Same As It Ever Was
“Over the past hundred years, much of the heat in political argument has been about which system for controlling resources—the state or the market—works best. The Cold War was a battle of just that sort. [...] That war is over. For most resources, most of the time, the market trumps the state. There are exceptions, of course, and dissenters still. But if the twentieth century taught us one lesson, it is the dominance of private over state ordering. Markets work better than Tammany Hall in deciding who should get what, when. Or as Nobel Prize-winning economist Ronald Coase put it, whatever problems there are with the market, the problems with the government are far more profound.”
—Lawrence Lessig, The Future of Ideas (New York: Random House, 2001)
“The London Tube was designed with narrow tracks and matching tunnels that, on several of the lines, cannot accommodate air-conditioning, because there is no room to ventilate the air from the trains. Thus, tens of thousands of modern-day residents in one of the world’s richest cities must suffer a stifling commute because of an inflexible design decision made more than one hundred years ago. But software is worse than railroads, because it must always adhere with absolute perfection to a boundlessly particular, arbitrary, tangled, intractable messiness. The engineering requirements are so stringent and perverse that adapting to shifting standards can be an endless struggle. So while lock-in may be a gangster in the world of railroads, it is an absolute tyrant in the digital world.”
—Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget (New York: Knopf, 2010)
Last week I got into a discussion with an old composer friend of mine about how the vast majority of notation-based music being created today seems somehow more conventional than it once did. I don’t say this in a judgmental way since I don’t believe in linear evolution and I’m not sure that that evolving down the path of unconventional notation systems and wild hypothetical music is ultimately possible or always desirable.
On the other hand, the most experimental music, however impractical, often opens our minds to new possibilities and new modalities. Some highly indecipherable scores of John Cage and subsequent creators of indeterminate and conceptual compositions, when effectively realized, reveal to listeners details in the aural realm that otherwise might have never been paid attention to. And the realization of such scores is also a tremendous growth opportunity for interpreters in that it requires new kinds of decision making faculties as well as enhances communication skills. Once minds have been expanded by such music, going back to a world where such options don’t exist occasionally seems like wearing a straitjacket, or an exercise in collective amnesia, as if part of history were somehow erased.
I posited to my friend that the amazingly effective tools we now have at our disposal to create and disseminate our music—e.g. the easily programmable MIDI synthesizers, the notation software, the instantly emailable .pdf parts, etc.—have also somehow led to reducing what is possible. We have all reaped the benefits from the things that are possible, but technology will ultimately fail composers, interpreters, and listeners if we start believing that all the things that it has made possible are the only things that are possible.