Collaborating with the Medium, or, How the Container Shapes the Art

I love Hipstamatic. It’s a brilliant little app on my phone that acts like an old Polaroid camera. I take a shot and Hipstamatic applies a bit of processing to it and puts a nice little frame around the image. And then I’m done.  

The frame and the processing basically prohibit me from doing anything to the image after the moment I take it. I get so much enjoyment out of trying to compose pictures inside the constraints of the little viewer screen on my phone… and I have come to understand (more or less) how to take pictures that look good once the program “finishes” them.

In my real life I spend an inordinate amount of my life doing what is considered “post” work. Probably half the work on every record happens when tape isn’t rolling. I’ve got to get the original event captured well, but then I can shape and bend the sound into what I think it really should be long after I’ve got the performance documented. 

Hipstamatic puts me in the moment. The entire act of creation from capture to completion is literally over in less than  a second. And yet I am still engaged as an artist, making what I’d consider to be art. A few folks have suggested that they might consider a few of my pics to be art as well (there’s no accounting for taste).

I completely, actively, embrace working this way. I am aware of the limitations of the process and I love working within them. But what happens when the limitations aren’t obvious? What happens when we alter our creative process to fit a set of finite boundaries we have not ever considered?

Well, now we’re back to making records.

Let’s jump back to the LP… the “long-playing” record albums that were the vehicle by which serious music listeners enjoyed their favorite music. The LP has a number of very finite constraints, not the least of which is that your album must be split into two halves. Given the amount of physical space on each side of a 12” LP and the fact that the music is physically cut into the surface of the master, there are dynamic limitations which intersect with time limitations, and panning limitations which intersect with frequency response limitations.

In order to sound good, a side should be under 25 minutes. The shorter the side the louder it can be cut, which is good. And your most dynamic material should be early on the side, where each rotation of the record contains far more surface, and therefore more potential detail, than the inner rotations. On vinyl, bass needs to be mono so the needle doesn’t get kicked out of the groove, and the music is equalized (has its treble and bass adjusted) as it is cut, and then un-equalized (the opposite bass and treble changes)  by the phono preamp as the record is played back in your living room.

The technical considerations for cutting vinyl are massive, and that’s before we consider that the person cutting the album is actually an artist as well who has a personal aesthetic and their own tools customized for their workflow.

Twelve-year-old me had no idea about any of that. I knew I had to turn the record over. I knew each side worked well as a side, and the two sides together worked well as an album. I was unaware that the medium itself was shaping the art. Most of us are. But every artist delivering music to their audience via the LP has had to make decisions about their music based entirely on the delivery medium.

The compact disc holds a maximum of about 80 minutes of music (78 to be safe). The story is that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony could fit in 74 minutes, and that was the basis of the compact disc’s time constraint. The CD liberated us from sides, from changing audio quality as the album went on, and from needing to change the sound of the music to fit the medium. For engineers it was great, as it got the sound of the music the listeners were hearing far closer to the sound in the control room.

The audience had other ideas. The vinyl LP has a sound, based on the things that must be done to the music to massage it into the groove and then extract it back off, and people were pretty darn used to that sound. It wasn’t the sound of the MUSIC… it was the sound of the medium. Tricky.

Ever seen a 4K TV? I had to laugh the first time I felt detail overload watching something in HD. Of course I was seeing something MUCH closer to the way the people who created the art were seeing it. I just wasn’t used to it. I liked the softness of my old TV. But all along it had been lying to me. I had just learned to love the lie.

Today the physical containers have all but vanished. My Elements musical project is four hours and 40 minutes long (carefully packaged as four 70 minute “albums” for those that feel an affinity for that concept — including me). It can be listened to as one long experience, or many smaller ones. It’s up to the listener. It’s not up to the medium anymore.  

Freed from the constraints of the physical package, musical artists are finally able to stretch out and explore their ideas without any considerations beyond what the music wants to be.  

Sadly, this freedom comes at a time when most musicians have been liberated from getting paid when people listen to their music. And with Spotify “compensating” artists the same amount (the typical per spin payout is about a third of a cent) whether their song is 30 seconds long or two hours long… well, they’ve created a virtual financially motivated container… and people are rushing to release sub-minute material. 

It was actually this reality that set Mr. Cranky Pants here down the road that led to my Snapshots album… and I have to admit that the constraint of setting that one minute timer (see last month’s blog about that process) had a pretty powerful positive influence on the creative result. Who knew?  

So I learn, and as I embrace the boundaries and offerings presented by the various technologies in my life, I become a more flexible artist, I find more magic moments, and I surprise myself. 

My appreciation for Hipstamatic can be seen over on Instagram at tomeaton.ig, and of course all my musical musings, long and short, are on Bandcamp and all the streaming services.

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