“For most of history, music was a kind of cloud storage for societies”: Ted Gioia talks music with Tyler Cowen

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“Most people in my generation had better sound systems as teenagers than they do now.”  (Photo: Brenda Ladd)

Jazz scholar Ted Gioia listens to three hours of new music per day and over 1,000 newly released recordings in a year. (We’ve written about him here and here and here.) His latest book, Music: A Subversive History covers the evolution of music from its origins in hunter-gatherer societies, to ancient Greece, to jazz, to its role in modern-day political protests such as those in Hong Kong. Over at Medium, he joined the popular economist Tyler Cowen to discuss music in a wide-ranging interview (the podcast is here) that also takes on the music industry, technology, and the reason for loud restaurant music (hint: René Girard).

The news is not all good: “In fact, I would say that music is the only form of entertainment in which the technology has gotten worse during my lifetime. I go to movies now, and it’s this big screen and surround sound. Video games put the Pong that I used to play to shame. TV is so good, it’s being called a golden age of television. But in music, most of us listen to songs on these lousy handheld devices. Most people in my generation had better sound systems as teenagers than they do now. That worries me more than the whole idea of how songs are written. I’m really concerned about the technology lessening the whole listening experience.”

Ted’s first copies of his new book. (Via Twitter)

An excerpt:

COWEN: … Do you think our collective memory from music is decaying more rapidly because communications technologies move so much faster and preserve things so much better?

GIOIA: What people don’t understand is that, for most of history, music was a kind of cloud storage for societies. I like to tell people that music is a technology for societies that don’t have semiconductors or spaceships. If you go to any traditional community, and you try to find the historian, generally it’s a singer. Music would preserve culture; it would preserve folklore.

Well, nowadays, we rely on cloud storage to be the preserver of these same things. And I think there’s a strange shift. Both we rely on the cloud to preserve our music, but also, we no longer rely on music to preserve our culture. This is potentially a dangerous thing because it could create a situation where our musical lives grow more and more distant from our actual social lives with the people around us in our larger community.

Here’s another excerpt:

COWEN: But what really embarrasses you? What admission can I squeeze out of you?

GIOIA: When I was a teenager, I listened to Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.

COWEN: Now that’s embarrassing.

GIOIA: Right before I discovered jazz, I was listening to Keith Emerson. This was the quandary I was in.

Economist Tyler Cowen asks an embarrassing question

COWEN: It was jazz, in a way.

GIOIA: It prepared me for jazz. It really did. When I was a teenager, I was playing piano, and this was the problem I faced. I liked rock because of its emotional immediacy, but it didn’t have the sophistication I wanted. Then I loved classical music like Bach for the sophistication, but it didn’t have the emotional immediacy. And I said, “I need something that brings together both.”

Then I walked into a jazz club. Literally, I walked into the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, California. I was a high school student. I sat down, the music started, and within 10 seconds, I said to myself, “This is what I’ve been waiting for.” Really, it was this epiphanal moment. But before that, it was Keith Emerson.

And a third, about one of my own pet peeves – loud restaurants:

COWEN: Why are restaurants so much noisier today? And they’re still getting noisier.

GIOIA: In fact, I’ve got to say I prefer the quiet restaurant, but I understand everybody else wants the noisy restaurant. And I do think we’re going back to René Girard territory, where everything’s imitation, where you choose the restaurant not on what’s the best food, but what other people are doing that I can imitate. There are two restaurants in town. You go in the one with the most people. I think that imitative behavior patterns explain much more in society than we care to admit.

Merci, René Girard.

COWEN: But there’s much more noise pollution more generally. Restaurants are noisier. It seems that music, in general, is louder. And in terms of dynamic compression, the range is much narrower. So why is there this general tendency toward more noise? Why are markets undersupplying peace and quiet?

GIOIA: Because they want to stand out. It’s interesting, in my book I talk about the very first musicians, who were hunter-gatherers. What they did was fascinating because back then there were no loud sounds. You could live your whole life in prehistoric times and maybe never hear a loud sound unless you went near a waterfall or maybe during a thunderstorm. But for the most part everything was quiet.

So that’s why there’s a plausible theory that the early hunter-gatherers invented choral singing to hunt. They were scavengers, and they didn’t try to kill the lion themselves. They let the lion kill the prey. Then they would sing together to scare away the lion, and they would get the food. That tells you that back then, loud sounds were so rare that they were an amazing expression of power.

The thing to remember is, even today, loud sounds are an expression of power, notoriety. So you have competition in terms of sound, and the restaurants believe — and maybe rightly — that they’re going to stand out with the noisier environment. Now, once again, I will avoid those restaurants. I’ll go to the quiet one, but I really think the same way there was an arms race in the 1960s, there’s a noise race in society right now.

There’s lots more. Read the whole thing here


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2 Responses to ““For most of history, music was a kind of cloud storage for societies”: Ted Gioia talks music with Tyler Cowen”

  1. Les Antczak Says:

    Similar to Mr. Gioia, I listened to Keith Emerson’s music as an adolescent, and was influenced by him not only to listen to jazz but classical music, and thus he opened up worlds to me i might not have otherwise been drawn to explore. That the band imploded internally – helped along by the music industry (read: pushed over the cliff) – is unfortunate; however, the influence remains, and I’m sure more than a few people from our generation owe a debt to Mr. Emerson for opening the door to jazz and classical.

    If there is any question of his mastery and sensitivity as a musician, one need only listen to “Prelude to a Hope” available on Youtube:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dSUqrBrO1Bg

    Incidentally, I know of very little music that conveys the impression of ocean as much as this. Maybe a personal impression, but quite strong every time I revisit this piece.

  2. Ted Gioia Says:

    Les, you might be interest in Jeffrey Biegel recent recording of Keith Emerson’s Piano Concerto No. 1. This article has some interesting details on it. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/jeffrey-biegel-on-keith-e_b_10103218

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