In Music and Social Life, Thomas Turino analyzes music as a mode of communication, and he defines “semiotic density” as “the number of potential signs occurring simultaneously” (108). Turino is arguing that music’s semiotic density is greater than that of written text, since it has more layers of meaning. Music piles indexes upon indexes, through things like rhythm, inflection, and gesture. All of this gives music the capacity to layer meanings in ways that other mediums cannot or do not.
I think it’s important to recognize that the relative semiotic density of music and text depend on the “interpretive norms” of a certain community. For example, one could easily imagine inverting Turino’s argument: Text is more semiotically dense than music, at least for publishers, because text has a physical dimension (book or iPad), font, letters, words, margins, etc. Live music does not have any of these, so it “contains” less meaning.
I think the way to resolve all of this is to acknowledge that different communities have different ideas about where meaning resides in communication. Some might feel that lyrics are really important to music interpretation, for example, and others might argue that compression rates are important to understanding a music track. In other words, people listen for different things, so we can’t say that one medium (like music or text) is more semiotically dense than another. Rather, “semiotic density” emerges from interpretive norms about what kinds of meanings and ideas should be sought out.
I bring all of this up to say that last night was full of semiotic density for air guitarists. When they watch performances, air guitarists typically look at gestures in a way that sees both the original guitar track they refer to (i.e. miming of a Jimi Hendrix solo) and also other air guitar performances. For example, last night Dan Crane played air guitar in homage to a famous performance by another air guitarist, C-Diddy. Crane’s reproduction of C-Diddy’s costume and gestures served to celebrate a classic moment in air guitar history, and it also referenced the classical metal mashup that C-Diddy originally used as his performance track. Therefore, all through gestures, Dan was performing a 60-second routine that pointed to classical music, metal, air guitar history, C-Diddy the person, and his own signal differences to C-Diddy. These things were not simply “in” the performance, but they were things air guitarists were actively trying to get out of the performance.
I’ll raise one more example of semiotic density. Through past allegiances and friendships, air guitarists have a connection Airnadette, a French lip-syncing performance troupe. The troupe performed last night, as part of all of the air guitar festivities. In their performances, one continuous soundtrack plays in the background. It is a mashup of tons of classic lines from movies, popular music tracks, and sound effects. One stage, the group pantomimes instruments and moves around, in ways that make it appear as if the performers are actually producing the sounds that have been pre-assembled in the recording. The audience sees a seamless performance and elaborate story, all told through a mashup of famous sounds. You’ll see one character do an entire monologue on stage, moving his or her mouth to the sounds of maybe 20 voices spliced together to form a cohesive utterance. It’s like hearing a Girl Talk song, but all of the lyrics have been assembled to form a narrative. And then imagine someone pantomiming the whole thing to tell a story.
Airnadette is indeed hard to describe, since the whole show is extremely smooth yet incredibly complex–people creating personas on stage through ventriloquizing the famous voices of other personas from films and popular music, all in a way that cohesively narratives the rise and fall (and second rise) of a group of aspiring musicians. But the crowd, especially the air guitarists who I spoke with, found it incredibly rich. It goes beyond a simple game of recognition: Hey! That’s Arnold Schwarzenegger’s final line in Terminator. Hey, that’s Cartman! It brings into dialogue a pastiche of cultural emphemera in a way that creates meaning and also tension. Airnadette is so popular in the community, because the interpretive norms the show requires are already part of the sensibilities of air guitar. The whole joy of Airnadette is the fact that there’s kind of a battle with pre-recorded media and bodies on stage, where bodies attempt to usurp the power of media to determine what they must do, even as they follow along precisely with the pre-recorded media’s script.