My iPod broke yesterday. It’s not the first time and won’t be the last time, since I’m quite the clumsy person. You can only drop or step on those little machines so many times before they give in. But I miss it; in the years since I bought my first one, it has completely changed my listening experience. First of all, to everyone to who complains about the quality: There is absolutely no reason not to listen to CD quality sound on that device other than laziness. No one forces you to use 128kbps and no one forces you to use the crappy ear buds that come with it. I bought myself some nice earphones and digitize my music at CD quality or near-CD quality, depending on the music. True, that means I can’t fit 300,000 songs on there, or whatever Apple advertises, but it doesn’t really matter. Access to “only” few hundred albums in my pocket is good enough for me.
But I love what the portability does. Music for 18 Musicians is a more pleasurable and visceral listen while walking around in the city than it is in my living room. John Luther Adams’s music gains from being in the white, frigid environments that inspired it. Listening to a piece with a lot of reverberation in a tiny room can make it feel more open; dry music in a large space feels disconcerting. This convenience allows access to all these different forms of experience that perhaps the composer never intended, but can nonetheless be a wonder to behold.
The portable audio player–whether it is a Walkman, Discman, iPod, Zune, or whatever–has given the listener control over an ever greater part of the musical experience. In addition to the now “traditional” features of being able to switch tracks at will, program different orders for albums, and adjust volume and EQ, they can now also allow control of the physical space of participation, the physical activity engaged in during listening, and the quality and presence of the music itself. Don’t like the polish on your favorite artist’s latest single? Digitize it at 48kbps! I see no reason why there may not be a time when, at the mere turn of a wheel or touch of a screen, any listener can change the tempo, register, or timbre of their files.
Technology has allowed more and more control to be exerted by everyone involved with the creation and production of music, but the more far reaching implications are those that affect the audience. Listener interaction certainly possesses a problem for a Western style of music that can be the least participatory of any, but could also be an advantage for a field that is as nebulous as “new music.” Learning to relax the dictatorial control that composers and performers have over an audience might be a creative liberation.