The Internet is a Strange Place for Music
The internet is a strange place for music. The scrubber bar in digital media players gives people a particular control over time, making it markedly different from any live circumstance. Composer Brandon Lincoln Snyder explores how this shift transforms our listening experience.
I: Time is Different on the Internet
Time is different on the internet. We spend time differently in that realm, often more frenetically. While our time in the “real world” is spent in hourly chunks—an hour at lunch, eight hours at work, an evening out with friends—we enter and exit the internet in many short bursts. Our sessions may span from minutes to mere seconds, but they pile up to hours per day. Time passes by differently across the internet. Our capacity to focus while on it both widens and narrows, whether it is spending an entire evening on Netflix, or skirting across dozens of different webpages in a single hour. These differences, in how time is spent and felt in its passing, derive from our control of it. (This is the strangest of relationships we have to time and space.) Online information is easier and quicker to access. It is also easier to produce. Therefore, we don’t invest much time in any single piece of content. It becomes disposable. Ultimately, online content has little control over how much time we spend on it.
In music, this control over time is significant. Consider scrubber bars, the progress bars on digital media players that allow the user to jump to any given moment in a clip. These tools provide a kind of time-travel ability for a listener. It’s not a completely new ability; one can drop a needle anywhere on the side of an LP. Fast-forward and rewind functions are also possible on CDs and cassettes. But scrubbing on these mediums carries a level of randomness to it. On the internet, a media clip can be scrubbed through with maximum specificity and efficiency. The YouTube and Vimeo scrubber bars not only indicate how much time has elapsed in the clip, they also flash a thumbnail of whatever moment you place your cursor over. Scrubber bars on SoundCloud achieve a similar task for audio, as they embody an image of the clip’s waveform. These tools not only enable easy movement through musical time, they also quickly summarize information about the media clip, revealing to a user its contents before they are even experienced aurally.
Now, most music is meant to be listened to straight through. A listener isn’t required to utilize the scrubber bar. In fact, to do so can be a deadly temptation, especially in classical and contemporary concert music. Pausing, skipping, or taking a peek at the timecode, these can spoil hard-earned accumulations of musical tension and long-form development. But staying on a single webpage for more than just a few minutes, this is not natural behavior on the internet. The scrubber bar, like all the other tools built into a digital interface, is designed to eliminate wait time and get a user to a particular moment as fast as possible. Such goals are not often pertinent to a musical experience, yet they carry a significant effect on the aesthetics of listening to music online. The scrubber bar alters the agency of a listener. In turn, visuals, developmental structure, and interactivity relate differently on the internet than they do in live spaces. Before diving further into these particularities though, we must understand first how time in music is related to space, both physical and digital.
Spending time and experiencing the passing of time are both about personal expectations. They are also about choice. Liza Lim’s opera The Navigator is 90 minutes long without intermission. Is this too long? Not at all, certainly not for the concert hall. Audience members are expecting this length. They know when they buy their tickets and when they settle into their seats that they are going to be there for about an hour. Performance spaces govern the length of musical time. For example, classical music concerts are often one to three hours long. They usually begin with one, two, or three shorter works (five to twenty minutes), and then one long work (between an hour and ninety minutes). Artistically, there is no reason concert music cannot be made for much shorter or much longer lengths. However, such instances are often statements about length, a purposeful deviation from the normal. While a piece of concert music may be within or outside of the standard length of a concert, there is no denying that a standard length for music in the concert hall exists.
This principle is true for all performance spaces. Think about a dance club. The social function of that space, just like the concert hall, begets a standard length of time for the music it houses. A DJ set is usually one or two hours, but each song will never be more than a few minutes. In a dance club, the energy must be high and constant. Songs are best kept short and impactful, allowing for the flow of energy to be tightly controlled by the DJ. The way people enter and exit the dance club, this also begets a standard for how the music develops over time. Back at the concert hall, audience members enter before the beginning and are expected to remain in their seats until the end of the performance. Therefore, this space, with its captive audience, is well suited to have music that makes long-form motivic connections (such as the kind in a Beethoven symphony). In the dance club, development becomes less about motives and more about the flow of energy and mood. With people entering and exiting at different moments, motivic connections will not necessarily be perceived by a listener. However, many people come to the club for a dance experience with a dynamic flow of energy. Therefore, the DJ focuses less on musical motives in their set, and more on a visceral, physical continuity. This way in which performance spaces influence development illustrates how these standards around time are not arbitrary. The social context, that communal ritual that takes place in the hall, club, temple, mall, and coffee shop, carves acoustic peculiarities into the walls and ceiling of the space, reinforcing and encouraging music inside it to behave a certain way in time.
II: Time is Hard Won on the Internet
Compared to performance spaces in the “real world,” the internet is not a normal place for music. The scrubber bar in digital media players gives listeners a particular control over their listening experience, making it markedly different from any live circumstance. On one hand, some music made for live performance becomes more difficult to listen to on the internet. It can feel unnatural to listen to a piece without pause, to not click away before the end. On the other hand, this new relationship between listener and music opens the door to aesthetic avenues rarely exploited in the corporeal realm. The visuals, development, and interactivity of music are three components drastically redefined online.
The visuals of a musical performance are straightforward in most circumstances. In a concert hall, we see the musicians performing when we listen to the music. In a temple, we often are faced with religious iconography during a liturgy. Digital standards for the visual elements in a piece of music are much broader. On YouTube or Vimeo, it’s plausible that you would see either of those two things. However, it’s just as plausible that the music would be accompanied by a produced music video, some album artwork, GoPro footage, or any number of other things. Online, where depth perception, peripheral vision, and audio playback are completely different from a “real world” viewing experience, performing musicians are not necessarily the most logical visual material to pair with a piece of music.
Sheet music is a popular visual for contemporary music online. Conduct a YouTube search of the composer “Brian Ferneyhough,” and you’ll see that a majority of recordings are paired with images of the score, rather than the live musicians. This makes sense. Through a camera lens, often much is lost from a visual of the live musicians. To look from one musician to another, or to notice different aspects of the stage and lighting, this ability is given away to the videographer. On the other hand, with a still image of sheet music, where the visual plane is two-dimensional, the agency to focus on different regions of the picture is returned to the listener. Today, there is a whole network of synchronized score-to-video creators on YouTube, such as the Score Follower channels, George N. Gianopoulos, Mexican Scores, gerubach, and many others.
Of course, it is still possible for live musicians to be engaging on video. After all, the ability to shift perspective and attention around a visual is not removed. Rather, it’s merely transferred from the listener to the videographer. Four/Ten Media invests great attention into the visual design of their videos. Consider their production of Argus Quartet performing Andrew Norman’s Peculiar Strokes. The cutting of the camera angles aligns with the momentum and focus of the music. The lighting and set design is sleek and playful, much like the aesthetic of the work. And, rather than having the traditional silent pause between movements, the camera cuts to headshots of the musicians verbally signaling each movement. These visuals are amplifying and elevating the music. In his film of Vicky Chow performing Andy Akiho’s Vick(i/y), Gabriel Gomez skirts the line between performance and music video. Over a performance by Chow on an upright piano in a Brooklyn apartment building, Gomez inserts footage of other locations and people. This material is not functional to performing the music. Rather, it adds metaphorical energy to Chow’s playing and Akiho’s composition. Like Four/Ten Media, Gomez is outfitting a live performance for a digital medium, only with an added layer of visual poetry. Videography can also take a less straightforward relationship with the music. In Angela Guyton’s video of Kate Ledger performing Ray Evanoff’s A Series of Postures (Piano), the close, hand-held, continuous shot from the camera provides a fluid visual counterpoint to the piece’s pointillistic, angular articulations.
In all of these examples, the visual component is outfitted to make each moment of the music is more stimulating, engaging, and full of information. With an increased level of interest in each moment, the listener might forgo any desire to operate the scrubber bar on the YouTube or Vimeo player. That surrender of control, which a listener voluntarily gives at the beginning of any performance in a concert hall, is now even surrendered in the digital space. Even an hour-long piece without break can retain viewership over the entire performance if the video is produced just right. However, this is only part of the picture. Just as there is music that is designed to erase the scrubber bar, there are internet-born aesthetics that acknowledge, even exploit, this tool’s function.
III: Control Varies on the Internet
The hard-won item that the scrubber bar gives to the listener is control of time, the ability to move to any moment of a piece at will. However, such tight control is not always a necessary asset to a piece of music. For the likes of Radigue, Czernowin, or Beethoven, control of time is important. These composers take large amounts of it in order to express unique, long-form ideas. They paint narrative, trigger tension and release, and accumulate powerful physical sensation. Development is the concept that requires control over time. But long-form development, at least in this conventional sense of the idea, is not always a primary component in a piece of music. Conceptual music, as well as music from meme culture, has become highly disseminated online. These types of music are not without development. Rather they structure musical time in a way that does not rely on the listener’s full experience of it.
Conceptual music from both a pre- and post-internet age has an immediacy to its temporal structure that sits easily in the space of a digital media player. Consider Patrick Liddell’s I Am Sitting In A Video Room. Following a similar structure to Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting In A Room, this piece is a sequence of the same 41-second video of Liddell, uploaded, downloaded, and re-uploaded to YouTube many, many times. Specifically, he does this 1,000 times, causing a slow incremental degradation of picture quality over time. This degradation is a type of long-form development. However, that development is present to serve the concept of the piece, not the listener’s experience of the concept. The piece is centered around the conceptual idea of quality and degradation on the internet. Such a concept is immediately clear from the start of the piece. It doesn’t matter whether the viewer watches every single moment of the 1,000 re-uploaded videos or not. The concept is expressed regardless of whether the viewer watches the whole video, skips over the middle, or never gets to the end. Conceptual music like this takes up time, but it does not need to control much time. The viewer may move around in the scrubber bar as they wish, or they may even sit and listen to every single moment of the work. Either way, the piece still effectively conveys itself, and the listener is able to receive it adequately.
This release of control is present even in pre-internet-age conceptual music. In György Ligeti’s Poème Symphonique (1962), 100 mechanical metronomes are triggered all at once. The performance ends when the last metronome ceases motion. Additionally, Erik Satie’s piano piece Vexations (1893) is a single page of piano music played 840 times very slowly. Performances of this piece range from as short as eight hours to as long as 35. Like I Am Sitting In A Video Room, these pieces don’t require the audience to listen to the piece in its entirety. It doesn’t even require them to listen at the same pace as the piece’s form. One aspect of these pieces, when performed live, is that an audience may enter and exit as they wish, like a sound installation. Now, in online settings of these pieces, the scrubber bar provides an augmented version of this enter/exit freedom an audience had in live performances. Online, the ability to skip and rewind is added to this set of listener freedoms, providing a contemporary analogue for an agency that already existed in the live performance space of sound installations.
IV: Development Through Time vs. Through Network
Music from meme culture also carries an immediacy that sits well in the online space. Like conceptual music, it does not require a tight control of time in the listener’s experience. Unlike conceptual music though, which still needs time to actualize a concept, meme music relies on social networks, rather than time, to express itself. Consider the meme, “All Star” by Smash Mouth, which is slightly different from the song that is “All Star.” The song “All Star” is a standard three-and-a-half-minute radio hit from 1999, and that is all it is. However, the meme that is “All Star” is an open-ended collection of different homemade treatments of the song by the same title. Here is a treatment of “All Star” where the song’s lyrics are replaced entirely by the single phrase from the pre-chorus “and they don’t stop coming.” Here is another where the vocal line has been pitch corrected into a four-part chorale in style of J. S. Bach. Here’s even another where a man named Jon Sudano uploads dozens of vocal covers to pop songs, where he will only sing the melody of “All Star” over the given pop song. When it comes to time and development, the duration of each of these meme-pieces is ultimately inconsequential. The expression of the meme-piece does not come from time, but from the cultural baggage accumulated via the meme’s dissemination and connection to other memes. Therefore, as long as the cultural reference is communicated, the role of time in the meme is irrelevant. What is significant about a version of “All Star” that is performed on an old cell phone has nothing to do with compositional technique, harmonic content, or performance practice. Rather, such a piece prompts a listener to recall an earlier time (early 2000s pop-rock, Shrek, dial-up tones) in an absurd and emotional way.
As more iterations of the “All Star” format are created, the internet-native humor and disjointed coherence of the viral process take over the original aesthetics of the band’s song. To invoke the song “All Star” today is to reference a meme, not a mere song. This is a form of development, of evolution, that occurs outside of the individual meme-piece. It’s a form of development defined by its networked connection to other meme-pieces of similar format. It doesn’t happen over the course of any single iteration of the meme. The development is the change between iterations, between meme creators, over the course of its viral lifespan.
Self-awareness is characteristic of meme culture that has created a sort of musical catalog of its trends and moments. Adam Emond created 225 YouTube videos of pop songs where every other beat is removed. Whereas reordering the beats of a song is usually one of many treatments that are applied to a meme-song, Emond has taken an inverse approach and applied the same treatment to many different songs. ZimoNitrome has done a catalogue-work in the piece april.meme, where 24 memes trending in April 2018 were used as material to create a single two-minute video piece.
V: Surrendering Control and Opening the Door
There is one last posture towards time that the internet encourages music to take: interactivity. Through intentionally massive lengths of time, listeners are prompted to actively use the scrubber bar as a means of exploring at their own pace. Johannes Kreidler’s piece Audioguide is a seven-hour long, non-stop theater work that exhibits this. It’s comprised of many smaller conceptual pieces, sequenced together one after another without break. While certain moments of the seven-hour work are uploaded as excerpts, the piece also exists in its entirety as a single video. This length, which is nearly indigestible in a single sitting on the internet, inevitably prompts the listener to “search around” the piece using the scrubber bar. A recording, as it exists on YouTube, is less of a performance to sit through, and more of a landscape to explore. Through incorporating massive durations, music on the internet can take on an interactive component, where the timing of the listening experience is reliant on the viewer.
Now, achieving a sense of “landscape” via extreme length is not an internet-native aesthetic. Rather, these lengthy online pieces can also be seen as a sub-category to the sound installation. In 2001, St. Burchardi church in Halberstadt, Germany began a performance of John Cage’s ORGAN2/ASLSP for organ (a piece composed in 1987). The piece is comprised of extremely long durations, and this particular performance, live-streamed 24/7, will last until the year 2640 (639 years). In the early 2000s Lief Inge began time stretching recordings of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony so that they were each 24 hours in length. Inge has been producing live installations of these time-stretches around the world ever since, as well as maintaining a constant live stream on his website. Like Audioguide, these pieces exist on a magnitude of duration beyond the average person’s attention span. However, in physical spaces, as well as live streams (where scrubber bars are not present), there is only an intention for the listener to experience a single portion of the piece. The composer still controls time as it runs through the music. The key difference between these live performances/streams and video pieces like Audioguide (as well as these next examples) is that the scrubber bar allows for the piece to be digested in a way that is more cursory, exploratory, and non-linear. Time and form there is determined by the listener rather than the composer.
Stretch videos, in the likes of Inge’s, have become an entire category of this interactivity in themselves. Hundreds of these videos exist online, time stretching the music of Brian Eno, Radiohead, Beethoven, John Williams, even computer sound effects such as the Windows startup sound. Unlike a live stream, these take the form of multi-hour videos in which a listener may move from moment to moment at their preferred pace. Though music will always be moving transiently through time, these stretch videos are the closest thing there is to exploring a piece as a static object, something to touch, observe, and walk through.
These super-long pieces of music have a second posture towards control of time: if a listener is not scrubbing through the piece, it is most likely that they are playing it as background music while they study, read, or sleep. This more passive form of interactivity imports easily into the internet space, where performing music (i.e. vibrating speaker cones) requires a near-to-nothing expense of energy. Currently on Spotify, Sleep by Max Richter is a piece designed around this very idea. The eight-hour-long ensemble piece is meant to play while a listener sleeps. Additionally, Jack Stratton of the band Vulfpeck released Sleepify in 2014, a ten-track album comprised of silence. A pun of the streaming platform Spotify, the album is meant to be played on repeat during sleep so that streaming royalties can be farmed while people’s devices are not in use. “Sleep music” like this actually has a rich history, one full of live spaces, not just online. R.I.P. Hayman was presenting sleep concerts as early as 1977, and many more artists have come since then. So while the concept of sleep music is not native to the internet, the low amount of mechanical work needed for sound to be digitally produced illustrates how sleep music fits easily into the internet space.
All in all, we’ve looked at three different postures towards the control of time on the internet. Through examining visuals, we have seen how control of time can be aggressively won over from the listener. When development becomes centered around concept and cultural reference more than around time, control of time becomes less relevant to the piece. And finally, in creating massive, interactive terrains of sound through extremely long pieces, control is given over to the listener. In surveying these aesthetics, it is also clear that music on the internet carries an extremely broad spectrum in how much effort and resources are needed to create it. The Four/Ten Media video of Argus Quartet was likely the fruit of a team of artists, editors, and technicians, as well as several thousand dollars. That piece rests on the same viewing platform as the time-stretched video of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, a piece that requires only a laptop, free software, and an internet connection to create. The internet is a strange place for time. It is in this strangeness that a door is opened up to the parameter of resources.
At the beginning of this piece, the scrubber bar was presented as an anomaly to the musical experience. Like nearly all online tools, it functions to increase efficiency and deliver information faster, two imperatives that seem unrelated to the priorities of experiencing music. But beneath the goal to maximize efficiency is a deeper one to democratize resources and equalize different voices in a conversation. It is an ethic and virtue of the internet, open source and public domain. If this is true, then listening to music on the internet is not an anomaly at all. The concert hall, a dance club, and a religious temple all have social and physical peculiarities that carve and mold music to fit easily into the space’s original design. The internet is no exception to this fact. Its virtues for democratization, and its digital peculiarities such as the scrubber bar, shape and mold music. It touches music’s visuals, developmental structures, and interactivity in a way that ultimately makes composing possible for more people. More and more, the internet is being considered as a primary space for music performance and dissemination. While the initial effects of this trend are aesthetic, shaping the way time is controlled and utilized by the artist, music on the internet inevitably influences every aspect of creating music. For many, this makes the internet a strange place for music. But given just how pervasive the digital space is becoming each day, such a place may not remain strange much longer at all.