I once sat in a symphony hall while a group of famed avant-garde musicians recreated Discreet Music pretty much note-for-note. To the right of stage a middle-aged man sat at one of those old analogue projectors you might remember from science class. He dutifully projected each of Eno’s oblique strategies onto a slide screen while the music filled the hall. We sat in rapture. If you closed your eyes, the performance sounded almost exactly like hearing the album through very expensive headphones. You might ask: what’s the point? Collective bliss on a sweaty dance floor is one thing, but surely ambient music is best enjoyed in your own private headspace.
Technically, I was there because I was getting paid to convert my experience into content. My job was to recommend the performance as a premium leisure experience: kind of like the sonic equivalent of hiking to a waterfall and feeling the mist kiss your face.
You know how famous waterfalls have information plaques or laminated signs confirming you’ve reached them? (Even though the actual waterfall is roaring through all your senses, giving you a very clear indication that you’ve arrived). About seven years ago I got obsessed with these plaques. Or rather, I got obsessed with how lit theorist Stephen Greenblatt interpreted them. In 1986 he gave a lecture called ‘Towards a Poetics of Culture’. This is what he had to say about experiencing a famous waterfall:
The pleasure of this moment—beyond the pleasure of the mountain air and the waterfall and the great boulders and the deep forests of Lodgepole and Jeffery Pine—arises from the unusually candid glimpse into the process of circulation that shapes the whole experience of the park. The wilderness is at once secured and obliterated by the official gestures that establish its boundaries; the natural is set over against the artificial through means that render such an opposition meaningless. The eye passes from the ‘natural’ image of the waterfall to the aluminum image, as if to secure a difference (for why else bother go to the park at all? Why not simply look at a book with pictures?), even as that difference is effaced. The effacement is by no means complete—on the contrary, parks like Yosemite are one of the ways in which the distinction between nature and artifice is constituted in our society—and yet the Parks Service’s plaque on the Nevada Falls Bridge conveniently calls to attention the interpretation of nature and artifice that makes the distinction possible.
I read these words on a photocopied university handout long before making adventure content about waterfalls and swimming holes became a big part of my job, but I still can’t stop turning the ideas around and around in my head.
I get the part about experiencing meaninglessness. As in, it’s not like we’ve gone to the park specifically to think about capitalism (what a buzzkill move). But we’ve probably driven past enough McDonald’s on the way to internalise the fact that capitalism exists—that it’s helped create the park as well as the conditions that make visiting the park necessary. And once we’ve seen the picture of the waterfall (yep, just like the one on the screen) and looked up to see the actual waterfall, then, for a glorious second, none of it even matters. We’re not seeking or finding meaning, we’re just experiencing the bloody waterfall already. So maybe that helps explain why people paid $129 to hear skilled musicians recreate Discreet Music almost note-for-note—to have the difference between the artificial and real versions “rendered meaningless”—just gorgeous, wordless, sensory experience.
But of course hardly anything stays wordless for long. Hikes and concerts aren’t just about some kind of pure liminal submersion. Maybe in some cultures they are. But a lot of us crave that “candid glimpse.” A performance of Discreet Music stops being a premium leisure experience once you remove the handsomely designed program informing you that the real Brian Eno (while he sadly can’t be there) approves of what’s happening on stage. And rendering “official gestures meaningless” just isn’t that much fun without the official gestures. It seems we need the guidebook as much as we need the real performance.
This piece appears in full in The Lifted Brow #32. Get your copy here.
Sam West is writer of fiction, non-fiction and content. He has contributed to Vice, i-D, Smith Journal and others. He edits Three Thousand out of Melbourne.