8/11/2009

Multi-tracking Eno with Cyber-time: an Atemporal Metaphor

When I speak about metaphor, I'm trying to use the word in the typical sense, but also imbue a new meaning to it. There is the literary meaning, that of artful comparison, but there is also a more semiotic meaning, which I might call connotation by association. Not to put too technical of a label on it, or to call it something definitive here, but we are trying to get towards something we could consider a bit more technically than to simply say, "he rained blows upon him" is the exact same as "he hit him with blows in a way like rain falling". The metaphor is different than the basic comparison of a simile.

It is the use of two meanings together, which develops an connotation between them, as opposed to the logical denotation of "x as y". There is a certain bit of both in each, of course, but then interesting aspect is that we can refer to something as intangible as "insult" "raining upon" someone, and we all know immediately what it means, though there is nothing in the definition of "rain" which immediately refers to something so intangible, and something so clearly not liquid precipitation. We don't even need to include our word which denotes approximate similarity, "like", because simply by the juxtaposition of their meanings, we get it.

To me, it is a sort of ambivalence of meaning that combines to create greater power of expression in the long run. Children will often refer to things by the combination of words which sound strange to adults. A sheep may be a "dog cow". Teacher may be "mommy". My brother had a certain size category, which qualified as "big little". For adults, its patronizingly funny when kids describe things as "it's the same, but different". However, they are practicing how to mean things when they speak, and they haven't learned the harsh logical rules of A/not-A which are so important to adults. Even though, many punch lines to our jokes revolve around the very ambiguity of this supposed rule of logic.

So metaphor is both a close equation, and a contextual, semiotic comparison. I describe this as a prelude to some words of Brian Eno I wish to re-represent.

In this speech about the studio as composition tool, Eno directs our attention at a shift in our conception of music in relation to recording, which I believe is a perfect metaphor for what I view as the concept of "atemporality". (A guy responsible for The Long Now Foundation should have some idea, right?)

The canon of atemporality is small enough, (look towards the Twitter search--it is about as categorical a listing of sources as such a newly ephemeral topic is capable of at this time) but if I try to distill something as reckless as a definition of atemporality, I come across a general idea of "n different times pressed together", exemplified by the "Looking into the Past" Flickr pool.



While this is atemporal in a sense, I am envisioning something a bit more metaphysical to guide the concept. (How odd of me!) This is flipping the timeline of history into a cool Mobius strip, crossing it back over itself for artistic effect. All well and good. But I think our current state of technology is allowing us to approach a different sense of the term--we can move beyond the comparative logic of "historicizing" temporality, (the past is way different than the future, yet the same!) to a immediately existant atemporality (the past/future/now is past/future/now). We are not just playing with time, we are ditching it. The temporal currency has crashed, and our metaphysics can now operate outside of the constraints of the free market (otherwise known as history).

Cue Mr. Eno:

The first thing about recording is that it makes repeatable what was otherwise transient and ephemeral. Music, until about 1900, was an event that was perceived in a particular situation, and that disappeared when it was finished. There was no way of actually hearing that piece again, identically, and there was no way of knowing whether your perception was telling you it was different or whether it was different the second time you heard it. The piece disappeared when it was finished, so it was something that only existed in time.

The effect of recording is that it takes music out of the time dimension and puts it in the space dimension. As soon as you do that, you're in a position of being able to listen again and again to a performance, to become familiar with details you most certainly had missed the first time through, and to become very fond of details that weren't intended by the composer or the musicians.

I would say this aspect of recording is a good metaphor for the technology of writing. Recording begins to take expressible culture out of its reliance upon a firm dimension of time--though it still relies on time, it does so in other ways. For example, you don't need to live across the street from Socrates to hear his wisdom, but you still must get a hold of a copy of The Republic.

Now, let's talk about another aspect of recording, which I call the detachable aspect. As soon as you record something, you make it available for any situation that has a record player. You take it out of the ambience and locale in which it was made, and it can be transposed into any situation. This morning I was listening to a Thai lady singing; I can hear the sound of the St. Sophia Church in Belgrade or Max's Kansas City in my own apartment, and I can listen with a fair degree of conviction about what these sounds mean. As Marshall McLuhan said, it makes all music all present. So not only is the whole history of our music with us now, in some sense, on record, but the whole global musical culture is also available. That means that a composer is really in the position, if he listens to records a lot, of having a culture unbounded, both temporally and geographically, and therefore it's not at all surprising that composers should have ceased writing in a European classical tradition, and have branched out into all sorts of other experiments. Of course, that's not the only reason that they did, either.

When we talk about the distribution of recorded works, we are in the terrain of a metaphor about the Internet. The Internet has made the distribution of writing (and of course, many pieces of music as well) as easy as plugging in. It has unbounded culture from the typical constraints of space and time. At first, communication was as fast as a man could run 26 miles. Then, it was the speed of a train. Then, the telegraph. Now it is, for all intents and purposes, instantaneous. On the Internet we still must worry about "finding things", so there is a spatial aspect, but the temporal terrain has been reduced to a singular--now. One more reliance upon the dimension of time has been reduced, by adding the technology of the Internet to the technology of writing.

So, to tape recording: till about the late '40s, recording was simply regarded as a device for transmitting a performance to an unknown audience, and the whole accent of recording technique was on making what was called a "more faithful" transmission of that experience. It began very simply, because the only control over the relative levels of sounds that went onto the machine was how far they were from the microphone - like device. The accent was on the performance, and the recording was a more or less perfect transmitter of that, through the cylinder and wax disc recording stages, until tape became the medium by which people were recording things.

The move to tape was very important, because as soon as something's on tape, it becomes a substance which is malleable and mutable and cuttable and reversible in ways that discs aren't. It's hard to do anything very interesting with a disc - all you can do is play it at a different speed, probably; you can't actually cut a groove out and make a little loop of it. The effect of tape was that it really put music in a spatial dimension, making it possible to squeeze the music, or expand it.

Scratch off another constraint of time. In addition to being able to reduce and change the space and time of the recording in our consciousness through technological improvements in distribution (from a localized there and then, to an accessible here and now), we can also shift the very expression of time and space itself within the recording. Technology allows us to modify and alter the rules of recording and playback. It is no longer a pure Distance over Time experience. The goal is not necessarily accuracy, or logical, time/space consistency. Now the goal is art--expression and experience itself. When you look at an old photo held up to "the same place" in a more modern time, you are not simply seeing both times, or the space between the two. The "ne c'est pas" is not an either/or, a now/then. It is both. You can record a chopped and screwed beat over the radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds. Time is now a dimension we can play with.

You should remember that everything, including the Beatles Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, was done on four-track until 1968. Normally engineers would do something like this: the drums on one track, the voices spread on two tracks with the guitars and the piano, say, on one of those tracks, and then the strings and additional effects on the fourth track. This was because they were thinking in terms of mono output; eventually, it would be mixed down to one signal again, to be played on radio or whatever. When stereo came in big, it gave them a problem. When they converted to stereo, things were put in either the middle, or dramatically to one side, or you'd hear some very idiosyncratic panning.

Anyway, after four-track it moved to eight track - this was in '68, I guess - then very quickly escalated: eight-track till '70, 16-track from'70 to' 74, 24-track to now when you can easily work on 48-track, for instance, and there are such things as 64-track machines. The interesting thing is that after 16-track, I would say, the differences are differences of degree, not differences of kind. Because after you get to 16-track, you have far more tracks than you need to record a conventional rock band. Even if you spread the drums across six tracks, have the basson two, have the vocals, have the guitars, you've still got six tracks left. People started to think, "What shall we do with those six tracks?"

From that impulse two things happened: you got an additive approach to recording, the idea that composition is the process of adding more, which was very common in early '70s rock (this gave rise to the well known and gladly departed orchestral rock tradition, and it also gave rise to heavy metal music - that sound can't be got on simpler equipment); it also gave rise to the particular area that I'm involved in: in-studio composition, where you no longer come to the studio with a conception of the finished piece. Instead, you come with actually rather a bare skeleton of the piece, or perhaps with nothing at all. I often start working with no starting point. Once you become familiar with studio facilities, or even if you're not, actually, you can begin to compose in relation to those facilities. You can begin to think in terms of putting something on, putting something else on, trying this on top of it, and so on, then taking some of the original things off, or taking a mixture of things off, and seeing what you're left with - actually constructing a piece in the studio.

I can think of two aspects of atemporality which are interesting in different ways (at least, so far). There is the dissolution of the timeline of history, or the flexibility of the timeline as a dimension for expression, which we have just discussed. Is it really a lo-fi tape from the 70s, or a tape recorded to sound that way? Is it truly antique, or simply steampunk? The difference is arbitrary, or at least artistically mutable.

But then there is also our sensation of speed in expression, which is expanding rapidly. So you have sped up the tape, recorded parallel tracks, and sampled some vintage recordings, or made a huge high-def video collage comprising an entire century of material, which plays in different ways depending on the current orbit of the planets. But you're not out of tracks yet.

What is really interesting about the "Looking into the Past" Flickr set is not that time changes, or that b/w photography is old school. The interesting thing is that any number of people can contribute to this artistic comparison, upload it to the Internet, and add to an infinitely replicable viewing experience for an unlimited number of people, who will all no doubt see and experience any part of the set in different ways. The set has 1,063 members. You could join too. Digital photographic technology is one thing, but networked-participant-enabled digital photography is something else. More important than the ability to Photoshop, to record and re-record, is the ability to alter the speed of the consumption of the photograph, by networking its distribution and consumption. In typical math, if D/T = S, and you let T go to zero, you get an unworkable solution. The Cartesian child asks, "how could viewing the picture differently possibly change the content? Isn't it the same picture, just faster?" But in math which does not rely on the real number set, you get an infinite amount of possibilities in the same situation. Your specific time=T definition is no longer applicable, and now we are in the terrain of the atemporal. The atemporal child responds, "all your RTs are belongs to us." Is the Internet fast, or really fast? How do you measure how fast "things end up on the Internet" or how quickly "things begin trending"? It doesn't really matter--because there is only "as soon as you know about it". Speed is now a joining, a multi-tracking, a conjunction, and a metaphorical form of expression. If you are moving at speed, the only things you can see are those also at speed. The difference between them is purely relative. What is truly atemporal is not just immediately available, but always on; it is not just multi-faceted, but multi-authored and multi-consumed; it is not just immediate, but currently-being-expressed/experienced; it is not just Heideggerian presence, but a headlong dive into Bergsonian duration, the first-ever expansion of Kant's Transcendental Ideal of time into new territory (sorry about that last one, folks). We can produce and experience more, and in a new way, all beyond our previous constraints of mere "time".

Of course, everyone is constrained in one way or another, and you work within your constraints. It doesn't mean that suddenly the world is open, and we're going to do much better music, because we're not constrained in certain ways. We're going to do different music because we're not constrained in certain ways we operate under a different set of constraints.

If you have been stuck in a D/T dimension, making your speed infinite seems like you are exceeding the limit. Hence, the singularity folks who think that when we get neural implants we will all "become" singular. I don't think this is true. There are limits to the human capacity for experience and expression, surely. However, I don't think these limits are space and time, at least in the way our technology has forced us to conceive of them. We are not limited to history, or to our conscious memory, or our imagination and planning of the future. (The limits of our unconscous memory is another topic.) As our technology allows us to adapt new, atemporal ways of thinking, we will be in a new domain of metaphysics, which I've been referring to as Cyber-time. Note that I say we will adapt atemporal ways of thinking--a plural, multiple sense of the term. There is not one atemporal asymptote we will overcome, vaulting into the blinding white light of gnostical infinity on the other side. But, in comparison to our current defined boundaries of Cartesian time-space, we will make changes as mind-bendingly different as a "Wall of Sound".

The effect of the Internet on the human culture of expression and experience, in the medium of sound, photography, and writing, is huge, in metaphysical ways. Many consider the Internet to be just a vast, digital library--but I believe we forget just how drastic a concept the library was when it first came about. We are building an instantaneous library, which cannot burn (at least, not completely), which is so big that our scholars are not simply concerned with adding material to it, but simply being able to search it.

SF Epilogue:

On a distant, alien world, there exists a library so large, it would take the entire lifetime of its curators to simply walk from one end to the other. However, they have never managed to invent the wheel. Suddenly, Earthlings land, and hand out roller skates. The wearers of wheels are known as "rollers", and their new conception of the world in terms of gradients, inclines and declines, and smooth and flat surfaces are ridiculed, in favor of the old custom of viewing the world in "paces". But under the rollers' guidance, vast amounts of knowledge are now accessible. Slowly, the cultural structure of the planet begins to collapse.

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