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Best of 2008: 10 Albums, 10 Downloads, 8 Processes

By Marc Weidenbaum

Three lists this year — two of highly recommended music (one each of 10 commercial full-length recordings and of 10 freely downloadable recordings), and one of 8 cultural processes that came into their own in 2008.

Picking favorites, making lists, is something an individual either is drawn to, or is loathe to participate in. I fall into the latter camp, and each year when I select 10 albums, I do so knowing — and feeling it’s necessary, yet again, to couch the list in a deep, cushioning bed of caveats — that another set of 10 albums, another 10 sets of 10 albums, could bring just as much pleasure, and reward just as much curiosity, as those listed here.

In my experience, a given list is valuable primarily as a chore, a chore that provides an impetus for reflection. The process is a kind of practice. And the end result is less important to me than is the time and effort required to produce it — the effort involves looking back at past posts and unpublished notes, at correspondence, as well as at the writings of friends, colleagues, and other writers and musicians, and flipping through stacks of recordings, both physical and virtual. But that’s exactly the sort of effort that I don’t think I could exert if I didn’t have a goal in sight, and these lists are that goal.

Of course, considering the ever increasing amount of music and sound art being produced, it’s also nice to offer up a tidy, if inadequate, window on a given year — a list that can be of use to others, much as their lists are of use to me. And so, presented below, are three such windows, each with sufficient introductory remarks that it’s best to just get on with it.

One last comment, though — if anything came into focus as I sorted these items, it was a single, insistent question: What elevates one drone above another? Much of the music heard here, from the entirety of Kevin Drumm’s aptly named Imperial Distortion, to several key moments on the equally appropriately titled Ghosts from Nine Inch Nails, to the audio cumulus of Ryonkt, qualifies as a drone. A drone is precisely the sort of sound that is easily dismissible as background noise in our ever more electronically enhanced and mediated society. It is also the artistic territory of a wide range of musicians. The seemingly fungible nature of drones may give the lie to the whole act of distinguishing between (or within) any types music. But the fact of the matter is that for me, personally, these drones — as well the other drone-like music heard here, not to mention the music that is utterly un-drone-like, such as the prickly beats of Alva Noto and the computer-brutalized metal of Drumcorps — were, simply, the recordings to which I repeatedly returned over the course of the past year. In the end, what distinguishes a drone is that it distinguishes itself.

 

Part 1/3 — 10 BEST COMMERCIAL FULL-LENGTH ALBUMS OF 2008: They appear here in alphabetical order, as an iPod might list them.

1. Alva Noto
Unitxt
(Raster-Noton)
The sound on Unitxt is even more stripped down, more rarefied, more concise, more brittle, and more compelling than on previous Alva Noto (aka Carsten Nicolai) records. Take the mix of percussive patter and static that plays between stereo speakers on “u06,” which is so spare that it’s almost weightless. On “u03,” there’s a contrasting sense of density, if only by comparison with “u_06,” though what stands out isn’t the heaviness of the occasional beat, but the vacuum-like silences that punctuate what in any other music would be the punctuations.

2. Fennesz
Black Sea
(Touch)
At some point, we’ll no longer use the word “orchestral” to refer to the deep, swelling immenseness of music such as what Christian Fennesz perpetrates with a mix of emotional exuberance and composerly circumspection, but for the time being that word, along with the related image of dozens of musicians working in unison, remains the primary model for a sound that is at once expansive and coordinated. Fennesz achieves his slow-build compositions through heavily altered sourced audio, much of it, famously, derived from guitars. Not everything here is as consuming as, say, the white-noise turmoil of “Saffron Revolution,” or the heavy, encrusted feedback of the title track. There is, in “Vacuum,” a telling absence; the piece is like a field recording of a discarded industrial site, so remote and fragile that the grandeur of the other tracks becomes all the more evident by inevitable comparison.

3. Ill Insanity
Ground Xero
(Ablist/Fat Beats)
Three members of the great turntable crew the X-Ecutioners debuted this year as Ill Insanity. Perhaps that makes them X-X-Ecutioners, but in any case, DJs Rob Swift (aka Robert Aguilar), Total Eclipse (Keith Bailey) and Precision bring a seriousness to their collective endeavor that occasionally eluded their previous unit. (If you know Precision’s given name, please let me know.) Gone, for the most part, are the showy calisthenics by which the X-Ecutioners expressed their skills, an old-school approach to entertainment that at times brought to mind the exhibitionism of the Harlem Globetrotters. In its place is a dense dread, from the molasses-slow sway of “Sound Science,” to the cut-up vocals of “Break Ill,” to some funky processed-jazz sqwonk (courtesy of saxophonist Dave McMurray) on “Nonverbal Communications.” Digital studio production has long since supplanted the turntable as the backbone — the back beat — of hip-hop, and what that’s done is freed up turntablism to pursue its own ends. (Guests on Ground Xero also include DJ QBert, DJ Excess, and Roc Raida — the latter aka Anthony Williams, another X-Ecutioner alum — and on the album’s sole vocal track, rapper Dashah.)

4. James Blackshaw
Litany of Echoes
(Tompkins Square)
If James Blackshaw’s head-bowed, mantra-like solo acoustic guitar has, rightfully, earned him comparisons to the late John Fahey, then Litany of Echoes — with the flamenco tinge of “Echo and Abyss” and the clanging textures of “Shroud” — will do little to divert attention from the comparison. However, the album’s opening and closing tracks, both built around intensely repetitive piano, will add La Monte Young, Philip Glass, and Terry Riley to Blackshaw’s list of strong precursors.

5. Kevin Drumm
Imperial Distortion
(Hospital Productions)
The six lengthy drones, upwards of 20 minutes each, that comprise Drumm’s album distinguish themselves by being so clearly distinct from each other. The album could serve as a drone primer, so individual are the works. They include the pad-like textures of “Romantic Sores,” and the hovering, quavering tones that give way to organ-like drama on “We All Get It in the End.” That two tracks share a title (“Snow”) and little else is a useful bit of programming that brings the whole matter of sameness to the fore.

6. Mira Calix
The Elephant in the Room: 3 Commissions
(Warp)
This is less an album than it is a monograph, a document of several artworks produced in recent years by Mira Calix, whose given name seems like it was already sufficiently colorful: Chantal Passamonte. These include excerpts from an opera and sound from a video. The most beautiful work is the material for strings and electronics, in which gentle digital effects flicker amid the lulling chamber music. The scenes from the opera admirably mix field recordings and vocals in a manner that deserves comparison to the work of Gavin Bryars.

7. Silences Sumire
Return Is Selective
(Ropeadope)
Not everything acoustic mixed into the digital samplers of Silences Sumire (aka Thomas Faulds and Charles Gorczynski) on Return Is Selective is jazz, but it’s the jazz, and the jazz-like elements, that stick with you. These include the carefully arranged horns of “Afterglowdust” (heard above puckering drum beats that serve as a grid of sheet music on which the notes are arranged), and the more sublimated fusion of “The Mental Environment” (horns and beats again, but with the emphasis rebalanced, so the acoustic elements color the electronic ones), as well as the rapid-fire “Strongsender” (in which the inhuman percussion strives to keep up with the scale-running, human-powered instruments).

8. Spring Heel Jack
Songs and Themes
(Thirsty Ear)
Once upon a time, Spring Heel Jack (the duo of John Coxon and Ashley Wales) made noir-touched electronica, performing an advanced lounge music in clubs, their erudition sometimes peeking out from under the party-friendly tempos. If there was jazz in what they did, it was based on a model in which soft strings and mournful horns worked in tandem to effect a mood. Well, interest in entertaining nightlife-seeking audiences has long since been dropped from Spring Heel Jack’s modus operandi. Here, they work with a host of free-thinking free-improvisers, including saxophonist John Tchicai (a John Coltrane alumnus) and Roy Campbell, Jr. (who gigged with Don Cherry), as well as Spirtualized member J Spaceman, among others, to produce an introspective but outward bound amalgam of digital production and live performance.

9. Stephan Mathieu
Radioland
(Die Schachtel)
It doesn’t hurt to enter into the soundworld of Stephan Mathieu’s first full-length recording since 2004’s The Sad Mac with the knowledge that the source materials for all of these sounds — the shimmering orchestration of “Raphael,” the eerie chimes and insectoid noise of “Licht und Finsternis zum Auge,” the infernal buzz of “Gabriel” — were plucked from the ether. Mathieu’s album, all seven tracks, was made from “real-time processed shortwave radio signals” — which is to say, he took a spectrum of unheard sounds around us and turned them into something audible and yet, still, beyond reach.

10. Wayne Horvitz Gravitas Quartet
One Dance Alone
(Songlines)
Since the early days of the Knitting Factory, back when it was the hub of lower Manhattan’s enterprising new-music scene in the late 1980s, keyboardist Wayne Horvitz has explored the intersection of (and tension between) composition and improvisation. The material on One Dance Alone leans heavily toward the former, with well-delineated themes that are played straight — underplayed, you might say — by Horvitz on piano, Ron Miles on trumpet, Peggy Lee on cello, and Sara Schoenbeck on bassoon. The result fits somewhere between Charles Ives and Lennon/McCartney, especially the loose horn part on “A Fond Farewell.” Restrained to the point of crystalline, this is chamber jazz at its best.

 

Part 2/3 — 10 BEST DOWNLOADS OF 2008, LEGALLY FREE: As I’ve done for the past few years, I am singling out 10 free, legal downloads as my favorites. These are all selected from the 220 some odd entries posted on Disquiet.com in its Downstream department during 2008. To constrain the field, to make it knowable, this list is limited to recordings that are “of the web.” The following were not considered for inclusion: individual promotional tracks (and excerpts) posted from existing or forthcoming commercial albums (special “mixes” were considered for inclusion, as were situations in which entire albums were available for free download, as with Nine Inch Nails and Drumcorps), downloads that were placed online for a stated limited period of time (like Monolake’s generous “download of the month” series at monolake.de), audio that is streaming-only (such as the ever-growing Other Minds catalog at archive.org), and dated archival material (work that would be considered a “reissue” in the commercial world, such as the majority of what is housed at ubu.com). Also not considered for inclusion were tracks whose links have subsequently gone offline.

All of which is to say, everything on this list is of recent vintage and is available to download, for free, right now.

Click through to each original Downstream entry for more information. These 10 are listed here in the reverse chronological order in which they appeared on Disquiet.com. Given the fluid nature of publication, attribution, and collation on the Internet, I cannot be certain that these audio files first appeared online in 2008, but many if not all of them did. And if some of them are older than that, at least this mention might gain them a new audience.

1. Slow-Burn Guitar Quintet: Following a coy opening chord, “Funnel Cloud” by a guitar quintet that goes by the name the Family Tapes quickly descends into details of the instrument that rumble below the familiar techniques — in the absence of strumming and finger-plucking, what’s left are feedback, drones, squelches, tactile noises, and pizzicato pulsing. The overall sense is that each of the five members of Family Tapes, aware of the energy potential inherent in a guitar, is holding back, so as not to overwhelm the others. And the resulting detente is therefore just as full of tension as it is of quietude (MP3).
Downstream: December 5, 2008

2. Broken Beats, Spliced & Fragmented: The broken beats and contorted melodic moments of the album Gamma by Craque (aka Matt Cooke-Davis) have their strongest showing on “Matterbuss,” the fourth of its six tracks. There’s a rotating, purposefully clunky rhythm that sounds like it might have been spliced together from snippets of a recording of an out-of-breath dog. The rhythm is later repeated on what could be chopsticks tapping out a sketch of the work on a restaurant table. Above it, throughout, fragments of spoken word and gestural acoustic guitar hover like filigrees and decorations (MP3).
Downstream: November 5, 2008

3. Live Digitally Processed Jazz Performance: The Australian trio Roam the Hello Clouds works a laptop into the mix. Lawrence Pike on drums and Phil Slater on trumpet collaborate with their third member, Dave Miller, who is billed with laptop, and whose primary sound sources are the live performances by Pike and Slater, which he augments in real time. The scenario recalls the role of Brian Eno during the early stages of Roxy Music, when he was, among other things, emphasizing the use of the mixing board itself as a part of the creative process. The result, as evidenced by a lengthy performance posted courtesy of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation National Radio show Sound Quality, brings to mind everything from late-1960s Miles Davis to the more recent digitally augmented work of Nils Petter Molvær. Miller’s efforts are both subtle and trenchant. They’re inherent to the playing, but generally linger in the background. For example, about 14 minutes into the hour-and-a-half Sound Quality posting, an extended tone can be heard in the background, as if a note played by Slater had been plucked from thin air and then magically wrapped around the trio like a blanket, suggesting an impossible effort at circular breathing, as if Rhasaan Roland Kirk were reborn as an ambient guru (MP3).
Downstream: October 22, 2008

4. Massive Birdsong Megamix: Back in May, San Francisco–based musician Wobbly (aka Jon Leidecker) filled the gaps between acts at a concert headlined by krautrock legends Cluster with several DJ sets, two of which he has posted at his website, detritus.net/wobbly, for free download. Wobbly took as his theme for one of them (titled “Pastoral”), as he describes it, “music that modelled or sampled birdsong or insect calls, from the 50’s to present day,” which traces from the Barrons (composers of the Forbidden Planet soundtrack), through David Tudor, on to Wendy Carlos, up through Florian Hecker and Christina Kubisch and beyond. Thoughtfully, he’s also provided not only a set list, but one with detailed time codes, so listeners can follow along — or birdwatch, as it were (MP3).
Downstream: September 23, 2008

5. Computer-Mediated Metal: The act Drumcorps (aka Aaron Spectre) has long been a Disquiet Downstream favorite for his having located the exact sonic space where chaotically implemented digital noise is indistinguishable from the whiplash riffage of metal bands like Slayer. Each of the three songs on the Altered Beast EP is a technologically enabled dissection and reanimation of death metal by the San Francisco-based band Animosity, inserting stop’n’start instances, warping noise into the ether, and emphasizing the pummel. (Available as Zipped archives at wearemanalive.com/abdownload. The EP was also released on limited-edition vinyl pressings of wildly varying color combinations.)
Downstream: August 29, 2008

6. A Sky Full of Audio Bliss: The slowly circulating drones of “Gray Sky,” a free download by Ryonkt, supply 17 minutes of audio bliss. Layers of sound appear occasionally with some suddenness, only to be absorbed immediately into the cloud-like whole. Brief pulses surface above the bellows-like sine waves, but there’s never enough of a pattern to them to approximate or otherwise suggest a proper melodic structure; they’re more like accent marks than notes, mere glints on the sonic windshield. This is a beautiful track, far more detailed than might initially appear to be the case. It’s likewise more dynamic: there are moments when sounds quickly spiral off into the distance, and when swells of tone play with your ear drums. There is modulation down and up, and a quieting toward the end that provides a natural, soothing close (MP3).
Downstream: July 15, 2008

7. Remixed 78-RPM Recordings: We know what Alan Morse Davies did to construct The Last Summer. The brief liner note on the project’s home page states it plainly enough: “An album of manipulated recordings from 78RPM records recorded between 1905 and 1931.” He’s taken outmoded recordings of once popular music and transformed them, courtesy of the creative license inherent in the public domain, into his own deeply felt renditions. The shortest of the three tracks, a version of the Debussy favorite “Claire de Lune,” is extended to over 17 minutes, at which point it is almost pure choral gossamer; each of the other two, “The Last Rose of Summer” and a rousing “Ave Maria,” clock in at over 23 minutes. It’s a testament to Davies’s approach that he doesn’t get hung up on the needle-in-the-groove clicks or dusty residue of the 78s. He doesn’t need to reproduce the rough surface texture of the original medium in order to telegraph to today’s listeners that this stuff is, plain and simple, old. His versions don’t merely extend the content of the originals until that material is ready to evaporate into thin air; they amplify both the richly melodious songs that were a dominant style of that period, and the archaic echoes inherent in that time’s sonic-reproduction technology. (Get the full set at archive.org.)
Downstream: July 7, 2008

8. Transformed Field Recordings: Sounds sourced from the real world and transformed into something either unreal or hyperreal serve as the foundation of a new compilation from the furthernoise.org netlabel. It is titled Explorations in Sound, Vol 3: Music of Sound and was curated by Roger Mills. Field recordings subjected here to digital modifications include rubber bands (yanked and flicked into numerous variations by Solange Kershaw), the electric hum of a lamppost (investigated for all its subtlety by Rebecca Mills), and the rush of traffic (modified to approach something melodic by Gail Priest). Those are just three of the album’s 11 tracks. Other participants include Thanos Chysakis, Robert Curgenven, Dithernoise, Iris Garrelfs & Douglas Benford, Derek Morton, Lea Piontek, John Kannenberg, and Phil Hargreaves. (Get the full set as a Zip archive at furthernoise.org: ZIP.)
Downstream: June 23, 2008

9. Pixelated Guitar Single: Fubsan’s “I Wish I Had a Watermelon” is built around a guitar line, pixelated and sparkling, locating that perfect spot where digital mediation merely amplifies the effect of strings in sympathetic vibration. To that is added a smattering of clicky, glitchy percussion and a background of whispery noises. From the Yoyo Pang! netlabel, which admirably traffics only in single-song releases. (Available not as an MP3, but as an OGG file.)
Downstream: May 29, 2008

10. Nine Inch Nails Leaves Listeners Speechless: Following quickly on the heels of Radiohead’s In Rainbows, another rock band with a strong following and abstract-electronic leanings posted its music online as a sliding-scale download. Nine Inch Nails made available for free a nine-track collection titled Ghosts I-IV, and a variety of purchasing options got you the full, nearly two-hour, 36-track version, ranging from a five-dollar download-only set to several disc-based physical objects. While the big entertainment-industry news at the time was the business plan involved in NIN’s Ghosts collection, what went underreported was the fact of the music itself: arguably the biggest selling album in the world at that moment was a lengthy set of experimental electronic instrumentals. The album opens with a contemporary, atmospheric spin on Satie’s piano — a hazy, lazy melody milked for its romantic echoes as a whorl of droney tones fills in the spaces between the notes. Then, on track two (the full album consists of four sets of nine tracks, each set titled Ghosts I, II, III or IV), comes the reverse: a quietly roiling fuzz box that’s eventually lent shape thanks to a well-crafted piano line. (Still downloadable for free at ghosts.nin.com. Just go to the Listen page, which includes instructions.)
Downstream: March 17, 2008

 

Part 3/3 — 8 KEY PROCESSES IN 2008: Any ambivalence about singling out a few key recordings should be easily offset by a list of general cultural activities. Or so you might think. If it feels wrong to say that one person’s drone, or modified field recording, or synthesized percussion is markedly better than another person’s drone, or modified field recording, or synthesized percussion, then it should be more comfortable to investigate drones, field recordings, and synthesized percussion as semi-distinct fields of creative effort in which a variety of individuals are making interesting noise and news.

The problem being, of course, that to focus on key fields is, in effect, to talk about trends — “trend” being one of the more troublesome words in cultural criticism, precisely because it threatens to suffocate anyone who embarks on (or works within) a supposed trend, by suggesting that whatever personal stake they might have in their work — be it circuit-bent children’s toys, generative software, or the digital processing of live instrumentation — is dwarfed by some broader cultural movement.

Last year (see: disquiet.com) I avoided the word “trend” by tying individuals to certain fields of activities: Kanye West, for the “producer as star”; Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, together serving as a symbol for “sound art”; Toshio Iwai, creator of Electroplankton and the Tenori-On, personifying the convergence of video games and music-making. In other words, I avoided the word “trend” by focusing on “people.” In the end, though, I traded one error for another, because singling out any individual in a given field inevitably misrepresents their centrality, even if you list runners-up, as I did.

This year I hope to avoid the word “trend” (even if that’s now the fourth time I’ve typed it in as many paragraphs) by simply offering an alternative: “processes.”

1. Video Games Are the New Disco (or the New Power Ballad): It’s arguable — whether you find it sad, as a commentary on the decline of the pop song, or merely inevitable, as a statement about how video-game consoles are the new electronic hearth, or exciting, as an example of how digital technology is transforming entertainment — that the primary means by which a mass audience participated in a single musical experience in 2008 was via video games, notably Guitar Hero and Rock Band. That is to say, the manner in which a mass audience once rotated around a single arena act, be it R.E.M., Michael Jackson, Bon Jovi, or the Who, has been relocated to the intimacy of the living room (and, in the case of Guitar Hero, the portability of the Nintendo DS). Of course, it’s also arguable that those same acts have simply seen their monetary channel shift, because all of them are part of Guitar Hero and Rock Band, and the games wouldn’t have been as popular without them.

2. Netlabels Hit the Mainstream: It was in late 2007 that Radiohead dove headlong into the realm of freely downloadable music, with the release of the album In Rainbows. And in 2008, Nine Inch Nails followed suit, with Ghosts I – IV and The Slip. Gauging by the financial success of those endeavors, there’s no way this is the last we’ve heard of large-scale acts making their music freely available — which is to say, following a big-media variation on the netlabel model. In related news, record companies are in effect becoming radio stations, as their home pages are — with increasing uniformity — coming to feature streaming audio.

3. Casual Musicianship Has Become Gestural: Electroplankton was a small hit on the Nintendo DS, but one factor kept its audience (and its immediate influence) from expanding further: it was on a platform by definition already being used by gamers. But with the arrival this year of Brian Eno’s Bloom, and FM3’s virtual Buddha Machine, and other such generative and otherwise music-making software applications on the iPhone and iPod Touch, the casual creation of sound has become a mass-market cultural experience. That many of these tools are ambient — sound-based, rather than song-based — is all the more exciting, because it means a broader audience is appreciating sound for its own sake. (This emphasis on the iPod isn’t intended to detract from earlier efforts on other mobile technology, notably the Palm, but that’s been more a matter of musicians hacking unintended uses, rather than individual consumers making sounds as a matter of choice.) When Google’s Android operating system debuts its fee-based application marketplace in early 2009, as has been reported, it will be interesting to see if iPhone-based music software is ported over, and if anything inherent in either system (interface, hardware) spurs platform-specific development.

4. Ambient Movie Scores Are Normalized: In years past, a core group of film composers has served, time and again, as models for crafting movie scores that break with the melodic overstatement of earlier film composers. They dispensed with those larger-than-life, heavily orchestrated, self-evidently melodic pieces of theme music that were the aural equivalent of the decorative velvet curtains that frame a cineplex’s screen: superfluous, garish, and a throwback. This newer generation of composers includes Lisa Gerrard (Whale Rider), Cliff Martinez (Solaris), Clint Mansell (Requiem for a Dream), and David Holmes (Ocean’s Eleven). But if in 2008, no single score truly stood out, it’s perhaps because the techniques employed by those four — among others — have become more generally part of the movie-going experience. From The Dark Knight to Wall-E (and on television from House to Heroes), their impact is being felt in how score and sound design are becoming one, singular whole.

5. Sound-Art Ubiquity:
Museums and galleries are noisier than ever, and that’s a good thing. Sound has long been an element in art, but 2008 was a year in which its prominence in the formerly hushed, cloistered confines of fine-art venues seemed to have become irreversible. One additional note: among the biggest technological shifts in 2008 is the arrival of low-power, low-cost laptops, deemed “netbooks” by the tech press (though the company Psion has been sending out cease and desist letters in regard to that moniker). Much as inexpensive MP3 players have allowed artists easy access to digital sound as part of their work, these netbooks, which are generally priced between $100 and $400, offer affordable processing power for installations in galleries and museums.

6. Fetishized Sound Objects: This comes in two forms — recordings and instruments. Regarding recordings, it’s useful, when tracking the shift to MP3s (and equivalent) from CDs, to note that acts such as Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails, along with Brian Eno and David Byrne on their recent full-length collaboration, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, are producing expensive, limited-edition, physical-object versions of their releases. In essence what they’re saying is, “If an MP3 is sufficient for music, then we’ll have to provide something else you can hold in your hands,” suggesting that anyone with a desire for the tangible vestiges of pre-MP3 music purchases can find an alternative in the equivalent of a single-album box set. Regarding instruments, it’s fascinating to watch new gadgets-as-instruments gain in popularity, notably the Tenori-On, the Monome, and the Buddha Machine (version 2.0 of which was released two months ago). But much as software-based synths have largely supplanted hardware synthesizers, the ongoing development of numerous commercial-realm, physical-object, use-specific instruments seems unlikely. (Software’s a whole other realm — see #3, above.) However, in the DiY world (well documented by various sites, notably the music section of Make magazine’s blog, at makezine.com), the activity is really taking off in the form of instrument hacking and instrument invention. How many garage bands have been kicked out of the garage to make room for the resident hacker?

7. A Decade of Portable MP3s: It’s been 10 earbud-laden years since the Diamond Rio became available commercially, and the “MP3 player” is now the norm, even if a majority of MP3 players are iPods, and even if a substantial percentage of those players aren’t playing MP3s but, instead, Apple’s default AAC (aka M4A), with its concomitant “digital-rights management” (or DRM) tools. Whether the devaluation of the physical product has resulted in a devaluation of the music itself is something many people continue to debate. What isn’t debatable is that music, more than ever, is an abstraction; it is increasingly removed from the tangible world (except, perhaps, in how it affects one’s ear drums), and the shift from CD to MP3, from tangible to intangible, promises a future in which more musicians are interested in exploring that very abstraction, the disembodiment and ethereal quality that is inherent in much ambient/electronica. Which brings us to …

8. Sonic Stasis: For all the progress being made in digital audio, sound art, generative software, personal technology, and mobile/cloud computing, the end result — the music, the art — is not necessarily making steps commensurate with the changing environment. There’s a lot of promise, especially in #2 (netlabels), #3 (gestural music), and #5 (sound art) above, but at the moment, the general understanding of music and sound has not shifted as significantly in popular perception as has the means by which that music/sound is transmitted and distributed. In that regard, we’re still in the early years of commercial cinema, when many movies were little more than filmed theater. Closer to home, it took a long time for rock musicians to distinguish what they did inside the studio from what they did on stage. We’ll see what changes 2009 brings with it.

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