ACL 2012: random thoughts on how to find meaning in a virtual reality world

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When I was in elementary school I had a teacher who was very different than all the other teachers I have ever had.  On his birthday, after we wished him happy birthday he told us that he doesn’t celebrate birthdays because they’re nothing but a reminder that we are a year closer to our death.  Being a naive little boy (I belong to the last generation of children that didn’t use a computer until their late teens) I wasn’t sure what he meant.  Approximately 20 years later at Central Park, in a freezing cold New York City, I found myself celebrating the arrival of a New Year among jubilant strangers who would probably not even bother extending a helping hand if a train was about to hit me.  For some reason I was reminded of my old teacher’s words and began asking myself why all those people (myself included) were celebrating.  Were we brainwashed?  Did we need a break from the routine?  Perhaps.

What I did realize at that time was that I really had to find meaning in everything I did or stop doing it.  Every birthday, every New Year’s Eve, every anniversary became an opportunity to remind myself of everything that was accomplished during that one year, as well as all the mistakes that keep us from accomplishing more.  Lists of the top 10 albums or artists of the year are exactly that:  a celebration of all the music that we loved or admired.  But before we begin patting each other on the back, lets give that a little more thought.  What exactly is the impact of the music we enjoyed, cried to or fell asleep to with a smile on our face while everyone else was dancing Gangnam style?  Does it matter to someone dying from AIDS in some African village?  Does it mean anything to the numerous victims of human trafficking around the world?  What about the children in the bitter cold of the Russian tundra (pictured above)?  Does anyone think it makes a difference to them if GYBE or Caspian made our top 10 (or any other top 10 for that matter)?

Obviously not.  So the question we have to ask ourselves is whether there is any meaning to the music we listen to and what is it.  And the question is not an easy one to answer.  There have been many occasions in recorded history where music gave birth to social movements, served as a companion to those suffering, and most importantly, inspired revolutions.  But it was mostly songs with lyrics so powerful they could change an entire culture that had that effect.  As powerful as words are though, we must remember that music preceded language in the evolution of communicative systems and therefore serves a deeper need in all of us.

Watching a band such as Mono tour the world in their DVD The sky remains the same as ever, one couldn’t help but notice the power of music in bringing together people of various backgrounds, beliefs and lifestyles, people who in many cases only shared one language:  that of music.  Instrumental music is therefore more than just the art of producing the perfect sound (it is a well-known fact that Kevin Shields almost lost his mind trying to produce the perfect erotic sound).  But what about experimental music?  What is its appeal and why should anyone care when you can just as easily listen to the far more digestible new radio hit?  The easy answer to that is of course that if people are willing to try different foods, different clothes, different anything, it is safe to assume that there is a crowd that wouldn’t go for the easily digestible.  Been there, done that, it’s time for something new.

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Some people simply enjoy taking risks and being different.  But there is of course more to it than that.  I was reading an interview Kraftwerk had given some time ago where they claimed they like to collect popular music because it is the perfect time capsule, which is something I partially agree with.  The noise around us is different than the noise our great-great-grandparents were accustomed to.  Field recordings in 2012 are different than those of 1950 and will most definitely be different than field recordings in 2100.  The technology we use to make music is constantly changing (and improving), and exploring the possibilities offered to us can teach us something new, broaden our horizons and make us different people.  The power of experimentation is its ability to transform not only the field (or artform in our case) in which it is applied, but those who participate in the experiment as well.

While all this is very nice, we are still talking about music very few people will ever listen to.  Music that is in many cases given for free. Many artists do so on principle but there are of course many others who do it because they know that is the only way to get their music out to as many people as possible.  There are talented musicians who are forced to quit music and focus on their “real” jobs because they simply can’t afford to do both at the same time.  Does anyone remember for example a band called 1 Mile North?  Any idea what they’re doing now?  One question we could ponder on as listeners of artists that don’t have the crossover appeal of, say, Sigur Ros is whether we have an obligation to support the artists that we like.  The obvious answer to that is of course yes, but the support we provide doesn’t necessarily have to be monetary.

In most tribal communities, the land, the rivers, the mountains belong to the entire community.  When one person gets sick the entire community helps out.  When one person brings food back to the community, everyone can join the feast.  The culture of sharing makes us all wealthier and it is a culture that we should do our best to promote.  Sharing is of course possible to a large extent because of the internet.  Living on an island with no record stores I have first-hand experience of how easy the internet has made it to discover new music (then again the lack of record stores is to some extent the result of the digitalization of music).  But while I do get to listen to a lot of music I would otherwise not have the chance to ever discover, I miss the feeling of holding a cd or a tape in my hands, falling in love with the artwork and then rearranging my collection by genre or year, only to rediscover albums I haven’t listened to in a long time.  Music is transient by nature, but is the ease of access to it, and the subsequent lack of affection (the affection for something we had to work hard to get) leading to the fast-food-ization of what we love so much?  How easy is it for a genuine artist to find the strength to survive in such an environment?  The sense of community provided by adventurous, passionate (and compassionate) listeners seeking something more personal than what is offered to them by a mainstream culture more and more people realize is no different than the virtual reality of a videogame, is what will keep the spirit of our music alive and the hearts of those producing it in the right place.  And thankfully, while environmental degradation is becoming worse every day and income inequality is increasing at a faster rate than it ever had before, communities producing new music, art or even ideas are becoming stronger.

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In the end, what we need is a better and more beautiful world.  A minute of free time and the state of mind to stop and enjoy everything that is unique and will probably not be around for long.  I was fortunate to enjoy much great music this year.  One of my favorite labels, Rural Colours, adds a new chapter to its book with every release, which made me wonder what the story in my 2012 book of music would be.  The ambient explosion of 36, the autumn melancholy of Fabrizio Paterlini, the mysticism and nostalgia of North Atlantic Drift, the electronic emotion of cssc are just some of the many chapters in the book worth reading.  But I think I know what the story is.  It’s a story so colorful and wide, with no beginning and end, a story we will surely revisit again with affection as we do all the time with stories of the past.  But for now, lets enjoy this moment, and the next one, and the one after that with music.  Because even when we’re not listening to music, we still are. (John Kontos)

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