I’ve been saying for years that, so far as genuine novelty is concerned, music is all over bar the shouting. I’ve decided it’s high time I stopped saying that.

My basic thesis was that, once synths and sampling migrated from specialist hardware onto relatively affordable general computing devices, the scope of sonic possibility had effectively been maximised. If you think of music and composition as a question of waveform creation – frequency and amplitude varying across time – then we’ve had the capability to do pretty much everything in that possibility space for decades. No sound, whether ‘real’ or ‘artificial’ – increasingly irrelevant distinctions in the hyper-real culture of late Late Capitalism – is beyond the reach of anyone with access to the same budget that they’d need to buy a cheap electric guitar and a little amplifier, at least in the privileged West. So it’s postmodernity all the way down – collage, citation, pastiche, homage, remix, re-appropriation, rearrangement, recombination. New combinations and juxtapositions, perhaps, but nothing truly new.

But as a friend patiently pointed out to me over Boxing Day whisky sours, I’d mistaken the totality of capability for the totality of achievement, the possible for the realised. There’s still light years of possibility yet to be explored, vast volumes of novelty yet to be mined. A few evenings of listening to 6 Music or trawling through Bandcamp and Soundcloud should’ve told me that. I suspect the institution of music reviewing (and my involvement with such) is at least in part to blame for my misconception. As the oft-misattributed saying goes, talking – and hence writing – about music is like dancing about architecture. The whole magic of music lies in its ability to transcend the powerful yet limited ability of mere words to communicate ideas and emotions. While I never plan to stop trying to do so, there is a very real sense in which attempting to describe music using words is to try trapping air in a cage. One might successfully delimit some familiar shape or volume, but the music floats free despite our best efforts, leaving only the cage.

Perhaps this – combined with the limits of screen or page real-estate, of word counts and editorial policy and advertiser leverage – explains the time-worn urge of the music hack to make easy comparisons, to force things into pre-established generic pigeonholes (or newly minted ones, if we’re ambitious and vain, which we usually are). Unable to (re)create that which we are attempting to describe, we end up reiterating our own prejudices and preferences, fruitlessly forcing the new into whatever word cage we’re capable of building. In our rush to place everything on a map of what we already know, we emphasise similarity rather than difference, the familiar over the novel.

This might not be a problem if it weren’t for the Cambrian explosion of musical availability that the internet and other technologies have released. Back when the Beatles and the Stones ruled the roost, it was still theoretically possible for the average punter to hear the bulk of new releases, to surf precariously atop the wave of novelty. But certainly by the mid 90s it had become a significant challenge to keep on top of even a single sub-genre – the DJ’s curse, we called it.

And now, all bets are off. Thousands of new releases every month, with no central clearing house, no authoritative papers or magazines – just hundreds of curators assembling their own personal canons for private or public appreciation. We’re all faced with John Peel’s problem – which would be a fine problem to have, to be honest, were one lucky enough to be paid a living wage to deal with it. What hope do we mere consumers have?

I realise now that I’d fallen into the habit of believing that the new music I heard (or even simply heard of) was all there was – reiterations of what I already knew and understood, copies or combinations of things I had names for. I realise now I was wrong. What was lacking wasn’t novelty in music, but my own efforts to seek it out, not to mention my willingness to listen to things on their own merits, to give novelty a fair hearing, to leave the cage door open so that something new might wander in.

I don’t have John Peel’s job (more’s the pity), but perhaps I can try harder to have his openness. The cages I built only ever trapped myself.

Paul Graham Raven