[iDC] shelf life

john sobol john at johnsobol.com
Wed Nov 21 13:36:05 UTC 2007

Hi Richard,

lots of excellent food for thought... but there are two points I'd make 
in response to your latest post:

You say, in relation to the Variable Media Project:

>  some degree of re-interpretation is certainly required, the same as 
> it's required of a conductor when leading a symphony in the 
> (re)performance of a piece by Beethoven, or when a story is re-told 
> again and again.

The problem I see here is precisely that the two examples you give are 
not compatible, not of a kind. In fact, they represent fixity and 
fluidity at their most divergent. A symphonic score, despite the 
reverence afforded the conductor-as-interpreter, is an extremely fixed 
musical form. Not just because every one of the thousands of notes in a 
Beethoven symphony is played in identical sequence every time the work 
is performed, and has been for two hundred years, but also because of 
the extreme homogeneity within European classical music instrumental 
sound culture. The fact is that the range of sounds heard between, say, 
100 classical trumpet players playing Beethoven is less than that you'd 
find between any two jazz trumpet players performing Body and Soul. Or, 
for that matter two storytellers reciting Ali Baba and the Forty 
Thieves, or the Iliad. Which brings us to what happens when a story is 
re-told again and again.

The seminal work of Millman Parry and Alfred Lord in the early 20th 
century, which laid the groundwork for a wide range of studies of oral 
cultures, notably by Walter J Ong and his colleague Marshall McLuhan, 
demonstrated conclusively that the widely credited feats of memory by 
oral poets performing day-long epic poems were an illusion. Their field 
recordings in Serbia and Croatia over decades showed that despite the 
sworn assurances of poets and their audiences that they were reciting 
their poems with 'word-for-word' precision year after year, their 
poetic recitations were in fact 'woven', or improvised, from a vast 
array of poetic stock phrases, also known in contemporary oral cultures 
as 'riffs' or 'samples'. They were not at all 'word for word' or 
anything remotely like it, any more than any two recordings of 
Greensleeves by John Coltrane are identical.

The oral poet cannot possibly hope to compete with the symphonic 
orchestra for narrative fidelity. Nor would he or she wish to. The two 
forms of recitation are profoundly dissimilar. They engage different 
neurons, different relationships, different dialogues. One would be 
lost - void - without the written page, whose fixed directives the 
musicians enact, and whose output provides listeners with an immersive 
refuge in transcribed canonized genius. The other relies on a form of 
creative expression that mashes up the intangible past freely, easily 
and highly contingently in pursuit of a collectively renegotiated 
present. One is literate, and fixity is its defining characteristic. 
(Just see how long it takes to get thrown out a great orchestra for 
getting any ONE of those thousands of notes wrong!) The other is oral 
and has no fixed past, only the need to recreate one again and again in 
its own shifting image, always new, always true.

But they are not in any way interchangeable. Nor can they be lumped 
together. They are antagonists. They do not and cannot coexist within 
the same cultural framework.

You also make some very valid points in defense of museums, while 
recognizing their need to change, but in response to my point...

>> Museums are about art products not art processes, whereas folkloric 
>> traditions are experiential and interpersonal by nature.

you say

> to say museums are not experiential is perhaps a bit much. After all, 
> one experiences artworks, objects, installations, and the like, right? 
> This is the whole idea behind a museum...

Well yes, we do. But as with the example above, the kind of experience 
in each is very different. Knowing that one can come back tomorrow or 
next year and see the same artwork in the same place, or buy a book or 
postcard of it, knowing that knowledge is available 'on the shelf',  is 
not the same thing as events experienced as unique, dependent upon a 
social context that can never be precisely recreated.

Anyway, I'll cut my rant short here, fearing that I'm getting too 
preachy (wouldn't be the first time) and again conclude with a strong 
sense of doubt that older museums can abandon their historical mandate 
to preserve authenticity in order to  become fluidly responsive to 
context. And I say this though I know some excellent people working 
passionately from within museums to make this happen. But it would be 
like a bassoon player in a famous philharmonic deciding to improvise 
during a performance of Ode to Joy, and being applauded by the 
conductor fro doing so! It's just not going to happen. The two cultures 
- fluidity and fixity - are very, very, very tough to reconcile.

So I remain a skeptic, tho I will definitely check out some of your 
documentation, when I am not spending so much of my precious free time 
writing long posts on this list!


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