Earlier this year I wrote a little article in which I considered how music might be presented via the internet, especially in an age in which the web can be accessed from a plethora of mobile devices.
Katrine Dal from the Danish Composer’s Society expressed interest in opening up a discussion and we began to sound out various people for their thoughts on the topic. What quickly emerged was that any mention of ‘web-art’ got people thinking in the direction of some of the quite sophisticated high-tech 1 achievements in this field, from both pure art and more commercial points of view.
Those achievements can be very impressive. What I had in mind though was a more down to earth consideration of how the internet might be used by composers to present their music – how web technologies that are within everyone’s reach, rather than just the domain of super-geeks, might be employed. Web-art has long been distinguished from simply presenting art on the web, and while I don’t want to enter an in-depth academic discussion of the topic here2, I’m thinking that a re-examination from the angle of exactly how art (or music) is presented on the web (art→web rather than web→art) could be valuable, that this might be where the art of the web is to be found.
The mobile revolution has brought with it an incredible reduction in complexity both from the point of visual design and user interaction. Services such as Instapaper and Readability have flourished, signalling a huge need on the part of users to cut away the clutter and information overload of much of what is available on the web and get straight to the content they are interested in. This stripping down has also been reflected in the simpler, content centred, design approaches that are gaining currency. These new design strategies, in conjunction with the rapid development of hand-held devices, have done wonders for being able to use the web as a source of reading material. The lessons of Readability, for example, have apparently played a role in the development of platforms such as Medium, which I find to be one of the best online reading experiences around.
I’ve been wondering to what extent it might be possible to achieve something similar when it comes to music. How might composers share their creations in a way that brings form and content into better dialogue with one another – something more than simply putting up a little list that refers to your works, or sharing a SoundCloud file on Facebook. Writers realised sometime back that instead of putting up a some kind of brochure describing their activities they could do the thing itself directly on the net – and the whole blog phenomenon flourished. What about music? We still seem to be largely stuck at the brochure stage. Granted, text is much easier to do on the web, it is after all what it originally was designed for, but the recent upsurge in podcasting seems to show ways in which audio is finding it’s way as well. I’ve been enjoying RBMA Radio’s fireside chats, for example, which end up in an interesting place somewhere between podcast and internet radio. Jeremy Keith’s Huffduffer, sometimes dubbed as ‘Instapaper for audio’ provides an interesting tool for exploring audio on the net, also picking up on and extending the podcast form. The Dygong collective is a good example of composers rethinking the venues and concert formats their music is presented in and taking charge of forming these containers according to their needs, but when it comes to (art)music most of what gets presented on the net unquestioningly accepts the most basic conditions – an overcrowded venue with bad acoustics.
I’m not always enthusiastic about social media avenues as an answer either. I find SoundCloud, for example, to be a fantastically useful and well put together service and use it myself for both sharing, discovery and keeping track of the activities of friends and colleagues, but whatever I’m listening to is always in the context of the ‘stream’. Sometimes I’d like to leave the sharing and liking buttons behind and visit some specific content in it’s own specific context.
This brings us back to bloggers and the value of individuals setting up their own platforms to share their creations. There is a flip-side to throwing all your content into platforms such as Medium, visually and technically accomplished as they are. Platforms come and go and when they do get shut down you run the risk of losing years of carefully crafted work. While you might still have the possibility of exporting your content (as you do with Medium) the URLs, the addresses that provide the links to those posts vanish and with them one of the basic ingredients of the internet: specific content at a specific address that everyone (potentially) has access to. Glenn Fleishman fleshes out some more thoughts on the benefits and drawbacks of platforms and Jeremy Keith emphasises the importance of maintaining an independent web: With Facebook and Medium you are a visitor at someone else’s domain and at the end of the day subject to their terms. Schoenberg’s letters will survive forever but who knows what will happen to Jexper Holmen’s many Facebook gems? I wish I could link to them, but can’t. If only he had kept a blog.
In our Facebook age of an increasingly centralised web there is however a simple, direct and extremely powerful aspect of the web that shouldn’t be forgotten. It’s possible to make a webpage with a simple text editor and a browser, and it can even be served from Dropbox if you like. Certain experienced internet figures have recently found it necessary to remind us of these basics, sometimes in quite charming ways. From another angle there is also the punk attitude of a website like isthatcherdeadyet.
Craig Mod wrote an influential essay which summed up the stripping down tendencies of Instapaper and The Magazine and introduced the idea of subcompact publishing. One only has to look at Frame Magazine’s disastrous iPad app to realise that not all have taken the subcompact lesson to heart. The Magazine and Frame’s app define opposite poles in the spectrum of digital content. The ‘Frame’ corner is perhaps the heritage of web-art from a decade ago. Sometimes impressive with all it’s bells and whistles. Sometimes tedious in its attempt to continuously dazzle with how smart it is. Somehow closed despite all its interactivity. Fuck Content it said. It was also often, it turns out, Flash based. By contrast, with a big focus on web standards, the content first movement takes another direction and perhaps shows the way forward for an art of the web – a world in which web art no longer looks like web-art.
This post was written for the Danish Composers’ Society’s fredagsbøn theme on web-art and is also published there.