The background to the organized sound of Gregorian chant, in a mediaeval monastic community, was not random noise. Silence—the silence of nature itself, in which the random noises of culture were swallowed up—was one of the facts of mediaeval life, outside the cloister as inside it. Against the quietness that enveloped the ear, and the tracts of unaltered nature—wood, bramble, heath, swamp—that made up its solid equivalent, any designed structure of sound or stone acquired a corresponding rarity and singularity. In an ill-articulated world, a place not yet crammed with signs, images, and designed objects, the impact of a choir heard in the vast petrified forest of a Gothic cathedral might well have exceeded anything we take for “normal” cultural experience today. Now we see the same cathedral through a vast filter that includes our eclectic knowledge of all other cathedrals (visited or seen in photographs), all other styles of buildings from primitive nuraghi to the World Trade Centre, the ads in the street outside it, the desanctification of the building, its conversion into one more museum-to-itself, the secular essence of our culture, the memory of “mediaeval” sideshows at Disney World, and so and so forth; while similar transpositions have happened to the matrix in which we hear music. The choir competes, in our unconscious, with jack-hammers, car brakes, and passing 747s, not merely the rattle of a cart or the lowing of cattle. Nor does the chant necessarily seem unique, for one can go home and listen to something very like it on the stereo. Because nothing could be retrieved or reproduced, the pre-technological ear listened to—as the pre-technological eye was obliged to scrutinize—one thing at a time. Objects and images could not, except at the cost of great labour, be reproduced or multiplied. There was no print, no film, no cathode-ray tube. Each object, singular; each act of seeing transitive. The idea that we would live immersed in a haze of almost undifferentiated images, that the social function of this image-haze would be to erode distinctions rather than multiply the possible discriminations about reality, would have been unthinkable to our great-grandparents—let alone our remote ancestors.
We live in a world in which change is primarily driven by emergent technology. We live in a world in which, I suspect, technology trumps ideology, every time.
Our reaction to these things is amazingly similar to the reaction of the Victorians to technologies like the railroad and the gramophone. If you go back to first-person accounts—diary entries of individuals encountering those things—it wasn’t like, “Wow, that’s wonderful!” They were scared shitless. They were reeling with the shock of the new. They didn’t know where anything was headed, and it made them sort of angry, often as not. I think it’s the way we react to these things.
The surprising thing about it – I almost said the insidious thing, but I’m trying to be anthropological—the surprising thing, to me, is that once we have our gramophone, or iPad, or locomotive, we become that which has the gramophone, the iPad, or the locomotive, and thereby, are instantly incapable of recognizing what just happened to us, as I believe we’re incapable of understanding what broadcast television, or the radio, or telephony did to us.
I strongly suspect that prior to those things we were something else. In that regard, our predecessors are in a sense unknowable. Imagine a world without recorded music: I always come to the conclusion that it’s impossible for me to imagine that, because I have become that which lives with recorded music.
Minimalism in music is the avante-garde sound of absolute frequency. Listening to pulsed minimal music, hearing every repetition, is like having the experience not of one consumer, but of all consumers at once. You are the mass market, and you feel the entire pressure of the mass media’s power to construct desire—in other words, in a consumer society, the irresistible power to construct subjectivity itself—directly on your consciousness. The impossible attempt to represent that pressure directly gives the music its teleology, its content—and ultimately its shock and awe. It is not necessarily an unpleasant sensation; it can be quite literally entrancing, as the shoppers floating down the aisles of the local supermarket right now could tell you. In minimal music, the message is the (direct perception of the power of the) media. Or, more pithily, after McLuhan:
In minimal music, the media (sublime) is the message.