Written by Ray Turner for the British Columbia Music Magazine in June 2006.
Email rules. Apparently, I don’t need a telephone any more. It hardly ever rings. Occasionally, a flashing red light tells me that someone called, maybe left a message. It won't be long before the instrument vacates its spot on the desk. It is vanishing like the rotary dial phone, before that the big wooden box stuck on the wall and the tin cans and string. I seem to be joining the phoneless. I had a cell phone for a while, just for emergencies, but gave it up. People used to call me on it.
Phones were for talking. Email and text-messaging are simply new ways of writing – itself an alternative to speech. Their invention leaves trails from the earliest of times like paper and pencils, ink, through quill pens, fountain pens, ball points, floppy disks, not-so-floppy disks, Commodore 64s, “black boxes” of all colours. You can visit them at any garbage dump. Devices, including ourselves, that once had the power to communicate elegantly, are no more. Some of us even have to augment our crude emailed texts with emoticons and smiley faces to show we are still there, and human.
What is happening, of course, is the decay and, perhaps, extinction of spoken language. And worse, these symptoms are running a parallel course in another form of communication, that of music.
In the Very Early Days, before peer-to-peer downloading, folks in my village would gather, also peer-to-peer, to make music for the purpose of ritual, communication, and simple amusement. We played with our voices, instruments and bodies, and used the music unselfishly. The songs seemed to vanish into thin air. But the next time we met, the music magically returned, at least the good stuff as we laughingly tried to recall the tunes,the pitch, the instrumentation as remembered by whoever turned up. A few centuries later, thanks to the invention of Travel, and without using any clever recording devices – except our brains – the music became known in other places. (I don’t mean like today’s travelling from Vancouver to Thailand, more like taking a day’s hike from Kelowna to Glenmore and back to sell a few eggs.) The more tunefully disposed travellers took the songs with them, at no extra cost, in their heads. Lacking iPods, they would sing as they rode their llamas, sometimes re-composing the words and the melody to their liking. Some of them became very popular. The songs – not the people. (Unlike today, when Pop Singers come and go like a candle in the wind and the Pop Songs themselves are forgotten.)
Some songs like Greensleeves, Scarborough Fair, or Taking Care of Business became very well-known and were deemed worthy of preservation. Not by everybody, because as we all know, taste in music is as varied as Elton John's shirts. Just as in religion (bibles,) literature (Fanny Hill,) and pornography (Playboy,) there was a desire to reproduce the bodies of musical work. Rudimentary systems of notation were devised. Hard-working monks illuminating manuscripts were suddenly switched to transcription of hymns. Authorities like the King, the Church, Sony,and Simon Callow got involved. They invented microphones, amplifiers, barrel organs, wax cylinders, phonographs, gramophones, recording wire, alteratifinicators, talent contests and cd release parties, to name just a few.
Music swiftly became less of an art form, more of an industry – a major part of the economy. Sophisticated forms of reproduction, marketing and distribution methods were devised. Royalty payments and copyright protection became part of the laws of the land. That's why we don't hear too much humming and whistling these days. Except in a few washrooms without security cameras.
The current music scene sounds a bit gloomy but I don’t find it useful to criticize. Like music itself, it has to do with individual taste and whatever appeals to one’s ears. For me, all the good tunes have already been written and played, and played, and played.
So, what to do? I suppose I could compose something myself. instead of going throught fakebooks of "standards." But I have another plan, sort of fantasy journey. I am going back to the village where I began. I shall gather the folks together and produce my version of the Hallelujah Chorus -without using sheet music. Hard? No. There’s only twelve of us.