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Art as object: why humans will always value physical manifestations of music

In Objet d'Art, we take a look at the use of inanimate objects in film and music and their changing meanings, aesthetics and emotional purpose in different contexts.

Music has always been grounded by its physical manifestation. Whether it’s a vinyl record, a compact disc or a cassette tape, the sound waves that we so fervently love have been linked to objects for generations. But as we move into the 21st century proper, music as object is dead.

From the moment someone recorded “Clair de la Lune”, music has had a physical presence in the world; that is, an object that could be pointed at with the exclamation, “that’s music”. Of course, while these objects allow for playback of music, they’re not the only way we can experience our favourite songs. Music still has that primal capacity of being ephemeral and intangible when performed live, and it’s often emotionally resonant rather than physically effecting, though it has a reputation for achieving both. But interestingly the objects that hold music have become synonymous with the sounds they contain.

When we think of a great album, we think of its packaging: the album cover. From Sgt. Pepper’s’s large scale portrait of the who’s who of the 20th century, to the sleek derrière of Is This It, the image that adorns an album is inextricably linked to the music. Sgt. Pepper’s reflects The Beatles stature as visionaries of their art; standing alongside instantly recognisable faces or genius unknowns, it foreshadows the place they’ll fill in the collective cultural mind of the late 20th century and beyond.

And then there’s Is This It. The gloved hand resting on that bottom is instantly recognisable and speaks to the nonchalant cool The Strokes sweated in the early 00s. But it was never released in the USA. Instead, a yellow and blue image of subatomic particles was made the cover of the album in America, and on all releases after October 2001. That change, according to a biography on the band from 2003, was made due the apparently conservative retail minds of the American population. That assumption goes a long way for exposing the huge mental connection we have between the object and the sound. If people would judge a piece of musical output on the image that envelopes it without ever even hearing that music, how are we to ever separate the two again?

It seems the age of the internet has answered that for us. With the rise of the MP3 and the digital sharing and distribution of music (and film and images and writing and all other consumable culture), musical objects are all but disappearing from our cluttered homes. Literally any old media you can think of now has an intangible digital counterpart, from books to vinyls to Super 8mm film. Music is probably the largest commodity of digital files, though perhaps it falls second to images. But music’s power, that affecting quality that was linked to its physical manifestation and its inherent perpetuity is made stronger through its emancipation from a physical form; once when we had the CD, we could hear a song a seemingly infinite amount of times. That thought seems quaint now; with the touch of a button, we can literally loop a song, an album, a playlist, an infinite amount of times, and out it comes from the digital aether, over and over again. This is almost the meta form of music, considering it’s gone from having a life span as long as the note being sung to existing ad infinitum in the cloud.

Having said that, a new object has come to physically symbolise music: the iPod. With its squat rectangle silhouette and its little white earbuds, the iPod became the 21st century’s musical object. Everyone equates the iPod with music, even babies. And generally, that’s its purpose. It gives us simple access to those ghostly files. Its entire purpose is to play music, to house it and make it replay-able, just as it was once the purpose of the vinyl and the CD. But in a way, the MP3 player still symbolises the emancipation of music. Theoretically, CDs (the last bastion of physical/digital musical relations) are redundant. An entire music library can be stored on a hard drive and the shelf can be pulled off the wall; they declutter the old musical objects from our lives, if they’re allowed to.

Because despite the constant gaze to the future, and the rapid succession and planned obsolescence of all things Apple, there are still those that seek the warm crackle of a vinyl, or the thin flatness of a cassette. These objects, like books, won’t ever truly disappear. They become beloved for their complete disregard of sleek user interfaces, for their forcing of interaction. Again, like the way we interact with a book, our eyes scanning the page, our fingers turning the leaves, our hands supporting the object along its spine, vinyl records, and even CDs and tapes, force an interaction in the way iPods can never hope to do. Vinyl needs to be handled delicately, records need to be blown and then have the needle placed in that first groove ever so lightly. Then, they demand to be manually turned over, an action so antiquated I’m sure there’s a generation that doesn’t know what “side B” means.

This 1:1 interaction with recorded music is an amazing thing, something those who prize vinyl relish and something that shows the importance of music as an object. For, while it’s really just waves of sound hitting the drums of our ears a certain way, music is so much more to so many people. And the fact that we can hold just a small example of it in our hands when we hold our favourite record is something magical and mystical and special. The musical object is dead as far as technology is concerned, but we quaint humans are still keeping them alive as best we can.

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