In the seminal essay The Prospects of Recording, Glenn Gould “explores the vast changes in musical ontology, phenomenology, production, and listening brought about by audio recording” (see Audio Culture, edited by Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner, pp 115-126). The Glenn Gould archives have Part A of that essay online, but it is the paragraphs that immediately follow that have me most excited. He says:
The Participant Listener
At the center of the technological debate, then, is a new kind of listener—a listener more participant in the musical experience. The emergence of this mid-twentieth-century phenomenon is the greatest achievement of the record industry. For this listener is no longer passively analytical; he is an associate whose tastes, preferences, and inclinations even now alter peripherally the experiences to which he gives his attention, and upon whose fuller participation the future of the art of music waits.
He is also, of course, a threat, a potential usurper of power, an uninvited guest at the banquet of the arts, one whose presence threatens the familiar hierarchical setting of the musical establishment. Is it not, then, inopportune to venture that this participant public could emerge untutored from that servile posture with which it paid homage to the status structure of the concert world and, overnight, assume decision-making capacities which were specialists’ concerns heretofore?
This is, of course, the precise reason for creating The Miraverse, with its explicit goal of serving as equals the aritsts, engineers, and those who wish to become producers of whatever experiences they can imagine and achieve. What I, since 2006, have been calling a co-producer, Glenn Gould has called The Participant Listener. Which, on the one hand shows just how untutored I am, and, on the other, validates the fact that, separated by 40 years, we have both seen the same reality. It happens all the time in music: he’s playing B#, and I’m playing C major—on the piano they are both the same notes!
Of course, Gould does not stop there, but says two more things that are absolutely astonishing. The first (which follows immediately from the above) is:
The keyword here is “public.” Those experiences through which the listener encounters music electronically transmitted are not within the public domain. One serviceable axiom applicable to every experience in which electronic transmission is involved can be expressed in that paradox wherein the ability to obtain in theory an audience of unprecedented numbers obtains in fact a limitless number of private auditions. Because of the circumstances this paradox defines, the listener is able to indulge preferences and, through the electronic modifications with which he endows the listening experience, impose his own personality upon the work. As he does so, he transforms that work, and his relation to it, from an artistic to an environmental experience.
This insight perfectly anticipates the phenomenon of the SONY Walkman, 20 years later, becoming a device that would help countless millions create a “soundtrack of their lives”, and which would cause equal countless millions to presume that they should be permitted, as a creative act, to make their own mix tapes and playlists, rather than suffering the specific choices of some unknown engineer following the instructions of an equally unknown or meaningless record label. But the really remarkable suggestion he makes, back when recording equipment was custom-made for studios and when the whole recording studio enterprise was a monumentally expensive and exclusive domain was:
It would be a relatively simple matter, for instance, to grant the listener tape-edit options which he could exercise at his discretion. Indeed, a significant step in this direction might well result from that process by which it is now possible to disassociate the ratio of speed to pitch and in so doing (albeit with some deterioration in the quality of sound as a current liability) truncate splice-segments of interpretations of the same work performed by different artists and recorded at different tempos. […] This process could, in theory, be applied without restriction of the reconstruction of musical performance. There is, in fact, nothing to prevent a dedicated connoisseur from acting as his own tape editor and, with these devices, exercising such interpretive predilections as will permit him to create his own ideal performance […]
Which is precisely what is described in the Miraverse Programs page and elaborated in the Co-Production page. And how might such a connoisseur gain the knowledge to effect such bold new interpretations? With Education, of course.
It is greatly reassuing to know that under the tons and tons of steel and concrete that make up the studio’s structural foundation, there is a deeper and stronger foundation supporting the studio’s fundamental concept, as first articulated by Glenn Gould. I look forward to the day when we open our doors to the Participant Listener, and in so doing, finally usher in the future of the art of music for which we have all been so desparately waiting and wanting.
2 thoughts on “The Participant Listener”
This blog posting earned me a chance to lead an idea exchange hosted by the Center for Design Innovation in Winston Salem NC. My point of departure for that discussion was this quote by Glenn Gould in 1966:
The evening was recorded to video tape [link here], for which I am grateful.