Monthly Archives: December 2011

Musical Spaces, Patterns, and SoundClouds

Cover of Lingua Fracta

How could I turn away from a blue cover? Ah, blue.

I’ve been thinking through Colin Gifford Brooke’s excellent book Lingua Fracta: Towards a Rhetoric of New Media lately, especially as I’ve been considering how the canons of rhetoric (invention, arrangement, style, memory, delivery) apply to musical composition. Two pages from the book are especially sticking to my mind right now, so I’m using this space to explore them, all first-drafty-like. Followers, beware.

Brooke’s chapter on arrangement refashions the canon of arrangement as pattern, a middle ground he describes as between texts that are “painstakingly ordered” (91) or just tossed out there without any ordering. By thinking of “arrangement as pattern,” he avoids the linear world of “arrangement as sequence” (92) that doesn’t adequately allow for the kinds of movement folks do in hyperlinked, new media spaces. It’s a nice reframing of how texts are arranged, given how much bopping around readers do, especially (but not only) online.

I’m reminded of the glimpse into the word-processor-using writer’s mind that Cory Doctorow gives us in “You DO Like Reading Off a Computer Screen,” one of the essays in Content: “I understand perfectly — in the ten minutes since I typed the first word in the paragraph above, I’ve checked my mail, deleted two spams, checked an image-sharing community I like, downloaded a YouTube clip of Stephen Colbert complaining about the iPhone (pausing my MP3 player first), cleared out my RSS reader, and then returned to write this paragraph.” With that kind of readerly and writerly world online, content-creators still organize material, but into patterns can be experienced in multiple ways, not as linearly experienced sequences through time.

Here’s what I was thinking, though: music does move linearly through time. We hear it in a sequence. Yes, like hyperlinked text, there are examples of interactive pieces that change depending on the “listener”‘s behavior (Biophilia, anyone?), but I’m talking in general here. Usually, we experience the arrangement of a piece sequentially, not as a pattern. Different classical forms of musical arrangement (sonata, rondo, theme and variation) are inherently sequential, designed (in part) to reiterate musical statements in time recursively so we hear when those statements are adjusted, played with, developed. So I read this chapter thinking, “This is great and all, but it’s not what I was hoping when I saw pattern was coming up. I wanted to think about patterns cognitively (if that’s the right word, self)—as gestalts that listeners create when they perceive patterns in sequentially arranged music.”

But despite that part of my mind that turned off, I kept hitting roadblocks to that assumption; I kept finding fruitful ways that music (both classical and new media versions? Not sure…) intersected Brooke’s thinking about arrangement. For example:

Brooke spends a bit of time discussing databases, with as his particular example: how information can be arranged in a database that is arranged, patterned, yet still allowing ever-changing narratives as users move through the linked, annotated, rich material. Again, here I felt this discussion was awesome, but not applicable to music. But then Brooke makes a brilliant move toward comparing with Benjamin’s concept of collections, which are essentially databases with personal stories attached to them. “Once a collection loses the intimacy felt for it by its owner,” writes Brooke, “we might argue that it has drifted back toward the database end of things” (109).

And wow, what’s more “collectable” than music? What’s more amenable to the associations we load onto music, High Fidelity-style, as what the music means shifts along with our personal experiences when we encountered the music? Two more questions, from the cover flap of Geoffrey O’Brien’s Sonata for Jukebox: Pop Music, Memory, and the Imagined Life (which I serendipitously snagged at a thrift store two days ago): “How does music infiltrate your life and shape the way you remember it? What do you really hear when you listen, for perhaps the thousandth time, to a well-loved song, a song inextricably tied to who you are and where you’ve been?”

Of course, part of me isn’t sure why I’m bringing up this thought; just because I/we treat music objects collectably, as a database of meaning, that doesn’t say anything about how those musical objects themselves are arranged. In other words, what I do with my music doesn’t say whether it’s arranged sequentially or in line with Brooke’s “pattern.” I know that. I’m brainstorming, remember?

But the musical thoughts kept coming as the chapter continued, ending as it did with a discussion of tag clouds. My thinking went kind of like this: “A tag cloud provides an alternative navigation through a series of texts. You can hop from place to place in direct ways that aren’t possible in analog texts. What would that look like for music–i.e., a way to hop around a sequentially organized musical text in an ordered way?”

And the closest thing that came to mind: comments on SoundCloud files. It’s easier to show than describe (which is itself relevant whenever we’re talking about audio and visual texts):

Underneath the waveform, see all those colorful little icons? Hover over them, and you’ll see the comments that listeners have left on this track–not on the track as a whole, but on specific moments in the sequence where they wanted to comment. I’m not sure if it happens in this embedded version, but on SoundCloud’s site, if you’re watching the music move through time, these comments pop up automatically at the correct time, as if you’re hearing/reading the voice of commenter in real time–but that act of archived notes is replayable whenever the listener wants. And the whole track, linear as it is, is remarkably easy to hop around in, especially when the visual representation of the sounds is marked in key spots by the comments of listeners (or composers). The interface affects the arrangement of the sounds as we experience them. Which is just what Brooke is talking about in his book. Good stuff.

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