I recently came across this short essay by Paul Valéry. Valéry pretty much anticipates the modern internet age with its torrent of media all around us, which is an astonishing feat of foresight, given he wrote this in 1928.
The Conquest of Ubiquity
Paul Valéry, 1928
OUR FINE ARTS were developed, their types and uses were established, in times very different from the present, by men whose power of action upon things was insignificant in comparison with ours. But the amazing growth of our techniques, the adaptability and precision they have attained, the ideas and habits they are creating, make it a certainty that profound changes are impending in the ancient craft of the Beautiful. In all the arts there is a physical component which cannot be considered or treated as it used to be, which cannot remain unaffected by our modern knowledge and power. In the last twenty years neither matter nor space nor time has been what it was from time immemorial. We must expect innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art. At first, no doubt, only the reproduction and transmission of works of art will be affected.
It will be possible to send anywhere or to re-create anywhere a system of sensations, or more precisely a system of stimuli, provoked by some object or event in any given place. Works of art will acquire a kind of ubiquity. We shall only have to summon them and there they will be, either in their living actuality or restored from the past They will not merely exist in themselves but will exist wherever someone with a certain apparatus happens to be. A work of art will cease to be anything more than a kind of source or point of origin whose benefit will be available and quite fully so, wherever we wish. Just as water, gas, and electricity are brought into our houses from far off to satisfy our needs in response to a minimal effort, so we shall be supplied with visual- or auditory images, which will appear and disappear at a simple movement of the hand, hardly more than a sign. Just as we are accustomed, if not enslaved, to the various forms of energy that pour into our homes, we shall find it perfectly natural to receive the ultrarapid variations or oscillations that our sense organs gather in and integrate to form all we know. I do not know whether a philosopher has ever dreamed of a company engaged in the home delivery of Sensory Reality.
Of all the arts, music is nearest to this transposition into the modem mode. Its very nature and the place it occupies in our world mark it as the first to be transformed in its methods of transmission, reproduction, and even production. It is of all the arts the most in demand, the most involved in social existence, the closest to life, whose organic functioning it animates, accompanies, or imitates. Whether it be a matter of speaking or walking, of meditation or action, of monotony or surprise in the temporal flow of our lives, music can take hold of us, combining and transfiguring the pace and sensory values of them all. It weaves us an artificial span of time by lightly touching the keys of our real life. We become accustomed to it, we give ourselves up to it as voluptuously as one might to the “just, subtle, and mighty” substances praised by Thomas De Quincey. Since it directly attacks the emotional mechanism, which it plays on and maneuvers at will, it is universal in essence; it delights the ear and sets people dancing the world over; like science it becomes and international need and commodity. This circumstance, taken in connection with recent progress in the means of transmission, suggested two technical problems:
- To make a piece of music instantly audible at any point on the earth, regardless of where it is performed.
- To reproduce a piece of music at will, anywhere on the globe and at any time.
These problems have been solved. The solutions are being further refined every day. We are still far from having controlled visual phenomena to the same degree. Color and relief are still rather resistant. A sunset on the Pacific, a Titian in Madrid cannot yet be enjoyed in our living room with the same force of illusion as a symphony.
That will happen some day. Perhaps they will do still better and find a way of showing us something of what goes on at the bottom of the sea. But as for the worlds of sounds, noises, voices, tonalities, they are already ours. We evoke them when and where we please. Formerly we could not enjoy music at our own time, according to our own mood. We were dependent for our enjoyment on an occasion, a place, a date, and a program. How many coincidences were needed!
Today we are liberated from a a servitude so contrary to pleasure and, by that same token, to the most sensitive appreciation of works of music. TO be able to choose the moment of enjoyment, to savor the please when not only our mind desires it, but our soul and whole being craves and as it were anticipates it, is to give the fullest scope to the composer’s intention, for it permits his creatures to live again in a vibrant milieu not very different from that in which they were created. In recorded music the work of composer or performer finds the conditions essential to the most perfect aesthetic returns.
I am reminded here of a fairy play that, as a child, I saw in a foreign theater. Or perhaps I only fancy I saw it. In the Sorcerer’s palace the furniture spoke and sang, took a poetic and mischievous part in the action. A door opening set off the piping or solemn tones of a village band. If anyone sat down on a pouf, it would sigh politely. At a touch everything breathed forth a melody. I sincerely hope we are not moving toward such excesses in the magic of sound. Even now one can no longer eat or drink at a cafe without being disturbed by a concert. But it will be wonderfully pleasant to be able to transform at will an empty hour, an interminable evening, an endless Sunday, into an enchantment, an expression of tenderness, a flight of the spirit. Days can be gloomy; there are men and women who are very much alone, and many whom age or infirmity confines to their own company with which they are only too familiar. These men and women, reduced to boredom and gloom, can now fill their sad and useless hours with beauty or passion.
Such then are the first fruits offered us by the new intimacy between music and physics, whose immemorial alliance had already given us so much. We shall see many more.