In Conversation with William Duckworth

An interview with the author of Virtual Music: How the Web Got Wired for Sound.


name
William Duckworth
Photo by Paula Court

Molly Sheridan: In your introduction, you compare the “electricity in the air” surrounding online artistic possibilities as being similar to the energy generated by the ’60s avant-garde. For those who are still pretty much off-line, at least as far as art goes, how is that aesthetically manifesting itself?

William Duckworth: It’s a question of permission. People can do things now, artistically, that they couldn’t do only a few years ago. In the ’60s we suddenly learned that any sound is permitted to be music. Now, we’re learning that everybody is permitted to be a musician. And the prime reason for this is the Internet has leveled the playing field as never before. Today, technology is either freely available or affordable. Not only can anybody set up a website and turn themselves into a corporation, now anybody who wants to can create art online. There are a lot of music-related sites that allow people to interact. And it’s getting easier and easier for almost everyone to get involved, at least at some level. I think this trend will grow increasingly true, as many of our online activities move to the cell phone over the next five years.

MS: You talk a lot about the undeniable speed at which things are moving these days. How does an effective artist keep up? Do you need to? How long before you’re “dated”?

WD: It depends, to some extent, on where your work falls on the artistic spectrum. If it’s cutting edge, you’d better keep up. But that was true for electronic music composers, and twelve-tone composers before them, as well. The “new” always seems in a hurry to get going. And it’s true that the down side of choosing current sounds and media is that their relevancy often decays pretty quickly. But that has always happened in music; it’s why we have different styles. And even then, if you wait around long enough your sound, your ‘instrument’, and your style will probably come back into vogue. So for composers, the key to successfully navigating through music online is to choose a means of expression that is true to you, because that’s what makes it timeless.

MS: You devote an entire chapter to art and ethics online, and file-sharing falls under that heading. You also briefly comment on the Grey Album and the related impact. As a composer yourself with a long track record working virtually, what are your hopes/ideas for an acceptable solution to controlling digital property from an artistic standpoint? Can it/should it be a question of economics?

WD: It is a question of economics, because that’s the system we live in. That’s how artists make a living. And until we have a situation where artists’ digital rights are sufficiently protected, we’re going to have to move forward carefully. But it’s also a matter of art. And new art requires a bit more leeway that commerce does. Furthermore, given the nature of the digital medium, there needs to be a way for composers to opt out, and to allow other artists the freedom to utilize their material, as Jay Z did with the Grey Album. This is why groups like Creative Commons and individuals such as Lawrence Lessig, who has argued digital rights issues before the Supreme Court, are so crucial at this stage of the debate.

MS: What does this brave new world of virtual music mean for the traditional composer?

WD: In art, the “new” doesn’t replace the “old”, it resides along side. Now not every composer will, or should, be active online, of course, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be represented there. Between iTunes, podcasting, and web radio, to mention some of the current technology, there is an equal opportunity for everyone to be heard. Look, for instance, at the success of Kyle Gann’s Post Classic web radio station, and what it is doing for experimental music. So if you, as a traditional composer, want to be active online, there are plenty of opportunities today, and even more to come.

MS: Personally, what aspects of these technological developments are you most excited about? What aspects do you regret/worry about?

WD: I’m not excited about technology. It’s a tool. But having said that, the present technology affords us a myriad of possibilities far greater in dimension than any artistic instrument we’ve had so far. The web has so many bells, whistles, and buttons, that it’s endless. If you consider the harpsichord, for example, we’ve jumped 27 levels of features above that. Plus, online music is finally affordable, and that means it’s going to give voice to people who haven’t had the opportunity or have been shut out. Personally, most intriguing is how the web offers the ability to reach and really engage with a worldwide audience.

What worries me is that we’re moving rather quickly from an analog world focused on sound to a digital world driven by convenience. And I think we’re doing that without knowing what we’re discarding and leaving behind. I’m not talking about replacing the acoustical musician with a computer, but rather about the quality of sound; the beauty of sound, and how that is being changed digitally.