I finally finished Michael Chanan's Musica Practica: The Social Practice of Western Music from Gregorian Chant to Postmodernism. In what has to a personal best of sustained procrastination, I've been trying to get through this book since its publication in 1994. Not the writing itself but my odd reading habits are to blame: I tend to bury one half-finished book under the next. In any case, Musica Practica is a tour-de-force, demystifying the "music itself" (as musicologists used to say) by showing how social practices and technologies shape it and direct it. Something quite uncanny happens at the end of the Prologue; working off citations of Mark Poster and Jacques Attali, Chanan essentially predicts the entire musical universe we've been living in for the last few years, the world of MP3s, downloading, and the iPod:
Whatever becomes information, anyone can now store and reproduce, repackage and refashion to their own purposes without anyone's permission, without payment, and largely without detection. Hence the expanding domain of information threatens the principle of private property....The results can be heard in the cacophony and confusion of contemporary music, which the recent introduction of synthesizers and samples has only increased. On the one hand, the technification of music has distorted the process of listening and damaged our hearing. On the other, it increasingly throws everything back into the arena, as the ease of reproduction allows the circulation of music to escape the control of the market and discover new forms. In short, the old hierarchies of aesthetic taste and judgment may have broken down, but music continues to breathe and to live according to its own immanent criteria.
I'm glad I waited to finish the book, because back in 1994 I would have had no idea what he was talking about.