I am one of the many who embraced each new technology as it presented itself over the last 50 years. It included multi-track analogue audio recording and phototypesetting in the 1960s, digital audio recording, digital cameras and mobile phones in the 1980s and finally computers in their total conquest of everything in the 1990s and beyond. I know people, often skilled craftsmen who rejected such innovations to defend their crafts but whose knowledge we have all personally benefitted from nonetheless borrowing from their experience to inspire our own work. But of late I have had time to reflect on where it is going, where it has come from and whether it is all such a good thing.
Whether you examine photography, audio recording or printing in all their many manifestations, there is one fundamental process which is taking place. It’s all to do with reproducing an original in some form…a photograph, a printed book, an audio recording or a film. The original in each case has been borrowed and recreated and in recent years more than likely edited and manipulated on a computer. Students of muslim law often get exercised about photography and whether or not it is legitimate to ‘take’ the image of a person. Our ancestors resisted photography and only capitulated by allowing only very serious portraits in their best clothes, rarely smiling. We know the argument often presented that it is creating an image which the photographer cannot bring to life…the Qur’anic challenge…but defended by photographers as being only a frozen reflection of God’s creation. But like it or not, photography, film and printing almost immediately engendered pornography, alienating people yet further from the actual. No wonder the modern porn-saturated masses have such dysfunctional sex lives.
Although photography of a living person is contentious I would add that copying original calligraphy is equally contentious as the copy appears dead by comparison. The living moment when that calligraphy was written has been removed, aped. Not long ago in Morocco, if you wanted a copy of a book or poem you would have to buy a handwritten manuscript or copy it yourself by hand. (or memorise it) The page of the Burda illustrated here (below) I have often shown to illustrate a hand written copy I can only imagine was made to order by a scribe or carefully copied by someone who wanted it badly enough. Maybe a 150 years ago.
Similarly an audio recording is, in its simplest form, a recording of an original performance or sound for replay later. This was accepted as a wonder unquestioned by those who first heard such things. Why was the recording considered so wonderful over and above the original? My own mother was awed as a child around 1912, a hundred years ago, by the crackling sound of the Moonlight sonata by Beethoven emerging from one of those enormous horns which were attached to the early wax cylinder phonographs. She was quite capable of playing it well on a piano which was to be found in most Victorian or Edwardian homes. But then I was infatuated in the 1960s with stereo, quadrophonic, polyphonic audio and so on until at a certain point in the early 1970s I asked myself why I was trying to recreate something which you can appreciate just sitting in the middle of a field with all your senses wide awake. In the moment – not looking backwards or forwards.
Why are we fascinated and dazzled by something removed from its origin, even more so when it is reproduced many miles away by radio or television. The internet has of course compounded this phenomena in a huge way. I heard speak of an English jazz pianist who was an early Muslim convert, named Ismael Hobson, who played with all the great names in New York in the 1950s but who refused at all times to be recorded believing that it was sacrilege to try and reproduce such live spontaneous music. This is anecdotal but from a trustworthy source and I would be interested in any more information regarding his life. I like the idea.
Mea culpa. As I confessed at the outset I’m guilty of embracing all this reproductive technology and I know all its ins and outs having worked over a lifetime in music, film, photography and printing. But more and more I would like to return to a more live condition where everything can be appreciated in the present tense, not obsessing about recording it or photographing it (or selling it). Nothing can be enforced, quite clearly, but I can envisage a future time when people have more manners and don’t photograph you in that unsolicited fashion when you have a mouthful of couscous or worse when you might be laughing or sleeping. It is a real intrusion and I know I am not alone in thinking this.
So I’m calling for a return to the actual as opposed to the uninhibited flight from the actual which is what has happened exponentially since WW2 . Photograph that view in your heart; remember that face without the need for the dreaded Facebook which has opened the flood gates to a kind of narcisistic virtual society in which no one appears to value privacy or even modesty. Go see the Shakespeare play, not the DVD; learn to play the Moonlight sonata from the sheet music. That is true re-creation. The only way you might stop your own children/grandchildren becoming total couch potato wedges. Better to write that peice of calligraphy badly yourself than to swoon at the master’s work and do nothing yourself.
I used to love writing letters in my best italic hand but now I dash of emails quicker than I can think. I got my first job by virtue of my hand writing with an architect in Cambridge in 1963, who liked my italic script. Now it counts for little and my handwriting has descended into a horrible scrawl. I doubt if I will see in my life time a return to the actual but you never know. Live music is returning as the only way a professional musician can earn a living as recorded music produces so little profit because of pirating. Which begs the question, should the mass production of books, music, films etcetera, be allowed to make huge wealth for people? Especially when popularity can be hyped so easily. Is the volume of sales the only arbiter of virtue left now? I don’t have the answers but the market may decide in the end. Giving it all away may be the only way. Maybe authors should earn their living reading their books live to an audience. That would shak’em up.
Lastly I don’t want to appear like the Luddites, those lace makers from Nottingham who saw that lace making machines were a threat to their living (they were right) so began smashing them up. In the giant plugged in universe we live in I believe it’s unrealistic to un-plug (even if one was to go off-grid) and in truth the internet has many, many uses. It’s just a phenomenon and a weapon of this time and we just have to learn to use it and other techno properly. And have some manners when we take pictures or stick a microphone in someones face.•