A caveman makes a grunt in a cave. If no other caveman is around to hear it, do they hear the grunt?
This is play on the famous and oftentimes hilarious Zen koan, "If a tree falls in a wood and nobody is around, does it make a sound?" I won't try to answer the riddle with words. The very nature of a koan is to defy logic. You can't answer it unless you understand in a completely different way. I don't have any plans to every verbalize that understanding, nor do I carry any expectations of finding it. That will get in the way of the path to discovering...
...well look at me, I'm wasting time writing about it!
Oh well. Since I've started, let's go on down the lineage of human communication to get down to the big leap I've made in starting this blog yesterday and following up on the next step this day. See, that caveman, he might grunt on his own, making a sound, but if nobody is around to hear it, he's essentially just expressing something to himself. I'm guessing he stubbed his toe or just got billed too much on his car insurance.
Now making a sound is so easy, a caveman could do it. But a gecko can too, or a bird, or a fish, or maybe a tapeworm. Even the worlds ugliest beasts can make beautiful music. And they organize it in order to communicate to each other. These are mating calls or calls of distress. They can be songs of offspring being fed by their sires ("Alright! Worms! Puke that shit up into my mouth, daddy-o, I'm famished!") or could be communicated between species ("Back off, buddy! I will not get in your belly!").
They key here is the organization. What animals do is essentially make music. And the definition of music as I was taught in SUNY Oswego is:
"Sound organized in time."
Is not the spoken word, then, just a more organized version of the caveman's grunting? Try this: listen to a foreign language. I mean, really foreign. An English-speaker in America has a knack for catching on to Spanish for many reasons. First of all, the language itself has Romance influences (thanks to the Roman conquest of the British Isles...) and in America today (a result of British conquest of the Native Americans...) the Spanish language is fast becoming into the mainstream (a result of simultaneous Iberian conquest of even more Native Americans.) and so it's not too foreign.
But Arabic? Or Japanese? Or one of several Hindu dialects? Forget it! I don't know what the fuck these guys are saying. But they can't understand me, either. If I'm in Delhi and I'm lost beyond belief and my bladder's about to burst, I'm going to have to resort to a hand-to-crotch gesture in order to translate the English "Excuse me, where's the men's room," into the Hindi "Help! I'm an American! And I have to take a wicked piss!"
What gets the message across is my tone of voice and the timbre of my movements. I could do it silently, but the visual arts have similar elements to sound. This is why the next invention in human communication became so important. The visual symbol, starting first as pictograms and moving eventually into alphabetical systems of symbols, organized to represent a sound or a visual action or, by then, an idea that had developed as a result of millenia of developing grunts and hoots and hollers into words.
These first symbols were carved onto caves. Then, the Phoenecians started simply pressing lines into wet clay. They could now record what was being thought and said for future reference. Talk about making history. As the technology developed in different areas across the world, the verbal historic tradition was radicalized. We could now recall details that had to be left out for purposes of sheer memory capacity. Eventually, so much was recorded that forms of binding together individual sheets of papyrus created something I love:
The book. Books are were the logical next step in a the growing wealth of communication. They could carry so much information and be carried forward from one generation to the next. One of my best part-time jobs was as a porter for an annual antiques book fair, hauling van-loads of old-ass books in and out of the Albany Armory for two long days for a modest salary and tips that depended on the compassion and crotchetiness of the book dealers. And what a cast of characters these guys were! What they had in common with me was the love of the bound and printed word. Everytime I dropped something, it was because another item caught my attention and captured my imagination. How old is that one? What was the style of writing then? What do the letters look like? How was this thing put together?
The answer for the oldest books is: by hand. After the fall of Classical European culture, the Dark Ages replaced the Roman Empire. Who do we have to thank for preserving the roots of Western culture while the trees were burning with witches tied to them? The monk. The simple man who dedicated himself to the Lord and the Church in a monastery somewhere far removed from the world fuedal blood and toil. Despite all my misgivings about monotheism and organized religion in general (and sometimes the Catholic Church specifically) I cannot thank these dudes enough. They preserved text stroke by stroke, line by line, page by page, and cover to cover.
Of course, since only one outlet produced the books, there was just one problem. The Catholic Church served as Editor-In-Chief for an entire continent. And what an irate guy he was! If you were a 10th century monks were writing and transcribing music in the original church modes - the grandfathers of our modern musical scales - and came up with the opening line of "The Simpsons," and wrote it, guess what? You're fired! That's a tri-tone, the exact splitting in half of the major scale, right between the perfect fourth ("Here comes the bride!") and the perfect fifth ("Star Wars!) as well as the high and low note of the octave (think disco bass lines, I can't think of any lyrics....).
Anyway, the Church decided that the opening notes of "The Simpsons" was no less than Satan himself attempting to split the church in half. So even singing the note was banned, much less writing it down.
Of course, that didn't really work. The Reformation started with a percussive sound: Martin Luther nailing his Thesis onto a church door smack dab in the middle of the Holy Roman Empire. But he wouldn't have gotten much press with his idea if it wasn't for the press itself. It was Gutenberg before Luther that made what is often considered the greatest invention of all time, the printing press. This allowed information to move out of the monastery, out of authoritarianism, and out to the masses with speed and continuity that was as radical a jump in communication as the transition from sounds to words.
Now, with only a few minutes remaining here at the Guilderland Public Library, I come full circle. The next logical step in human communication is right here. This blog is just one example of the many outlets of information on the Internet. This removes the need for the printing press just as the press itself removed the need for hand transcription which removed the need for verbal memorization. Just as the printed, mass produced word ended up replacing the hand-crafted limited edition, the Web is fast replacing the mass media consumerist papers of today and letting us all become monks in our own right.
That's not to say that the old media will die out. That's ridiculous. Take the opposite view and visit a Native American museum. Very few of these cultures had written traditions; everything was passed down by speaking in communion. It's still the most intimate form of communication you can have with someone, and we practice it all the time. When your great-grandparents start losing their minds, visit them often. They'll tell you the same story over and over again because that's what they're ailing brain has managed to retain; show them the same courtesy and tell them about your craziest day-in-the-life over and over. This is practice for when you're the one with the wrinkles and gray hair.
So do I think the Internet is going to replace the news paper or the television? Well, we'll get into broadcasting some other time, but basically, radio and then television were the evolution of the telegraph and telephone. It was a distribution method, much like this library is or the book shop down the road. These distributors stayed put; but in the last century, first radio and then television went everywhere.
This is precisely how purely American music reach the world. Prior to radio, the American music tradition was very much a verbal and written one. Appalachian settlers developed their own unique style of play that blended music from multiple European cultures, and was passed on from father to son simply because the child cannot help but experience joy when seeing their parent create something so wonderful. There's a reason folk music often tells stories, you see. But when radio came about, the underground music of America at the time, first ragtime, then jazz, finally brough forth the African influences on our continent. Funny how all those white kids in the Roaring Twenties had black jazz and blues cats to thanks for bringing them to swing. And with the advent of television in the fifties, it didn't take long for Elvis to rock America's world.
Now to the present day...and MTV sucks. Compeltely. It's no longer saying anything. Cable TV is alot like this as well when it comes to the news. Political news, music news, sports news, spiritual news. And because they are the dominant medium, the printed word follows suit. The only good stuff is on PBS if you ask me. But where's the public printing house?
I'll finally get to the point: it's right here in front of me and right there in front of you. The Internet is the last step. We don't need a book bindery anymore, or an FCC granted broadcast frequency. We have the "Publish Post" button. And where the library and television set were once the most important forms of distribution, the home computer has replaced it. And even that is going the way of the dodo as we incorporate our mobile lifestyle into publishing from our laptops, or sending Tweets from our cell phones. In that respect, I believe Steve Jobs when he claims the iPad could be big, really big. It seems like the next logical step.
But there is one missing link. There has to be a way to find what your looking for in this muck. Since anyone and everyone can publish, you can guarantee that the anyone and everyone will publish crap. Even the best writers will look back on their old work and cringe. But then, even the worst ones sometimes post something short and sweet that goes viral, and they've got their fifteen minutes in the public conscience. So how do find it?
The missing link is the link. And I was overjoyed yesterday when creating this thing most not after writing it, but when I copied what was already published from another blog and pasted it here. Then I went back to the original, and linked the two together. Now, that site and this one are forever interconnected. You can get there from here. And vice-versa.
Today, I'm happier still. You can now find "Soundpolitic" on the Blogroll at The Albany Project. This was the first blog I really worked hard at for a solid year, left for a year, and then was inspired to return to blogging and linking and writing and talking to people to begin with. I can't thank the TAP staff enough. Three cheers to Mrs. Robert Harding and Phillip Anderson for creating the place and allowing me and many others like and un-like me do the same.
Hip-hip, huzzah! Hip-hip, huzzah! Hip-hip, huzzah!
That's all for today. I'm off to a kind of writing/music workshop just below the escarpment of the Helderberg mountains, and it's going to be slippery driving. Drive safe out there yourself, and keep up the good work! Remember:
We're all connected in sound and politics.