more than the sum of its parts

I don’t recall where I picked up this link, but it’s a discussion of media (all media) and its future. The major point is, presented in analogy, that a music album (frex) is a molecule, and songs are atoms, and we as a society are increasingly interested in atomic rather than molecular content; we download individual songs, make our own mix CDs, and even get to sub-atomic levels in creating mashups. Nor does this apply only to music.

Here are some of the issues I have with the post and its comment threads (one of which says, “Most consumers are just playing with the atoms and discarding them, and any art form that expects the consumer to understand a complex molecular structure, whether created from whole cloth or from other atoms, is in trouble”). First of all, I don’t think this trend is inherently going to keep on as it has been. Personal experience prompts this feeling; I like listening to my music on shuffle, but after a while of doing that I found myself craving whole albums again. Now, I can’t assume everybody’s like me, of course, but I have a gut feeling that playing around with atomic content is something we’re doing a lot of because suddenly technology’s making it easier; the novelty, however, may well wear off, and then the atomic approach will become one of many ways we interact with media, instead of the Tsunami of the Future that will wipe out all others.

Second, it sort of carries the assumption that the molecules are no more than the sum of their parts. “They don’t want to buy a whole album just for that catchy radio single” — true enough, but the fault then lies with the way we market music, promoting one good song on the radio while the rest of the album may be mediocre crap. I wouldn’t want to buy the album then, either. But a good album is well worth buying, because not only does it have more worth listening to than that one catchy song, it has more than its entire collection of songs; it is an artistic work in its own right, with carefully chosen beginning and ending tunes, a flow from one song to another, a journey that lasts more than four minutes. Atomic media can only offer you small experiences — powerful ones, perhaps, but limited in their complexity. And I think we enjoy complexity enough for molecular media to still have their place.

Finally, look at this on a more extreme level. The quarks of writing, if you will, are letters and punctuation, or words if you don’t want to go that far. Anybody can mix and match them to their heart’s content. But not everybody can do it well, and so we pay writers (and musicians, and TV show creators, and so on) to put them together for us, to present us with something compelling. I make characters soundtracks (i.e. themed mix CDs), but I don’t listen to them as often as I do to professional albums, and I sure as hell don’t write my own music. I could be vaguely interested in the notion of a “mix anthology,” collecting my favorite short stories in one place, but a professional editor can probably do a better job of that than I can. A mix anthology from a friend would interest me more as an expression of my friend and/or our relationship, but a professional anthology would interest me more as literature. I don’t mean that to slam my friends, of course; could well be that one or more would manifest a heretofore unsuspected talent for that sort of thing, and produce a work of sheer brilliance. But on the whole, I consume anthologies (books, albums, movies, etc) looking for someone else, someone who has spent a lot of time learning how to do it well, to present me with an experience. The more I chop up their media, the more I’m undoing their work, losing the crafted connections that made the whole more than the sum of its parts. That can be fun, and it can produce amazing new works, but I don’t think we’re going to forswear molecules for atoms any time soon.

0 Responses to “more than the sum of its parts”

  1. mindstalk

    As a counterpoint, I can’t recall ever noticing the structure of an album as an experience in its own right. I can learn the sequence and anticipate what comes next, but I do that just as much with my tapes of random songs off the radio. Don’t think I’ve ever noticed the structure of an anthology, either; they’re sets, collections, of stories matching some theme or criterion, not ordered sequences, and the value of the anthologist for me is in the act of selection, not ordering.

    • Marie Brennan

      But they do put thought into ordering — it isn’t just like they pick titles out of a hat until they’re all in. Some may be better at it than others, but whether or not you think about that experience, it’s there.

      • Anonymous


        Speaking as someone who works in the indie music industry (as a recording engineer and producer), I have to say that album structure, song ordering, etc. varies widely among artists. Some have a very definite vision of what their album should be, right down to the transitions from one song to another (1 second gap, 2 second gap, crossfade, etc.); every song for them is interlocked. For others, an album is just 10 or 12 songs; it’ll start off with a catchy, radio-friendly piece, but after that, they put little thought into the tracklisting (I did one album where the songs were basically in the order in which they were written: rock ballad, surf instrumental, jazz number, another rock song, etc. It was literally like listening to a mix CD. I remember one group whose members argued for several hours over song order; finally, we just put the songs into the same order they were on the master tape, i.e., the order in which we’d mixed them; it made no sense artistically, but it resolved the argument.)


    • diatryma

      It’s the sort of thing that shows up when it’s bad, or when it’s good, but most of the time… eh. I obsess over song order for mix tapes, trying to make it flow. Sometimes you get albums like the Beatles’ whatever, sometimes you get anthologies that just don’t work. There’s a saying that the two best stories in an anthology are first and last, and if you run into a poorly-done one… it sticks out.

  2. catvalente

    I linked to this thing and I find it fascinating, however, I don’t think it holds true for books. Almost no one reads non-linearly, no matter how Martin and Pavic and a few others ask us to. It’s not how humans work. And serial TV like LOST is easily as popular as Law and Order–in fact, when arc serials announce “more standalones” that generally leads to suck. On top of that, series have never been more popular with books–I think she’s wrong there. We may eventually go to e-paper, but I don’t think we will ever really deconstruct the novel. It’s common knowledge that short story collections don’t sell as well as novels–there’s a reason. We like the molecular structure. It makes us feel like we’re part of something. And music and movies as atoms is still basically a function of fandom and in the case of ipods, a reaction against the heinous marketing and pricing of music, plus the availability of download technology.

    There have always been mash ups in literature–it’s called found language poetry, and it’s boring as fuck after the first couple. I don’t think that ultimately that’s very satisfying to people. They want a big juicy novel, and often they /want/ a series. Discworld is incredibly popular, and probably at the level of an organism now, not just a molecule or atom. If we assume that reading will remain part of popular consciousness, to deride the series is ridiculous–the most popular book in the history of the world is a seven book series, and if she wanted to make it fourteen, people would cheer from the rafters. Serial entertainment answers something in us, because we lead serial lives, not episodic ones. And while music is contained in three minute chunks, a novel so deconstructed becomes totally meaningless.

    • Marie Brennan

      Ah, yes — your post about it had already fallen off the bottom of my friends page, so I couldn’t easily find where I’d gotten the link. Good to hear your thoughts on it, since you’re the one who sent me that way in the first place. I agree, and I think even those in the discussion might agree, that a novel deconstructed in that manner is meaningless; the point of disagreement might come over whether that means the novel is on its way out as a narrative form. I don’t think so, but some of the commenters over there might.

      • catvalente

        I just don’t think it is. Nothing is even on the horizon that delivers story in the same way. I have never bought the people don’t read so it’s all movies and TV now argument–which we all have textually, reading and writing into a computer. People read now more than ever. As long as reading is a valid way of ingesting story, the novel is going to stay, and evolve. But it will not descend into that kind of chaotic narrative–no one has the patience for that. Ask a language poet.

  3. eclectician

    Note that in a sufficiently good restaurant, diners expect there to be molecular structure to the meal as well as atomic structure to a dish.

Comments are closed.