In The New York Times Magazine: The Sound of Radiolab

A relevant question to ask at this moment is: Why would anyone bother to invent a new aesthetic for such a retrograde form? This is an exciting time for innovation in new media: interactive forms for active consumers. Radio, in contrast, just washes over you or drifts by in the background. It seems ill suited to an audience that multitasks, demands to react or contradict in real time, insists on controlling information rather than receiving it. Yet “Radiolab” — which just won a 2010 Peabody Award — has responded to all this by designing a show for sustained and undivided attention. It wrestles with big, serious ideas like stochasticity, time and deception. It ignores the news cycle completely. And it expects you to stop checking your inbox, updating your status or playing Angry Birds and spend a solid hour listening.

Read the article in the April 10, 2011, issue of The New York Times Magazine, or here.

Site and Sound

Here’s an essay I wrote in connection with Rewind Remix Replay: Design, Music & Everyday Experience, an exhibition at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, through May 23, 2010. It’s available over there as well, but only as a PDF. So I figured I’d post it here. It’s a bit of an unusual piece for me, and I’m not certain how well I carried it off, but it was fun to write. I welcome feedback…


One Home, Sixteen Objects, and the Things We Listen To Now

Surely the first decade of the 21st century will be remembered as a pivotal time in the history of listening. But it won’t be because of a new genre that burst on the scene, the way rock, rap, punk, even disco, changed the music we listen to. It will be because of the objects and technologies that changed the way we listen. Such transitions always seem abrupt (especially as they’re treated in the popular press) but unfold more gradually for most real-life listeners.

So as the decade wound down, I decided to conduct an inventory of objects and devices for music-listening in my own home. I’m more of a music fan than a gadget fan, which leads me to embrace music-oriented technology faster than any other sort (I owned an iPod before I owned a cell phone). At the same time, I can be slow to chuck old formats and objects just because something new has appeared; possibly the more dated relics of twentiethcentury listening technology cluttering my home ought to have been discarded by now. But since analog and digital coexist in this particular environment, it’s an opportunity for a useful one-listener object ethnography. Read more

The future of listening is … reading?

Here’s a randomly encountered post on the subject of how orchestras can use Twitter:

An orchestra gives a concert. Someone sends commentary tweets, in real time while the music plays, describing what’s going on. I don’t know how pinpoint the time accuracy might be, so maybe you can’t time something precisely to a downbeat. But you could certainly indicate major sections of a piece.

But it gets better. You could have a dozen Twitter streams. What does the conductor think about, while she’s conducting the piece? What’s the hardest part for the principal flute? What passage in the horns makes the principal trumpet player’s hair stand on end? All kinds of people in the orchestra could send tweets during the performance, or rather could write them in advance, and have them sent out at the proper time by others. Someone in the audience could decide which Twitter streams to follow, or could follow them all.

Knowing full well that I’ll be slammed as a dinosaur etc. if I say anything at all to question the mightiness of social media and like that: I find this a little odd. In-concert tweets “describing what’s going on”? Um, there’s an orchestra performing; check it out. (I’m remembering an old David Mamet interview where he talks about disliking it when reporters use a tape recorder: “Why don’t you try listening?” ) Or  maybe you’d get a tweet that says, “This is the good part, starting now.” Or just: “Applaud.”

And what’s this about what the conductor is thinking about while conducting — is the idea that s/he is waving the baton with one hand and texting with the other?

Having said all that, the problem here may just be that the example is throwing me off, and there’s some more interesting/useful application of the idea. But my immediate reaction is that this implies that an orchestra, by itself, simply playing music, isn’t worth your time. Like maybe what the audience really wants is a Twitter feed for their favorite baseball team, so they can pay attention to the game during the boring parts of the musical program.

What do you think?