Parlor Music and its Double (With Apologies to Artaud)

“We are part of a harmonized collectivity of consciousness equivalent to a sort of super-consciousness. The earth is not only becoming covered in myriads of grains of thought, but is becoming enclosed in a single thinking envelope, so as to form a single vast grain of thought, the plurality of individual reflections grouping themselves together and reinforcing one another in a single unanimous reflection.”
—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Teilhard expressed the above sensibilities back in the middle of the 20th century as part of his theory of the “noosphere,” or the sphere of interconnected minds. In recent years, his thinking has been hailed as prophetic by Internet Utopians and others who see the potential of hyperconsciousness in the cyberspace of the World Wide Web. A day of typical Web use and surfing might discourage such lofty notions, until you come upon a site like Cathedral, the brainchild of our guest editor William Duckworth.

One of the things I love about Cathedral is its implicit acknowledgement that we are in the infancy of a profound new technology and way of communicating, which perhaps suggests that larger cultural transformations are gathering. Like a renaissance cathedral, which took decades—even centuries—to build, Duckworth’s cathedral is a functional public space even as its structure and possibility continues to be carved out. Those who contribute soundfiles and text are anonymous builders and artists, participating in a cultural event as much as an artistic one. Cathedral definitely suggests the spiritual possibilities of Web technology, explored by Erik Davis in his 1998 book Techgnosis. Davis declared, “Whatever social, ecological, or spiritual renewal we might hope for in the new century, it will blossom in the context of communicating technologies that already gird the earth with intelligence and virtual light.”

The kind of communal music-making which Cathedral pioneers on the Web is largely lost in western culture, where the dynamic of the individual creator delivering to an audience has replaced artistic experience as a collective and social endeavor. However, we still risk romanticizing how collective artistic experiences function in other cultures. It seems the Internet provides the architecture for a rekindling of communal creativity on a global scale; while at the same time, it perhaps helps to destroy such activity in its “authentic” form.

Any such comparison needs to consider that artistic experience on the Internet, no matter how many hundred or thousands of people you may be interacting with, is a mostly subjective and solitary experience. Are we wired in, or are we wired out? Is such music-making a truly collective process, or is it simply a new instrument that each participant chooses to use differently, in their own sphere of aloneness?

Asking these questions is part of the excitement of these times. Jaron Lanier, in his conversation with Duckworth in our First Person section, raises the question of whether digital instruments can approach the musical sensitivity and nuance of analog instruments. It is a different kind of physical interaction, and it may be that the skill sets of electronic interaction will begin to work their way into the biological evolution of our species. What is the effect of hours, weeks, years of honing “digital” skills before a screen? What happens to minds whose cortical stimulation goes wild for the speed of managing scattered fragments of information? Do we see this already in our popular music, where skills may be shifting more towards keyboard mixing and sampling, and away from traditional instrumental playing and songwriting?

It may be that the possibilities virtual music present will fold back into the entire musical and cultural fabric, and that the online and offline realms will become further integrated, creating a consort unlike any we’ve known before. It’s as perfect a time as any to recall the last line of John Cage’s intro to his Where Are We Going? and What Are We Doing?: “Here we are. Let us say Yes to our presence together in Chaos.”