When James and Thomas Bast meet in a foreign city, they put down their suitcases and fight.
–It was more of a philosophical dispute, Thomas insisting the magic touch of these virtuosos could be preserved on these piano rolls, and James…
For people who listen to music that exists primarily as unencrypted bits floating in the atmosphere, the argument about whether a roll of paper can contain the beauty of music may seem quaint and distant. The mechanical reproduction of music is now taken for granted. Like money, one copy of Thriller is the same as any other. In fact, most popular music of the last 40 years never existed anywhere other than on a 2” strip of magnetic tape or on a computer’s hard drive. A series of sounds created primarily for the purpose of replication. This carries over into live performances, events where most people have a certain expectation about how the music they will hear will sound. Imagine if you had gone to see the Grateful Dead and they didn’t jam.
In a way, the recording and replication of music is our age’s version of sheet music–the instructions by which a piece of music will be heard. What would James Bast’s response be? Would he suggest that between the lifeless piece of paper and the sounds we here, the musician adds something that a machine cannot? That a laser interpreting ones and zeros off of the face of a spinning piece of plastic cannot compare to being in the same room with a musician as the music is created?
–I thought people had radios and things today.
And even now, the world of records and tapes and compact discs that I grew up with is gone. Limitless copies of limitless songs exist. Songs are silently filling the air all around us at every moment. At this very moment, someone may be downloading a song you hate through your body.
In my earlier years, some part of the beauty of music I loved came from its scarcity. Growing up in rural Kentucky in the late 80s and early 90s, it was difficult to find music. Not just music that I liked, but any sort of music at all. There was a record store for a short time, but it closed not long after I started high school. My only other option in town was Wal-Mart, and while many of my first cassette tapes came from there, I soon outgrew their stock. So I had to wait until my family made a trip to Fayette Mall in Lexington before I could buy new tapes. These trips’ infrequency didn’t bother me, since I rarely had enough money to buy anything. Acquiring a new album was a strange and unusual thing. I listened to those records until they were warped beyond listening, curled under my covers at night, my Walkman’s red light on, the tape reels whining, taking in each sound and silence as thought they were the only songs ever recorded.
–But without them where do you get art?
–Get it? Art? You get it where you get anything you buy it, listen Gibbs don’t try to tell me in this day an age there isn’t enough around for everybody great art, pictures music books who’s heard all the great music there is, you? You read all the great books there are? seen all the great pictures? Records of any symphony you want reproductions you can get them that are almost perfect, the greatest books ever written you can get them at the drugstore…
Now I have no trouble tracking down the most obscure music, conjuring it on my computer instantly and deleting it off of my iPod a few days later when I realize I don’t really care for it much. The ritual aspect to listening, fed by exiguity, is gone now. But, I recognize that this lost of ritual on my part is not a problem with the medium, but with me. I developed my habits in a different time. The young people who are now discovering music are developing their own rituals, ones that will be as different from mine as the ritual expectations of the generations who came before me—who had to go to go to music halls or read sheet music.
Does such abundance devalue art—devalue art? While we might be inclined to sympathize with James Bast, with the desire to have an authentic artistic experience and to shun the common, the phony and the commercially motivated, and while we might agree that the intrinsic value of art must be kept high, we must remember that there is a compromise embedded in this expectation. The higher the value of a thing, the fewer that will be able to experience it. The rarer the object, the more expensive. While I might be confusing artistic value with the economic value of an object, it is undeniable that they are related. Original works by famous artists or front row tickets at a Madonna concert are out of reach for most people. While intrinsic artistic value and economic value are not the same, the latter is a bar to experiencing the former. After the Penguin edition of J R went out-of-print, but before the Dalkey Archive announced their reissue of the novel, copies of the recent Penguin edition were selling on Amazon for over $300. While the price on the jacket is not an indicator of a novel’s value, scarcity can keep art out of the hands of those who want it, but cannot afford it.
Gaddis surprises us by allowing Thomas Bast, the business tycoon, to be the one to bring art to everyone, democratizing the artistic experience, removing it form the hands of those in the upper classes who can afford it. While money may bring art low, it can bring it to us who are low as well.