‘Alexa? Please play “Ich mache einen Spiegel” by Popol Vuh’

I have done some thinking about a post by Mike Smith on the changes brought about by a digitalised accessing of books, film and music might have. You can read the piece, here: https://bhdandme.wordpress.com/2018/12/28/irrelevancies/. As usual, Mike’s writing is excellent.

It might surprise you that if you ask Alexa to play the first track from the first Popol Vuh album from 1970 it can. It might also surprise you to know that good live versions of tracks by jazz greats can be brought up in the time it takes you to open your mouth. It might surprise you brilliant Nina Simone songs can be pulled out of the ether in this way. However, if the track you are looking for has more than one version… the computer can’t find you the one you want. It doesn’t matter how many times I scream ‘NO, NO: the one with the longer Charlie Parker solo’ at the machine, it can’t find it. It’ll find you the version you never liked, or the remastered one from 2012 that sounds wrong. Or the remix by the drummer of the band who inexplicably has the rights now, who lowers everything else into the blurry mix. I write all this because I was taken by something that Richard Skelton said at the last Symposium: that ‘versions’ (I’m paraphrasing here) can be important in a work; ‘works’ can change. Look at the differences between the first ‘Leaves of Grass’ and the one in your bookcase, if you want a good example. And the last one isn’t always your personal favourite: go and dig out a copy of Doctor Faustus A vs Doctor Faustus B for a good example of that. So, if it is important for different versions to exist (and I think it is) then we are at risk of having that idea flattened by technology, rather than encouraged. Behemoths of multi-national companies are ensuring that homogeneity is the watchword of our age. This is even before I recount lists of bands, musicians and composers that seem entirely lost to the new streaming world. Conduct your own survey: look at the way works of genders and ethnicity are being stored, and streamed. Who is missing? Have your own experiments of your streaming service of choice. We are living through an erasure process. But this is nothing new: with technology comes the possibility profit; with profit comes the need for control. Choice has to be controlled – imagine a world where people actually got given things that they wanted? The market needs rules and order. Order needs ONE version of everything.

Recall that every single edition of a Shakespeare play is different. You’ll know the reasons why.

Every time you read a poem, or a short story away from the digital archive you are committing an act of felony against the idea that leisure and culture have to have a economic outcome. Every time you pick up a musical instrument, or dance, or sing – these are small acts of rebellion. The oral tradition, with its mutations and imperfections could live with there being many different version of the same song: they could coexist; they could even be put back together, or shipped to different continents. As soon as folk music became recorded ‘properly’ we ended up with fixed versions of things. And these things were often edited, censored, bowdlerised or simply just rewritten by the (usually) middle class white man writing them down. And then the (usually) white middle class man singing them in folk clubs. When I asked Alexa to play ‘Fight the Power’ by Public Enemy I was horrified that a key line about Elvis (go on… listen) has been censored. I don’t really like swearing, per se, but the line had been ruined by the edit. What other erasures are taking place? Do you remember when dance music took off and umpteen different versions of each track were available on the single that you bought? That was a powerfully creative idea. When ‘scenes’ and movements are fractured, but active, there is often a freedom. As soon as market forces claw back control, the multiplicity lost leaves creativity itself at risk. You end up with Britpop, for example.

The idea of ‘versions’ is a more subversive one than you might think.

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