in mind, it is straightforward to see how venue curators, or artistic directors are really just giving their audiences what they want – some of the same surprising juxtapositions they are accustomed to as iPod listeners. This practice raises the question of what will happen after the novelty of this trend wears off? Will listeners yearn for the authentic experience of chamber music in concert halls and indie-rock in grimy basements?

More interesting, though, is the question of the role this trend will play in the creation of the next generation of works to be consumed by the concert-going public. Already we have seen composers and musicians altering their work to fit in with the assumed identity of a given performance space. Will the new, novel space become the new “site” of their work, or will artists look to maintain the tension between work and site and continue to offer up odd and genre-defying perspectives?