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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Why Do We Share Music?

Posted By on Tue, Oct 30, 2012 at 3:30 AM


Today, I opened Spotify for the first time since spring. Waiting in my inbox was a playlist thoughtfully compiled by one of my closest friends. She sent it to me in August. Now, almost 70 days have passed. In that time, we've spoken on the phone nearly every day and met up at least a couple dozen times. Along the way, personal tragedy befell her, and she had to leave town for a week; I developed a severe sinus infection, and spent most of October with a medicinal clove of garlic in my ear; she returned and moved into a new apartment. It's nearly Halloween. We've leaned on each other a lot since August; we've sniped at each other, too. And through all this, not once did she mention her playlist.

Yet, even as I listen to it now, the initial gesture behind her share is preserved in the songs. They cut through the ups and downs of these past couple months and remind me of our friendship before her recent upheavals. I'm left to wonder: had she sent a novel or DVD by way of an obese carrier pigeon that was just now making it to my window, would they have retained such a vivid, almost photographic, impression of last summer the way these songs do?

This question of how music expresses us reminds me of Carl Sagan -- stay with me on this. In 1977, Sagan made and launched a phonograph record into space aboard the Voyager spacecraft. His intended audience wasn't fans of Giorgio Moroder, as we might guess, but extraterrestrials. From the outset, Sagan and his colleagues debated what the record should say. They eventually chose not to aim for literal meaning: there was to be no "we come in peace;" no "please leave me alone; let me go on to the stars," which is what 2001: A Space Odyssey author Arthur C. Clarke proposed to Sagan. Instead, the discs were encoded with abstract shapes along with recordings of such earthly sounds as thunder and spoken greetings in a variety of languages. All the meaning, Sagan decided, would come from a sampler of music to be cut into disc, including Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier, as played by Glenn Gould.

"Our previous messages (to extraterrestrials) had contained information about what we perceive and how we think," Sagan wrote in the introductory essay to the book Murmurs of Earth, which documents the Voyager record project. "But there is much more to human beings than perceiving and thinking. We are feeling creatures. However, our emotional life is more difficult to communicate, particularly to beings of very different biological make-up. Music, it seemed to me, was at least a creditable attempt to convey human emotions."

When writ to the scale of galaxies, this belief in music's power to connect opens up a lot of questions about what it means to share a song. What are we trying to say when we send a playlist out into the world? What part of us do we hope music will represent? Is it greater or lesser in meaning than a coherent thought might be? Does it draw us closer or does it merely show where we're already connected?

Above all, Sagan's words force me to ask the glaringly basic question, what was my friend trying to say to me through her playlist?

I suspect she compiled the songs during a slow work day in August when, as is my habit too often, I had turned my phone off. Maybe I was hurtling toward a deadline, or maybe I was staring down another birthday and decided I needed to work, work, work if I had any chance of thwarting a panic attack. Maybe that was my panic attack. At any rate, I was unavailable. So, instead of calling me twice, she complied these songs for me.

This is what music is now. As our computers train us to think of our lives as a net we cast among the other nets, music is one way we strengthen the fibres -- it's reinforcement for the nodes; it's a shot of protein to the joints. And this is why, if you want to stare into music's zeitgeist c. 2012, the place to look isn't the charts or even the clubs -- it's the platforms where people are using their favorite music as their everyday means for reaching out to the world.

Though the most remarkable thing about the playlist I received today has nothing to do with technology. It was the basic fact it proved about the person who sent it. In the time between her transmitting the songs and my receiving them, weeks and months passed. Her brother wound up in intensive care; she found a new home and settled into it. Much like the Voyager record, the songs she chose floated in virtual space with the scantest of expectations or presumptions attached to them, while her life on Earth carried on.

"That gesture may speak more clearly than music," Timothy Ferris, who produced the Voyager record, wrote in Murmurs of Earth. "The record says: Whoever and whatever you are, we too once lived in this house of stars, and we thought of you."

-- @AnStou

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Andrew Stout


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