Here are two nuggets about astronomy, kids: the universe hums a steady B-flat, and outer space reads binary. The former, I learned in sixth grade music class and wrote down on the “To Be Used As a Vague Yet Evocative Metaphor In Future Poetry” page in my journal. The latter, I suppose, was the assumption made when, in 1974, a binary sequence known as the Arecibo message was transmitted into space to celebrate the Arecibo radio telescope’s remodel. Radio waves shimmied up and out, and in about 25,000 years, the kind residents of globular star cluster M13 will get to learn all about human DNA and what our solar system looks like, if they bother to check their inbox.
Actually, by that time, M13 will have apparently moved a bit, and, well, Pluto’s already a bit passé. So essentially — spoiler alert — this message is going to nobody. I know it is probably extremely difficult for you to imagine a radio broadcast that reaches no listeners (shout outs to all zillion loyal fans of my radio show!), but bear with me: the Arecibo message was transmitted with full knowledge that it would never be picked up. The nation’s savvy technological muscles were flexed, and something that looks like Pong was sent irretrievably into the void.
Disregard for the listening capacities of an audience — Earth-dwelling or otherwise — is hardly a new sentiment in the creation of music. Like critical literary theory or pure mathematics, a good deal of what has been produced outside the stream of popular music in the last half-century or so is as much a study in form or concept as it is an appeal to a listenership.
In light of Valentine’s Day, it admittedly seems a bit unromantic to question the sacred connection between musicians and their audiences. But sometimes it’s important to remember that just like the happy hordes of us who spent this past Tuesday in pajamas repeatedly taking “one last” chocolate while reading every McSweeney’s list ever published, some music simply isn’t actively involved in making a connection.
What immediately springs to mind here is my longtime violin teacher. A fiery little woman with a fixation on posture and technique, she lamented the state of contemporary atonal symphonic music after hearing my high school orchestra’s premiere of an expensively commissioned composition that explored the sophisticated and culturally resonant “concept” of a dentist’s office. “Contemptuous of its audience!” she cried.
So exactly how many drills in the percussion section is too many? That is, when is it okay for musicians to abandon their audiences for their own purposes? Setting aside free jazz, experimental noise music, and Skrillex (yeah, sorry Sonny Moore fans, dude’s gotta be trolling everyone), a lot of perfectly listenable pop music is deeply self-involved.
In possibly unintentional Arecibo fashion, the ease with which music can proliferate thanks to the Internet has at times turned the idea of “release” into essentially a publicly accessible flash drive. For example, ignoring the fact that there probably is little that is rational about the trending topic rapper Lil B, the guy couldn’t reasonably expect people to listen in earnest to his “Free Music: The MySpace Collection” of 676 tracks. Sending a wave of 676 songs into cyberspace is itself the artistic act, and it is still possible to be a crazed Lil B fan without going through each and every one.
There is something deeply solipsistic about releasing music with this in mind, but at the same time, making music for nobody in particular can also be poignantly unegotistical. Countless musical acts with no fan base to speak of find their way to SoundCloud or BandCamp and cross their fingers that someone will click a lucky link (after all, the Internet thing worked for Diddy darling Cassie). But if we make the assumption that artistic production is a form of communication, then perhaps communicating with the abyss is generally, to borrow from Jenny Holzer, beautiful but stupid.
That said, as listeners, we have the opportunity to prove that there truly are residents living in star cluster M13. As artists reach out into the dark, they do it for their own gratification as much as that of their audience. In this earnest form, an incredible amount of music is floating out there, and maybe has been for a long time, perhaps not expected or even intended to be heard. But it is, nevertheless, available for the most curious among us to aim our receivers in its direction.