In praise of digital

The Old Church in Stoke Newington

So yesterday I attended a performance by Folklore Tapes at The Old Church in Stoke Newington.

The performance was in three parts, the first being a musician performing on custom instruments like nails, violin bows with electric pickups, metal plates and the like. He used layering of segments to slowly build up a piece of music that sounded to me a bit like Jean-Michel Jarre combined with the music you would get in the “the main character is soon going to die” scene of a horror movie. I’m not quite sure why this segment was so long, but perhaps it was meant to evoke the feeling of Dartmoor and folklore, the subject of the performance. At least for me, I would have appreciated a bit more textualisation and explanation.

Then followed the interval. I think a few people left at this point, confused as I was about the extremely out of the ordinary, unexplained musical performance. But at the same time a few new people turned up. My uncle and I had a glass of wine while we were still digesting the soundscape we had been inhabiting the past 40 minutes.

The second part of the performance started off more comprehendable. Two speakers came on stage, and explained their project: “An audiovisual reinterpretation of Dartmoor’s rich folklore, based in part on Theo Brown’s unpublished research.” Theo Brown was presented, an introduction to the unique landscape of Dartmoor was given, and some folklore tales were read aloud, with the accompaniment of transparencies and leaves (yes, leaves picked on the moor, placed on the glass, and the shadow showing up above the transparencies) on the back-lit overhead projector screen. This segment was probably the most enjoyable to me, and by hearsay also to a lot of other people in the audience.

The final segment of the performance was a 20 minute film of Dartmoor landscapes “recorded on super-eight film, and once exposed, buried in moss and bracken, which produces a fascinating effect”, to quote the performers. The film was silent, and set to more of the music described above. Long segments of the film were just black blotches on white, due to the corruption rendered by organic processes on the film while buried. Only occasionally was the landscape actually visible, and often only hinted at, while the rest of the frame was damaged heavily by the abovementioned moss.

This leads me on to the title of this post, ” In praise of digital.” Because as was clearly evident, the performers had a penchant for, and a fascination of “analogue methods”. The physical manifestation of the project is indeed also LP records and a DVD of the aforementioned damaged film. Yes, it is true that “analogue methods provide a physicality and immediacy”, but to celebrate, and indeed excessively exacerbate the defects and imperfections that sometimes occur in handling analogue media, to be honest, that is a bit too much. True, the colours of the film were wonderful, when the landscape was visible below the moss damage, but too often we were simply, and literally, watching moss grow.

This led me on the way home to reflect on this modern revivalist fascination with analogue. Consider Instagram and the like, where some of the filters embellish your photos with defects. Or modern releases of LP records, which when you consider the entire pipeline from studio recording to listening has to suffer the entire distribution chain in analogue form (digital recording, digital mastering, analogue media being battered and buffeted along the distribution chain, and if you’re lucky, analogue playback). Compare this with a CD, which remains digital until you play it. And here, you’re able to choose your own Digital to Analogue converter, preserving as much information as you can afford from the high quality, non-degraded digital media. Digital media is parsimonious, in the sense that reality is reflected efficiently and reasonably accurately within the specified bitrate or resolution. Yes, analogue media may theoretically have a greater fidelity, but only if you let the entire recording,  production and playback remain analogue, performing as few conversions and media transfers as possible … and you make sure to take good care of your media. To celebrate analogue is ok, as long as you actually have high quality and well preserved media and content recorded onto that media to celebrate. To take an old video camera to Dartmoor and film out of the window while driving along, and then to damage most of the film beyond recognition, display it on a small back-lit screen, and set it to nondescriptive music… Well to me, that is celebrating analogue for the wrong reasons.

Author: jpamills


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