The New Digital Parlour Music

22 March, 2005

As part of what seems to be "March is Keren Ann Month" in the national music media (NPR, NYT Fashion, the Boston Globe, and even Pitchfork), the NY Times ran a story by Jon Pareles this Sunday on the rise of Home Studios (Home Sweet Studio). In addition to Keren Ann, the piece mentioned artists ranging from Moby to Mice Parade, Bruce Springsteen to Aesop Rock and what virtues recording at home had brought to their work. The theory seems to be that "working in solitude can nurture more eccentric, more private songs," the studio becoming "a sanctuary: part sandbox, part confessional."

I found two aspects of this piece striking. First of all, isn't this old news? Moby's Play came out in 1999, was made at home, and was the biggest record in the world for a long time. By this point, just about everyone I know has a home studio. Granted, I live in Portland where there's more than one musician for every six people, but still it seems like the ever-falling price of home recording equipment and the ever-easier integration of that equipment with the computer has made home studios mandatory for anyone with even the slightest interest in making music themselves. The reality of the artists they talked about in the piece, going off to do multi-thousand dollar days in the studio to give songs a final polish, sill seems far removed from both the limitations and the immediacy of the home studio work I see around me.

The thing Pareles got right, though, is the musical aesthetic. Rock bands, hip-hop and 'R and B' groups, country, just about every other type of popular music is communal and social in its prouction. Music is rarely the sentiment of one person confessed to no one in particular. Even when it seems to be, as in the work of certain song writers whose work gets described as 'confessional' (Bright Eyes, whose star is burning even brighter than Keren Ann's and in the same firmament, comes to mind) there is always either a narrative distance as in the novelist's art, or an emotive distance as in the ironist's.

The domestic privacy that swaddles this new home studio environment, on the other hand, allows for a truly confessional music, music not intended to be heard by anyone in particular and, often, not actually heard by anyone at all. The tools of the trade tend to be drum machines, samplers, and sequencers along with acoustic guitars and quiet, often whispered, vocals. Rather than sampling vintage or contemporary popular music (the unit of meaning in the communal music venues where sampling-based music was born, like dance and hip-hop clubs), this new private music tends to sample sounds found in the home: pets' purrs, dishes' clanks, doors' slams, etc. The vocals, and other sounds that "move air", are only as loud as is natural in a small bedroom.

Current recording-based pop (Beyonce's Crazy in Love is a paradigmatic example) is almost pefectly public. It is all extroversion, from the sample of soul horns to the dance beats and the shout-outs and the shout-alongs. But before the era of recording, music was played in the home. People performed actual works of musical "literature" on the piano for their own enjoyment and on occasions when communal listening was called for. This new Private Music, while made with technological tools derived from the suite of systems created to make song's like Crazy In Love, is a return to the spirit of parlor music, music made for a small group of intimate acquaintances or, more simply, just for the music's maker herself to pass the time.

Note: It is one of the great ironies of this post-whatever age that technologies and social systems are rapidly falling into place to make this Private Music public in a big way. The explosion of the popularity of blogs have illustrated the interest we posses in the intimate details of other peoples lives and, potentially, in their thoughts and creations.

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