THE SÜDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG MAGAZIN
31 DECEMBER 2009
Süddeutsche Zeitung is the largest selling German national subscription newspaper. The following four questions were asked by Thomas Bärnthaler for an end of year article published in the magazine section of the paper on 31 December 2009.
1. What’s the state of Pop in 2009?
I have very little interest in the state of Pop in 2009. Pop is at its most powerful when you are a teenager; it has been a long time since I was a teenager. Occasionally I become aware of something that captures my interest fleetingly, like Lady Gaga, but it does not last. That said, I hate people who are too old for Pop thinking it was somehow better in the past. Nothing was better in the past. I like things evolving and changing; I like the fact that the iPod and free file sharing sites have changed our relationship to music. And these changes cannot help but change the position and role that music has in our culture, especially Pop music. Thus it will no longer be one of the central cultural forces in the century ahead of us.
2.What’s wrong with the idea of recorded music?
There is nothing wrong with the idea of recorded music, but for me it is like its perfect partner Pop music - a thing of the 20th century. Even the most potent of art forms have numbered days.
As the technology to record music evolved through the 20th century it seduced all forms of music before it. There was hardly a genre of music in the world that did not want to be recorded, packaged and sold. In doing so, much of this music lost its power. So much of the strength of a lot of music is about time, place and occasion. Once music is recorded and can then, theoretically, be played at any time, any place and on any occasion, it has so much of its power cut from it.
The greatest thing that came out of the technology to record music was Pop music itself – it being a genre of music that was totally reliant on its power as a recorded document. It provided a soundtrack for us to fall in love, lose our virginity, break our hearts or just take drugs to. It inspired us to storm the Bastille or man the barricades of our day. With pop music we could dream dreams of far off places, oceans away from our grey little lives on non-descript housing estates. But by far and away the most powerful force that recorded music contained was the memories it could trigger - memories of lost youth, missed chances and those endless days of summer when the world was still young.
Then there was the other side of recorded music, like the movie industry; it was almost the perfect commodity for the democratic capitalism that swept the Western world in the post-war years. By the 1950s this recorded music could be captured on light and easy to distribute bits of plastic. And the bits of plastic could be played on things called record players. Soon every household had one. And then even sooner, every teenager had one in their bedroom. These bits of plastic with recorded music on them sold by the millions. And then the billions. People could never get enough of them. And there were always new ones, better ones, different ones. Ones for every taste, every class, every gang, clique or troupe in town. Absolutely everyone was catered for - the free market economy made sure of that. All we had to do was keep buying them and they would keep making new and different ones to satisfy our needs. The ‘they’ mentioned in the last sentence was the music industry. In a few short decades it had grown from being a few fat men chomping on cigars in cramped Tin Pan Alley offices to a global industry. This global industry included the small and purest independent labels to the big bad majors, but they, even if they didn’t know it, were all in it together – they all wanted to keep us buying these bits of plastic.
But next the Internet was invented and soon after that the MP3 player - and we did not need to pay for bits of plastic anymore and we didn’t need record players (ok, CDs or CD players). Suddenly we didn’t need to pay for music at all and we had these iPods that could have all the music we could ever want to hear in a lifetime in our pocket to play anywhere at any time, while doing almost anything. Things were changing and I like change. Our relationship with music was changing fast. Now that we could have all the music we ever wanted with us all of the time and we didn’t have to pay for it, it no longer meant the same thing to us. And the music industry was soon not going to be investing the same sort of sums into making recorded music for us not to buy. Their business model was falling apart. They kept trying to reinvent business models but they knew it was over. The days of global stars like Elvis, The Beatles and Michael Jackson who could generate millions upon millions by the sale of recorded music was over. We will never see their like again. In centuries to come they will look back at the second half of the 20th century and be incredulous at the fact that a mere musician could be worldwide heroes. Like I said - even the most potent of art forms have numbered days.
There is another side to this. Now that anybody can make a track on their laptop with a bit of software and stick it up on the Internet, something has been lost. It is no longer a special thing to make recorded music. It used to be a special thing that only special people could do, now we all know someone who has made an album or got tracks we can download. Every busker we pass is trying to sell his CD. Thus the young and creative music makers of the next few years are not going to want to make music that anybody can download off the Internet, listen to at any time while doing almost anything. They will want to make music that is about time, place, occasion. They will want you to invest something of yourself to hear the music. They will not want you to be a mere consumer, but for you to be part of it.
3.Your choir The17 has no members, no harmonies, no audience. What’s the idea behind it? What inspired it?
The17 has currently over 5,634 members and potentially everybody in the world can become members. All they have to do is take part in a performance by The17 and they are automatically a lifetime member – no way out.
But I guess what you may mean to be asking is: why does The17 not have a fixed line up of singers every time The17 perform? And the answer to that is: back in 2005 I imagined that The17 would consist of a regular line up of 17 singers who sung at each performance. But that soon seemed to limit what the idea of what The17 could be in my imagination. I wanted The17 to be a choir that could be made up of different people every time it performed. These people need not be proper singers, they may not have sung since they were children or on a drunken night doing karaoke. I wanted The17 to be a choir where I could walk into a shopping centre and enlist a bunch of folk to perform as The17 there and then. Once the performance was done we could all walk away and get on with whatever it was we were doing in the shopping centre.
There are often plenty of harmonies in the music of The17. These harmonies may not be that pretty but sometimes they are very moving and powerful. As for melodies they are few and far between and only happen by accident, the same goes for rhythms. There are never any lyrics.
I wanted The17 to start from as close as I could get to a year zero for music. This is of course an impossibility; I cannot un-know the things that I know, but the idea of a year zero is very seductive.
As for the audience - the choir are the audience and the audience are the choir. The17 is not entertainment, as consumer culture has understood entertainment to be, where one group of sanctioned ‘talented’ people perform for the other less talented people who pay money to do nothing but consume.
I do not know what the idea behind The17 is or what particularly inspired it. I just know that what I am doing with The17 has reconnected me with music in a far deeper way than I thought could ever be possible. I do not think it is the future of anything other than my own future until I get to 60 and then others will be free to do what they want with it and I can get on doing the other things I want to get done in this one life.
4.What happens when you and The17 are singing? Please describe your feelings to us. What are you after?
You will have to take part to find out, is the flippant answer that I can give. It varies considerably depending on which score is being performed. Some of the scores are supposed to be very moving others more conceptual, others to work more in the memory, something that has its real power maybe months or years later when thinking back to the performance. As for my feelings – I am usually too concerned with making sure the whole thing works and that the people taking part are getting something from it, to actually become emotionally involved with the music myself.
As for what I am after – I reject the whole notion of art, music, football, and culture in general as mere product for us to consume for the profit of others. As I may have said above – I loathe the whole way that our society has so developed that we willingly pay others so that we can stand (or sit) doing nothing while the ‘talented’ do it for us. For me that would be as ridiculous as paying to watch somebody have sex, instead of having sex yourself, just because they were considered good at doing it. Go and play football, not watch football is what I say.