Does This Sound Like the Real Thing or What Is Real?

“Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence. This includes the changes which it may have suffered in physical condition over the years as well as the various changes in its ownership.” —Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” 1935


One of the things that is absolutely taken for granted is the ubiquity of the arts in our daily lives. Music comes from everywhere and while much of it doesn’t necessarily rise to the levels that one would imagine would have required the invocation of Euterpe, think only of the situation of someone 200 years ago:

One of the least expensive, most common instruments, the harmonica, wasn’t invented until 1821.

While we associate harmonicas with blues performers and hobos, it is a pretty good bet that back in the first half of the 19th century Christian Friedrich Ludwig Buschmann’s instrument wasn’t an inexpensive item.

Hearing music–which we don’t even think about–was certainly something special for much longer than it hasn’t been.

The record as we—more or less—know it was developed by Emil Berliner, as he used a flat, round disc rather than the cylinder that Edison deployed.

As Roger Beardsley and Daniel Leech-Wilkinson write in “A Brief History of Recording to ca. 1950,” the ability to record using wax masters at the start of the 20th century—“wax masters, made often in hotel rooms”—essentially created what has become the music industry.

It is interesting to know that in those nascent days the recorded music was of “opera arias sung by Caruso, Tamagno, Battistini, Chaliapin and others.”

In effect, the “live album” preceded the work in the studio.

As Dr. Bjorn Mercer, Program Director, Communication, Humanities, Music, Philosophy, Religion and World Languages Programs, American Public University, writes in “Popular Classical Music: How Popular Is Classical Music?,” “According to Billboard/Nielsen, classical music had an overall 1% share of the market in 2019, or 12th out of 12 genres.” He goes on to point out, “In 2009, classical music physical album sales had a 3% market share. So in the span of 10 years classical music, for the most part, lost 2% market share.”

In other words, the type of music that actually created the recorded music industry has essentially become an irrelevance if one looks at it from the point of view of economics, which is clearly not the way to consider such things.

After all, there is only one Mona Lisa. . . .

Which brings me back to Benjamin, whose essay is primarily predicated on the reproduction methods in printing that could lead to such things as posters of the Mona Lisa. Yes, there’s one in the Louvre, but people everywhere can get their own copies.

But no copy has “the unique existence” that makes it as distinctive in and of itself.

This leads to a consideration of recorded music. Musicians go into a studio or on a stage and then their work is recorded, manipulated and eventually packaged, whether that packaging takes the form of a physical object or a digital file (or both).

Is the recording that you may be listening to right now any less “special” than the recording that was made in the studio or on a stage? If we take the stage performance out of consideration, the likelihood of someone ever hearing the studio recording—assuming that the someone doesn’t work in a studio—is exceedingly small. So the entirety of recorded music is something that never really has the “unique existence” that Benjamin writes about.

What’s more, even the recording of an event that we attend is not the same. You go to a concert, sit in a particular place, and the concert commences. People surrounding you are singing, dancing, clapping, shouting, drinking; you may be doing so yourself. At the same time, there are microphones strategically placed on the stage so as to capture the optimal output of the performers and someone is there, in a central location in the venue, adjusting the levels of the input devices.

What is ultimately packaged is quite similar to what you heard. But it is only similar, not actual.

As has become something of a cause celebre, “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain,” a documentary made by Morgan Neville, includes a voiceover by Bourdain that actually isn’t Bourdain. As Neville told The New Yorker, “I created an A.I. model of his voice.” That’s because “there were three quotes there I wanted his voice for that there were no recordings of.”

This isn’t a case where there was a person who sounded like Bourdain. This isn’t a case where there is a splicing of existing audio of Bourdain.

This is Bourdain 2.0, a digital version of the individual.

Which leads to a consideration of The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Recreation.

There are, for example, an estimated 300+ songs recorded and released by The Beatles. As The Beatles no longer exist, there is a finite number of songs that they’ve recorded, even if they’re stored in a vault somewhere.

Let’s say that there are 1,000 songs that are recorded by Lennon, Harrison, Starr and McCartney.

That’s it.

But is this necessarily the case?

What if their voices are loaded into an AI system, as well as their instrumental performances? Isn’t it possible—if not likely—that these inputs could be used to create The Beatles 2.0 music, music that sounds exactly like The Beatles yet is nothing that The Beatles ever created? (This is not analogous to the creation of “Free As a Bird,” with the then-existing Beatles using a recording of the no-longer-existing Beatle to “finish” the song.)

What then? If you are an absolute fan of The Beatles, would you find this to be any more palatable in an audio sense than the performance of a cover band doing the music, a cover band that does a note-for-note duplication?

I suspect that the bona fide fan is likely to not think much of the cover, but what of the 2.0 creation: this is not just a synthesis of the instruments and the voices; this is a creation that is different than what had previously existed. Does that somehow, using The Beatles as a basis, have a different value?

Is this a poster of the Mona Lisa, or is it a new work of art?

Featured image is a detail from “L.H.O.O.Q.” by Marcel Duchamp (1919).

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