A great many of the comments made in sessions at the 2010 conference of the League of American Orchestras in Atlanta last week were about how we’ve entered a new era where audiences are no longer interested in passively listening to something, but rather want to be engaged through interactive activities. Lawrence Lessig, in his provocative books Free Culture and Remix, extols the virtues of a RW (read/write) culture, claiming that in the 20th century such a culture has been largely stifled by a dominant mainstream RO (read only) culture. But is this really true? And if it is true, is this a cause for celebration or alarm in terms of human interaction?
Andrew Keen, in his equally provocative book, The Cult of the Amateur suggests that anyone who cares about democracy ought to be terrified that we’re moving toward an era where expertise no longer matters and that anyone can say anything at any time. According to him, disintermediation—the erosion of the role of traditional gatekeepers, in non-geekspeak—threatens to convert our society into a sprawling junk heap of mediocrity. As someone who values the listening experience as much as actually creating things, and who believes the two cannot exist without each other, I have a slightly different fear.
I have always found the opinions of self-appointed arbiters of taste to be an unnecessary limiter of experience, so I’m thrilled that there are now other ways to find out about stuff that does not require an intermediary. (Although I think that ISPs and search engines like Google are ultimately also intermediaries.) And I’m delighted that it is easier to get your poetry, music, visual image, you name it, out there in the world than ever before. However, how great is it to post a symphony or a novel online if no one out there is actually listening to or reading it? If everyone is so busy expressing themselves, where is the space to actually turn off the self and experience what someone else has to say? A room where everyone is talking so loud you can’t hear anything is actually not terribly different from the forest where no one is around to hear a tree fall.
John Cage’s final definition of music was “sounds heard.” In that simple two word definition he put the onus of what is music not on the creator, but on the listener. Without listeners, there is no creation.