Where is the artwork?

Given how much time we spend agonizing over the recorded output of metal artists, it might be worth asking: what exactly is an album? Cards on the table, this essay won’t answer that question. This chestnut dredges up some pretty weighty philosophical concepts around the ontology of music, as distinct from paintings, sculpture, film, theatre, and literature. So we’ll settle for throwing some ideas at the problem, only to watch them impotently melt away upon closer scrutiny.

Firstly, it’s important to note that modern subcultures such as metal, centred around bands, that produce albums, are a very recent and distinct way of experiencing music. The story could be told as follows. Before recording technology, music was a situational artform. People crafted objects capable of creating interesting sounds, sounds that made sense mathematically, they harmonised; rhythmic conventions based on the laws of mathematics grew in parallel. Over time these rules were formalised and written down. Traditions grew out of this, and bodies of work were amassed. Different cultures around the world created similar but entirely distinct traditions. Music went from a spontaneous and temporary form of human expression to an institutional one, with laws of ‘good taste’.

The rise of 19th Century Romanticism saw an explicit line drawn between the low art of the people, and the art high of the maestro. High art – whatever markers of quality academics tend to draw up – was partially defined by rigid documentation when compared to folk music. Music theory, manuscripts, techniques, and engineering, all sprung up around this highly formalised style. Low art, the music by and for ‘the people’, was temporary, informal, easy to imitate…democratic.

But it was the advent of recording technology that really changed the game for our understanding of the ontology of music. Ontology is a branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of being. What be art? So in the case of music, the question may be more accurately stated as a ‘where’: if a particular piece of music is not being played or heard….where is it?

This is an important question because it has direct implications for the nature of musical value. It’s tempting to say that Beethoven’s piano sonatas exist in each copy of the sheet music, or – skipping over a few years of music history – that ‘Blessed are the Sick’ exists in the grooves of each vinyl record. Of course these are just objects; pieces of paper, metal, plastic or vinyl, but the art exists within them as potential. Throw the correct equipment and physical processes together and the artwork will manifest.

But then…it will end. Beethoven’s 32nd piano sonata will reach its final note. ‘Blessed are the Sick’ will tail off with the inconclusive ‘In Remembrance’. Pianist Daniel Barenboim once described the temporal nature of music as the source of its tragic beauty; each note or collection of notes, no matter how beautiful and universal it may feel, will die. A perfect metaphor for the transience of joy.

But turning to metal, this question has particular pertinence, being a subculture built around albums. We treat each copy of a beloved album like precious gems, granted almost sacred significance (or in the case of another Morbid Angel album insulting profanity). Take the music actually set down on physical formats. This is the thing that is dedicated to posterity. Let’s ignore everything else to do with the culture of metal for the time being.  

We are left with two possible routes for the enquiry to take. One route relates back to this temporal question, and seems to imply that music has experiential value only, but in a way distinct from the experience of an object, like a painting. The second route relates back to this idea of potential value as derived from these mystical gems– manuscript papers, CDs, records – that with the proper incantations, contain the key to unlocking the true value of the music in itself.

We’ll deal with the former first: experiential value. In a live setting the case for the experiential value of music is very easy to make. A live performance is an unrepeatable rendition of noises that the audience and musicians have all agreed reflects something about the nature of existence. The audience – to greater or lesser degrees depending on whether you’re at a grindcore show or a piano recital – will contribute to the artistic process. But when you’re at home, spinning a record, the variables of the experience are very different. There’s only one person present who will determine its value. But their state of mind is in constant flux. And this will have an effect on the value of the experience. If I throw on ‘Blessed are the Sick’, and only half concentrate on the music whilst cooking dinner, the experience is less focused, and therefore the value is diminished. Contrast this with me throwing off the lights, sticking my headphones on, and fully engaging with every note that Trey is throwing at my ears.

Same album, two very different experiences, therefore the artwork seems to have less value in one than the other. Does this mean that the album’s value is entirely contingent on my giving it value? That doesn’t seem right. Even if I’m cooking and only half listening, the idea, the memory, the cultural import of ‘Blessed are the Sick’ is still present in my mind, regardless of the fact that in this instance I’m not consciously thinking about these things. These ancillary values present in the music exist insofar as they can be called to mind. But when they are not called to mind, but buried deep in the psyche, how are we to understand their value?

Maybe they exist – just like those mystical objects capable of storing music – as potential value. So let’s take a closer look at this potential. Much has been made out of value existing as a potential, a proper analysis would take us well outside of this discussion. So we’ll focus in on ‘Blessed are the Sick’ again, and look at my copy, which is on CD. And let’s go even more specific by ignoring the financial value of the raw materials that went into making this CD, or the cover art, or the broader cultural value that pieces of physical media have for subcultures.

Look simply at the information coded into the disc itself. This has value as a feat of engineering maybe, but where’s Morbid Angel’s second album gone? It only manifests if placed into the right piece of kit, a CD player connected to speakers, and given a source of power. But at that point we only have a machine, feeding information to another machine, the second of which is capable of moving air around. It requires a set of ears attached to a brain to confer value. But this brain must be capable of making sense of the regulatory of the sound waves and the patterns they form, and then interpret these into something that has value. And that’s before we even address the endlessly complex entity of the individual human mind that is experiencing this physical process. The mood, temperament, experience and knowledge of the individual will all determine how that person understands the air moving towards their ears.

The point of all this is to illustrate the complex steps that must be taken to transform this conceptual ‘potential’ value into something more tangible; namely a physical process relating to a conscious mind capable of discussing and understanding value. Suddenly the potential value is awfully distant from its realisation as actual value.

Maybe an alternative route could be taken. Maybe the artwork exists in our collective understanding of it. Paintings in a gallery still have value in the middle of the night when no one is observing them. A population in the outside world still carries their memory and meaning, just as we all carry the memory and meaning of ‘Blessed are the Sick’ in our minds. As I write this, my copy is upstairs, existing as potential value if only I apply the correct physical processes to it outlined above. But maybe the more tangible way to define its value outside of individual listening sessions is to look at my broader experiences of it. I can call to mind individual listening experiences, how they made me feel and why, I can discuss the mechanics of the art with others who have had similar experiences. And this would be possible even if every copy of the album were destroyed tomorrow.

But even this may be too temporary and fragile a basis to fully encapsulate what we mean by artistic value. We will all die. Without these objects that carry this mystical potential music (and therefore value) within them, the music and its meaning will die with us. So perhaps there is yet another route. One that points to art as objectively valuable. Many have tried to draw up schemata for what this might look like. Mathematically precise music, music that reflects the workings of the human body, the rhythm of celestial bodies, the cycles of nature.

Regardless of the differing merits of the many approaches people have taken to draw up what objectively good music might look like, many view this move with scepticism. An aristocracy of rich, white, male academics laying down the rules for something as spontaneous and joyful as music is bound to generate suspicion. But this depends on what we’re aiming for. Even if music that reflects some universal truth somehow has more value than music that doesn’t, how are we defining universal truths? Are they laws of nature? Biology? Astronomy? Mathematics? Engineering?

Say we took the cycles of nature as our starting point. Have you seen the world lately? There’s an awful lot of it. And it’s all very different. Maybe these fundamentals of the reality that we humans find ourselves in are much more unstable than we thought. This could account for the myriad and diverse ways cultures have found to create music of lasting artistic value. Reality is complex. Music that reflects that reality – and therefore is objectively valuable – is as diverse and complex as our understanding of this reality.

Great. So to recap. Music has value outside of our direct interaction with it, as a source of shared ideas and experience. Further, certain mystical artefacts capable of storing music are conferred with potential value. If the right physical processes are applied to them, and a human is present to experience the results, this value is unlocked. And this process has its analogue in some facet of the physical universe, which is the source of music’s beauty.

Great, we’ve solved philosophy of art. Good job team.

But what if music’s purpose is not a reflection of reality, but one of intervention? Why does music only have value if it reflects some aspect of reality as humans experience it? Why can’t it aspire to change that reality? And if this could also be a source of value, what are the mechanics at work behind interventionist music when it is not being experienced? Is it still intervening in reality via us, the parasite’s host? Does music behave like other ideas? Spreading from host to host, changing the course of history by manipulating human behaviour?

We’ve strayed very far from our original question: where is the artwork? This is naturally because the ‘what’ of art is far from accepted, which logically must come before the ‘where’. But the real purpose of dragging this idea out is because the ‘what’ of art will largely determine the ‘where’. If you believe art has no value beyond what humans give it, then music in any form is purely an experiential value. A fleetingly temporary phenomena entirely dependent on human minds to draw it forth into reality. Maybe you’re happy with that; ‘Here is beauty’, next question.

But if you believe that musics in all their glorious diversity are somehow individual instances or reflections  of the universe’s ‘hum’, then the value of music might well exist beyond what the human mind confers on it. Just as David was in the marble all along, waiting to be brought forth by Michelangelo, maybe the music was there all along, in the objective truths of mathematics, the physical nature of air, and our innate ability to interpret vibrations, waiting to be ordered and processed by us its vessels, into this thing we call music. And if it was somehow there before us, waiting to be called forth, then it stands to reason that it will be there long after we’re gone.

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