Essay by Robin Rimbaud for the Now You See It conference, London, March 1996

It is quite likely while reading this article that you are accompanied by a soundtrack of one kind or another, whether it's the radio, a CD or a Walkman. Each of us in our own way places a different emphasis on these invisible soundtracks. As a producer of music my attachment and attraction is probably more focused than the average listener -- in this sound-obsessed environment it is easy to forget how little others actually absorb music.

Many years ago, I remember commenting to a friend on an especially excruciating bass line in another grandiose Queen single on the radio. She confessed that all she could hear was a song, a dense concrete block of sound with no edges, textures or depth. I had failed to conceive that many people are unable to engage with the internal parts of music. This was a revelation.

It is significant that the massive success of CDs has been more to do with convenience than with the advancement in sound quality. New technologies in sound constantly affect the production of music but are not necessarily evident to the consumer. Recent carriers of sound, like the DAT, DOC and MiniDisc, have failed to catch on simply because the public isn't actually that interested in whether a song is recorded in 20-bit Digital Stereo or not -- although as one audiophile vinyl retentive bluntly put it: "Listening to CDs is like watching pornography. Listening to records is like actually having sex."

Increasingly our ability to listen is influenced by a visual aesthetic. With the rise of the MTV generation, the use of music in films such as Reservoir Dogs and Trainspotting, and the almost guaranteed hit-single status of a song accompanying a Levi's ad, a powerful link has evolved between the way in which we hear and conceive of sound. These connections will multiply with the introduction of multimedia packages into the home.

How fast our way of listening changes is dependent up on being able to teach people about the application of this technology as well. I will always cherish the moment an elderly woman visited the music library where I once worked and asked for assistance in playing the videos and CDs she had bought for her tape Walkman, and her disappointment at this one little box failing to meet her expectations of a mini audio-visual nirvana.

Downloading entire tracks off the Internet with credit-card ease is with us already, but how much of a reality is this? Record companies may be quivering into their Gucci boots worried that listeners in the future will be able to store the new Rolling Stones album on their hard drive -- in full digital stereo, but I'm not convinced of the speed at which this innovation will permeate into a population that still cannot programme a video recorder.

Does music die when it stops beyond the threshold of high fidelity and beyond the boundaries of understanding? Perhaps one day we will be popping a dissolvable Marvin Gaye disc into our mouths or tuning into Paul Cyber on Radio Nano Flesh on our personally encoded armbands, but no matter how sophisticated the technology may become, I guess we will still be doing the dishes and travelling to work to music.


South Bank, London, March '96

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