Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Soviets... Benjamin revisited

Was recently revisiting the excellent book "Noise, Water, Meat" and the Soviet Union's post-Futurist experiments in Avant Garde Cinema and came across Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein. Besides being principle participants in early cinematic theorietical discourse about film's artistic potential, Vertov's 1925 essay contains some revealing remarks anticipating Benjamin's own intellectual coordinates. I quote from "Kinopravda and Radiopravda" with particular attention to the final sentence:

"If, with respenct to vision, our kinok-observers have recorded visible life phenomena with cameras, we must now talk about recording audible facts ... In the near future man will be able to broadcast to the entire world the visual and auditory phenomena recorded by the radio-movie camera. We must prepare to turn these inventions of the capitalist world to its own destruction."

Perhaps being to clouted with contemporary fantasies about historical cinema, I conveniently neglected the fact that the "sound-film" (which was only mastered late in the Soviet Union) was an important site of fantasy and re-imagination for the S.U. avant garde, who had to make do with silent film-recording and disorientingly inaccurate sound-reproductive technologies. Also, Vertov's intellectual agenda leaves trace of other ideological developments in 1920s SU where an interest in the aesthetic of the "eccentric" (which Benjamin also mentions with sympathy) began to displace the reigning doctrine of "Naturalism" of Stanislavsky, Chekhov and the Moscow Art Theatre. The precipitated "eccentric", part outcast, part chewn-over and abjected reject of the forces of capitalism (see, for example, Chaplain's famous early film "Modern Times" (1936) portrays the distraught proleteriat battered down by the reductive mechanicization of Taylorism).

More importantly, I think is the ideological dimension of the "eccentric" as a negative reaction to "naturalism" (remembering that the semantic field of the term tended to included a kaleidescope of interests ranging from popular culture, variety theatre and slapstick...) which began to accrete force in the 1920s, transformed into a punching-glove used to refute audio-visual "synchronization" techniques perfected in America. Eisenstein (perhaps oweing to preference for the subversive potentials of montage as seen in Dadaism, Cubism and Futurism) railed against this new instance of "technonaturalism" and "illusionism" that appeared to resuture these
fractured joints of technological re-presentation into a flawless fabric of mimesis. In his "statement on Sound" (August 1928):

"Only the contrapuntal use of sound vis-a-vis the visual fragment of montage will open up new possibilities for the development and perfection of montage."

It was montage as antidote to the suffocating views of "reality" (itself a veil) that propelled the creation of a Kantian community stitched together by the splintering apperception of the fractured, which thus suggested the possibility of short-circuiting the machinery of Capitalism through its own apparatus.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Adorno and Benjamin on Mechanical Reproduction: Objects glanced askew

By the late 1930s, reproduction technologies were by no means alien to Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, two of Europe’s most influential intellectual post-Marxist powerhouses. Through the 1920s, new technological marvels swept through industrial Berlin, which witnessed the “rampant growth” of reproduction technologies such as photography, the gramophone record and the cinema, leaving no sphere of contemporary life untouched. Parallel to the growth of these reproduction technologies was the equally rapid proliferation of new artistic media such as film, television and the radio, which virtually transformed old modes of perceptions and created entirely new ones. With the uniform structuration of working hours made possible by Fordism and Taylorism, an entire generation of the 20th century found with an abundance of “leisure time”, temporal clearings that quickly became filled with new leisure “activities” through these media. Despite the excitement over this explosion of new territories of entertainment and dissemination, critical scepticism was not unheard of, and many contemporary writers and intellectuals (Benjamin and Adorno included) viewed these reproductive media with careful suspicion.

Discursive pockets of technological suspicion began forming as early as the 1920s, serving to counterbalance the rhetoric of technological celebration echoed in the writings and manifestoes of the Italian Futurists. The camp of scepticism included Gilbert Seldes, who sought to deconstruct the economy of what he called “domestic utility” (borrowing a term from David Sarnoff), while attempting to theorize the transformation of art and the status of the contemporary artist with discernable pessimism. For Seldes, the artist who refused to conform with modes of production dictated by popular taste suffered severe alienation; he had “no sources of strength, no material to work with, [and] no background against which they can see their shadows”. The theorist László Mahoy-Nagy was decidedly more optimistic about the creative possibilities of these new technologies, and was an early theorizer on the role of art in crystallizing the “new relationships between familiar and as yet unfamiliar data” of the rapidly modernizing world. Meanwhile, the real threat of totalitarianism was in the air, marked by the rise of Italian Fascism and Hitler’s annexation of political control in 1933. Both Benjamin and Adorno were all-too-aware of the devastating potentials of political totalitarianism; under the threat of Nazism, both intellectuals had fled to alien continents, writing under exile. It was not surprising that a certain “political urgency” therefore charged the bulk of their writings on technology and politics, in hope that their analyses would provide readers with the necessary critical distance to oppose these oppressive regimes.

For both Benjamin and Adorno, understanding the changing status of the work of art under the forces of mechanical reproduction was key to understanding the political potentiality (or lack thereof) of aesthetic resistance. While Adorno unequivocally accorded music special aesthetic privilege in all his writings (not in the least because of his lifelong intentions to be a professional musician), Benjamin loaded his hopes upon the medium of film to carry out its revolutionary ideals and overthrow the shackles of fascism. Aesthetic mediums aside, both writers appeared to differ as to the actual revolutionary potential of art in countering the sedating effect of mass entertainment propagated by these reproduction technologies. Where Adorno acknowledged art’s transformation as a dialectical process between the artist and “the historically developed techniques of his trade”, Benjamin “situated the dialectic solely within the objective forces of ... the mechanical technologies of art’s reproduction”. For Susan Buck-Morris, although both authors wrote from similar intellectual post-Marxist perspectives,

“Benjamin and Adorno had very different evaluations of the historical present. Specifically, Benjamin, like [Bertold] Brecht, continued to support the USSR [and the redemptive ideology of communism] as the leader of a world proletariat movement, while Adorno decidedly did not.”

Indeed Benjamin, who completed his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” between 1935 and 1936, was upset to find that Adorno did not take well to his concepts. Adorno, who was working on his essay “On Jazz” took issue with Benjamin’s claims that the ideology of l’art pour l’art (or art for art’s sake) was politically impotent. For Adorno, it was crystal clear that:

“[...] the pursuit of technological laws of autonomous art changes this art, instead of rendering it into a taboo or fetish, approximates it to the state of freedom, as something that can be produced and made consciously.”

Curiously enough, when Adorno finally published his essay in 1936, Benjamin wrote to his friend claiming to apprehend a “deep and spontaneous ... communication” in their theories, describing their studies as “two spotlights ... directed at the same object from opposite sides”. Adorno was surprised, and perhaps their continuing intellectual deviation can be tracked by his subsequent work “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening” published two years later, which may be read as a response to Benjamin’s concerns.

Central to Benjamin’s concept of the changing status of the artwork is the notion of “aura” which he describes as “a strange tissue of space and time: the unique apparition of a distance, however near it may be”. For Benjamin, the “aura” of the artwork derives partially from its un-reproducibility (the indication of an original) and the “authority of the object” given its specific temporal-spatial coordinates in ritual space. With the onset of mechanical reproduction, the artwork ceases to lay claim to originality. Recruiting the example of photography, Benjamin points out the fact that the “work reproduced becomes the reproduction of a work designed for reproducibility” to such a degree that any demand for an “original” print becomes absurd. To this effect, the artistic reproducible object loses its “aura” and mystical charm, and begins to become serviceable under the wing of politics. Indeed, for Benjamin, the loss of the object’s aura of mysteriousness clears the path for renewed perceptive objectivity that “challenges” the receiver to construct for himself “a particular way to approach” it. The familiar, worshipped cult-like object suddenly strips its mystical veil, allowing perceivers to obtain a new ‘critical distance’ to the object, potentially leading to an apperception of the mode of production of that object, and the superstructures of power that inform that productive capacity.

The filmic medium, for Benjamin, heralds the possibility for a new political dimension in art par excellence due to its “renunciation of eternal value”. Indeed cinema rehearses the symbolic triumph of the film actor in asserting his individuality (“humanity”) “against the apparatus” on behalf of the masses by “placing that apparatus in the service of his triumph”. The cinema becomes an educational facility in which to rehearse the mastery of man over machine rather than machine over man. The reproductive capacity of film also upsets traditional topologies of power: though not every man may be entitled in making decisions for a nation, “any person today can lay claim to being filmed”, therefore collapsing the distance between “author” and “public”. Faced with the possibilities of new technologies, the “masses” are empowered by their uses of these technologies for their own purposes and in their own interests, disseminating concentrations of political power that had once been allocated to a privileged few. Granted, these daydreams of democratized political authorship requires the “masses” to actively participate in these technologies, not merely “consume” them; and yet for Benjamin, the mere possibility is paramount to counter the forces of fascism which he sees as “an aestheticizing of political life”. The hopeful antidote, then, would be communism’s answer of “politicizing art”.

Adorno’s reply was decisive: “If nobody can any longer speak, then certainly nobody can any longer listen.” Instead of sharing Benjamin’s dreams of “technological utopianism”, Adorno’s theoretical contribution to the politics-aesthetics nexus was a pessimistic note that sought to describe what he termed “the Regression of listening”. Disciplined and standardized by the needs of the industrial society, Adorno attempted to unapologetically articulate “the pockets of silence that develop between people moulded by anxiety, work and undemanding docility”. The central culprit for this “regression” was ultimately the culture industry, which sought to commodify the artwork in service of the mass market as “so-called cultural goods”. As a result, the work of art pales as an object of genuine contemplation and circulates in the consumer market, becoming an object sought out for its “exchange value” rather than its ‘deep’ principles. A curious vicious cycle of double-anticipation: the leaders of large entertainment companies anticipate the “tastes” of the “mass market” by reproducing what the “market” has deemed “popular”. Yet, Adorno points out that what is “popular” is “the most familiar” and “is therefore played again and again and made still more familiar”. This circuitous nature of production-reproduction could only signal for Adoro a different dimension of listening not based upon the artistic object as one sought after for its “attributes of the ethereal and sublime” but one based upon the aesthetic object as a “fetish” object, valorised for an abstract quality (exchange value) imposed upon it by an external determining system unregulated by aesthetic principles.

Here is where Adorno and Benjamin depart. For Adorno, the Benjaminesque reduction of “aura” only paves the way for the reduction of art “to a common denominator” articulated by the mass industry. Whereas Benjamin accords the loss of aura to the gain in potential critical reflexivity, Adorno sees the reduction of aura as a symptom of over-familiarization with musical “formula” placed into repetitive orbit by the consumer industry. Indeed this over-familiarization of musical formulae can only serve as fodder to fetish, leading to the docile condition of regressive listening which causes listeners to “lose, along with freedom of choice and responsibility, the capacity for conscious perception of music, which was from time immemorial confined to a narrow group, but they stubbornly reject the possibility of such perception.” Reduced to mere otological “surface” or “appearance”, genuine music loses its “deeper” social significance.

Despite the theoretical disputes over “aura” and the nature of l’art pour l’art, it should be noted that Adorno’s main site of criticism was the systematic docility of bodies operated upon by capitalism and the consumer industry which, above all, signposted “the liquidation of the individual” in favour of the entertained, satisfied masses. These symptoms, though seemingly trivial, promoted a ‘stupid’ form of mass subjectivity that bent to the will of the consumer market which was controlled by a small group of individuals in power. In other words, the consumer market perfectly rehearsed the conditions of subordination to totalitarian dictatorship, while preserving the illusion of individuality and free-choice in a distracting sea of commodities. It was this fast-and-easy subservience to a dumb existence of fetish-like consumption that marked the regression of listening – also a metaphor which suggested that the masses were so busy engaging in a systematic trap prepared especially for them that they failed to apprehend the deeper, more insidious political ramifications of their activities. Benjamin shared similar concerns with Adorno; in fact, for all his apparent optimism about the new revolutionary potential of technology, Benjamin was aware that it was a precarious tightrope walk between communism and fascism. Fetishism, in particular, was a great concern on his part:

“It should not be forgotten, of course, that there can be no political advantage derived from this control of film until film has liberated itself from the fetters of capitalist exploitation. Film capital uses the revolutionary opportunities implied by this control for counterrevolutionary purposes. Not only does the cult of the movie star which it fosters preserve that magic of the personality which has long been no more than the putrid magic of its own commodity character, but its counterpart, the cult of the audience, reinforces the corruption by which fascism is seeking to supplant consciousness of the masses.” (My emphasis)

Whereas Benjamin posited a productive possibility for the communist revolutionary cause in the de-auraticized artistic object, Adorno centered his critique solely on the deleterious effects of the consumer market, disagreeing with Benjamin on principle of the de-auraticized object as effect of the industry, not the ambivalent manifestation of potentials. Where the spotlights of their critiques gaze (and inadvertently miss), the object of inquiry bears two shadows in opposing directions. In the first, Adorno indicates the value of retaining the l’art pour l’art dimension as a necessary counterpoint to the standardizing forces of consumerism. In the second, Benjamin’s casts a hopeful shadow toward the political possibilities by carefully harnessing the productivity of these new technologies, always aware, however, that the threat of a larger fascist shadow always looms at large beyond the tipping point.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Reproducing sound: Theorizing the Otological Gaze

By the early 1930s, sound reproduction technology had virtually revolutionized the entire praxis of musical production and listening. Thomas Edison’s groundbreaking though crude invention of the phonograph in 1877 had already become historicized in a series of further technological advancements that saw the advent of Emile Berliner’s gramophone, the invention of electrical recording, the introduction of the portable microphone and the proliferation of domestic radio sets. Needless to say, sound reproductive technologies had a staggering impact on existing musical communities, as well as the creation of new ones. Apart from mere practical possibilities, more importantly, these technologies manifested new ways of thinking and conceptualizing the immediate landscape of reality, providing surfaces for generating new subjectivities and epistemological structures for understanding and perceiving a world on the cusp of modernity.

For the first time in history, sound recording and reproductive technology through the gramophone and the portable record shattered the traditional social architecture of concert-life, driving a cleft between the performer and the receiver. As Michael Chanan notes, these new techniques of reproduction created a “distance, both physical and psychic” that created a new dimension of relations that privileged the dislocated sonic event over the located, embodied and visual concert setting. This is not to say that the loss of the visual dimension sat well with all consumers. Confronted with the uncanny experience of disembodied voices and invisible instrumentalists, a critic writing in 1923 noted that some listeners could not:

“… bear to hear a remarkably life-like human voice issuing from a box. They desire physical presence. For want of it, the gramophone distresses them.”

Case studies in the Unheimlich aside, other promoters of early sound-recording technology made ideological peace with these queer machines by attempting to normalize their presence in contemporary society. The “Edison Reality Tests” commonplace in gramophone shops as early as 1916 paired the listening experience with detailed manuals on how to compensate the loss of the visual through mental imaging, effectively teaching potential owners to acclimatize themselves to these altered aural experiences. The Victor Company, on the other hand, set about “domesticating” the gramophone by altering its physical design to appear more furniture-like than alien, at the same time advertising these commodities as “essential” home appliances. The eventual transition of the gramophone from the uncanny to “banality” was in no small part buoyed by changing attitudes in scientific discourse on the anatomical body which recast audition as a mechanical (albeit disembodied) function in the late 19th Century.

Despite the relative ease and speed at which gramophone culture was absorbed by society, the cleft that had been driven between performer and receiver was not so easily resolved. Theoretically, a double-sided mirror had been wedged between the traditional relation of the performer and his public – an aural, otological one. For the musician-performer, this otological mirror promised to faithfully reflect the sonic fruits of his labor through a flip of the switch, allowing him instant re-cognition of his work. On the other side, the manifestation of musical works in a “tangible” product and its portability into the sphere of the private allowed new consumers to produce reflections of themselves by reflecting personal musical tastes. In other words, the other side of the otological mirror provided consumers to produce their own musical subjectivities, expressed through the selection, purchase and collection of recordings.

Not all musicians took kindly to this otological mirror of reflection. While these new modes of reproduction offered musicians the opportunity to hear themselves as others heard them, some musicians expressed anxiety when their experience of their musical ideal-ego failed to overlap with the otological one. Saint-Saëns, reviewing a recording of himself in 1900, was appalled to discover “two grave mistakes” in execution and rhythm. Other reproductive technologies such as the automatic reproducing piano which reached its popularity peak in 1925 caused similar abjection to recording artists. Listening to a recording of himself in 1913, Max Pauer was shocked to find that he was “making mistakes that [he] would be the first to condemn in any one of [his] pupils”. At the same time, other performers found satisfaction in the returning gaze of the otological mirror. Pianist Eugen d’Albert was surprised at how “astonishing and deeply affecting” it was for him to sample his own playing, while Josef Lhévinne considered the Welte-Mignon reproducing piano rolls to have reproduced his “exact interpretation … with absolute accuracy as to tempo, touch and tone quality”.

It did not matter whether the otological mirror sought to reaffirm musical subjectivities or to deny them – what mattered more was the reception of these methods of sound reproduction as legitimate mediums of (re)presentation either as metonymic placeholders of performers, or faithful reproductions of them. It was as if the reflection of the musician’s gaze returned in the otological mirror was so with the scrutiny of the machine’s ear that a new compromise, indeed a new aesthetic standard of performance had to be fashioned in order to please these “listening machines” and the new dimension of listening practices they enabled. That is, rather than pleasing the audience in the traditional concert setting, recording artists had to please the listening economy of the machine and its auxiliary enabling of immediate, repeated listening – musicians now had to grapple with a technologically-driven otological gaze.

Contrary to other popular theoretical writings about the visual, disciplining gaze, the otological gaze does not denote the panoptical function of a “big Other”. Rather, the otological gaze indicates a new platform of self re-cognition that effectively, through the medium of the sound reproductive apparatus, allowed the musician to survey (and thus discipline) himself. Under his own gaze returned to him through recordings, the musician could subtly alter his own performance practices to suit the medium that sought to re-present him in public. Understandably, the permanent, repetitive nature of records demanded a whole new standard of perfection never before imagined through the concert scenario. Rachmaninoff admired the possibilities offered by the recording studio because it allowed him to strive for “artistic perfection” through repeated takes. Clifford Curzon expressed the reverse sentiment: “if you can’t risk a wrong note, your right notes are apt to mean less.” Indeed, under the oppression of the otological gaze, many musicians felt out of place, including Arthur Grumiaux and Sviatoslav Richter, who was “frightened” of microphones. Poulenc also ironically noted that both musicians and composers alike had been reduced to “victims of the treachery of the ‘wax’”, indicating the old process of recording directly onto wax cylinders.

Under the “treachery” of the otological gaze, performers found their minds and bodies further disciplined by a new restrictive economy imposed by the studio recording process and microphones. During the pre-electric microphone days of acoustic recording, performers often found themselves in cramped, uncomfortable working conditions, since the ‘listening reach’ of early recording devices were severely limited. The typical working studio is described by Mark Katz as “usually small, windowless, overheated [to keep the wax cylinders pliable], and empty, save for a large megaphone-shaped horn and small red light or perhaps a buzzer attached to one wall.” Singers had to vacillate between spots marked in chalk on the ground to avoid overloading the capacity of the recording instrument while orchestras (if ever rarely recorded) were squashed together in awkward positions to achieve the best sound balance dictated by the economy of recording technology. While conducting a recording of his composition The Planets with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1923, Gustav Holst recalled how the cramped conditions of recording caused horn virtuoso Aubrey Brain to break down thirteen times “as a result of the almost unbearable physical discomfort”.

Rather than being masters of their own surveillance, the recording studio phenomenon also gave rise to two new “masters” which musicians were responsible to under the otological gaze – the recording engineer and the record producer. Under the studio setting, recording became what Timothy Day calls a “cooperative” effort, which further dispersed the autonomy of the performing musician. Recording engineers were masters of a new sonic “tacit knowledge” of which performers were assumed to be deprived of, gatekeepers of a discursive (and epistemological) world to which musicians had little or no control over. Producers such as Fred Gaisberg and Walter Legge were the undisputed kings of the recording studio, mediating between the interests of recording engineers and the interests of the artists. By 1909, HMV’s world-famous trademark of a dog gazing into a gramophone with the caption “His Master’s Voice” couched a hidden irony – it was, in fact, the musician who was the domesticated dog, disciplined and house-trained by several studio “masters” to perform new tricks under circumstances demanded by the otological gaze.

Before the introduction of LP (long playing) technology in 1948, the material characteristics of 78rpm Shellac discs imposed a physical and temporal restriction on musical reproduction. As Mark Katz points out, 78rpm discs were limited to barely “four and one-half minutes of music continuously” which had immense bearings on the presentation of music on these discs. The short recording time allowed by these discs encouraged recording industries to favor musical works of shorter time spans, while simultaneously discouraging the recording of works of larger temporal girths. As a result, vocal works (which best suited the recording bandwidths of early recording technology) were almost unanimously favored over symphonies, sharing a large slice of the recording pie along with other short piano or violin solos. Composers who wanted their longer works recorded often found their feathers ruffled by the propositions of the producers.

Ferruccio Busoni, for example, who loathed the recording process, complained in 1919 that “They [the producers] wanted the Faust waltz [which lasts a good ten minutes] but it was only to take four minutes!” Fitting the “work” uninterrupted on one side of the disc meant “quickly cutting, patching, and improvising”, or relent to awkward discontinuities in the work which Adorno vehemently called “atomized listening”. Performers who chose the former had to exact painful cuts on their recorded repertory, sometimes excising whole chunks of bars in service of the machine’s limitations. Sir Henry Wood’s 1922 recording of Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony dispensed with nearly half the music, while Elgar trimmed his Cockaigne overture to a third of its original length. Other performers who opted for the latter attempted to remedy the musical breaks as best they could. Stokowski inserted an unwritten ritardando before each disc break in order to “finish each record off gracefully”, in contrast to Ormandy, who simply played as if no cut-off was approaching. Ultimately, the temporal limitations of 78rpm recording complicated issues of musical autonomy, authorship and ontology. Could Sir Henry Wood’s truncated ‘Eroica’ still be considered an authentic Beethoven “product”? If Elgar reworked an original symphony under the otological gaze, was it a legitimate product of musical creativity, or a lesser by-product of technological limitation? Could “atomized listening”, divorced from its temporal position in a flow of a larger work still hold phenomenological legitimacy?

Despite these restrictions, French theorist Michel Foucault reminds us that any disciplinary form of restriction is ultimately a productive endeavor, potentially leading to new products of social inhabitation and acculturation. Performing under the otological gaze led performers to internalize new “changes in interpretation and performance styles”. As the soprano soloist Martina Arroyo recollected, singers like herself made small unconscious adjustments of their techniques under the otological gaze of the microphone, reducing the violence of her rolled R’s when recording. Similarly, a reduced ‘intimate’ style of working with close microphones literally spawned the “soft crooning” technique that was to characterize the singing qualities of “crooners” such as Rudy Vallee, Bing Crosby, Perry Como and Frank Sinatra. More than ever, the repeatable nature of sound reproductive technologies prompted a shift in the conceptualization of musical ownership and authorship. Since similar musical works were being circulated in the economy of records, performer identity and authorship became linked to interpretative styles (and peculiarities) rather than mere virtuosity. As Katz warns:

“With sufficient repetition, listeners may normalize interpretive features of a performance or even mistakes, regarding themselves as integral not only to the performance but to the music. In other words, listeners may come to think of an interpretation as the work itself.”

Coupled with a growing music industry hinged upon the proliferation of records, success became matched with marketability rather than actual musical-ability. Michael Walter, for example, notes with amusement how Marlene Dietrich “proved that her special style was to sing deficiently” although “these defects added up to a special, artless, in a word authentic style”. Dietrich’s popularity, of course, was co-driven by the ubiquity of radio sets flooding domestic life in the 1920s, constructing new social platforms for listening outside the guarded sanctity of the concert hall. In other words, the production of music entered a new domain of power-relations, which were to be determined by the tastes (or distastes) not of traditional music-patrons, but a growing sphere of the ‘masses’ that comprised of a new class of listening communities.

Prospects for musicians under the order of the otological gaze were not always grim. On the contrary, the recording industry was almost solely responsible for catalyzing the popularity of Jazz in the 1920s. The popularity of reproducing pianos in 1919 USA abetted the growing popularity of the “ragtime” genre, allowing amateur pianists to hear more difficult works played out in the comfort of their own homes, while an all-white group of five parading under the title “the Original Dixieland Jass Band” secured their nation-wide popularity through record sales, making history as the first jazz-inspired band to sell 1 million records in 1917. By 1923, jazz had reached such heights of demand that the first recordings of Morton, Bessie Smith, Oliver Bechet and others quickly appeared in shops.
Apart from Jazz, sound recordings allowed composers to broaden their musical horizons by studying the music of other cultures. Alton Adams, for example, received his earliest musical inspirations by listening to 78rpm recordings of John Philip Sousa on Virgin Island, while Darius Milhaud, writing in 1924, opined:

“Thanks to the phonograph, I will be able to play the discs of black music – recorded and published by blacks- that I bought back from the United States. It is truly very precious to be able to study the folklore of the world thanks to this machine.”

The American composer Colin McPhee first took interest in Balinese culture when he received recordings of Balinese Gamelan music in 1929, and interest that would propel him to spend an extended residency in Bali from 1931 which profoundly affected his compositional style. On the other side of the globe, China’s first radio station “Radio Shanghai” began broadcasting in 1923, flooding listeners with Chinese, Japanese and “much Western dance music”. Such a proliferation of music on a global level is but an indication of the power of sound reproductive technologies in effecting transcultural modes of listening and appreciation. By the 1930s, Arnold Copland admitted that “an entirely new public for music had grown up around the radio and the phonograph”, testifying to the depth at which these initial technologies had conquered – indeed imperialized – everyday life.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Disability, Un-ability and Hyperability

The last decade of musicology has produced a slew of new investigations into the intersections between music and the body. From gender studies to queer musicology, Joseph Straus has not unrecently embarked on a primer research between bodily disability and composition. These inquiries, however, seem to circulate within the orbit of conventional logical orbits; the droning repetition of questions of authorship, authenticity, and referentiality continue to plague music studies, especially investigations into so-called "absolute" music which, amongst others, Susan McClary has continually attempted to con-text-ualize. Yet another angle that has remained scarce in musicological study (though not without certain notable exceptions) seek to theorize the production of the body through performance. Specifically, the production of levels in Ability in musical performance as well as composition articulate a hierarchy of values that continue to challenge our ideas of music, instrumentality, performance, and the ontology of the work-in-itself. The production of the able music body is not without its complications, although history has confirmed that conceptions of the body remain in circulation in the economy of music - a quick survey of examples would include the castrati phenomenon, virtuosity in instrumentism, disability, amatuerism and musical reception.

Ravel's piano concerto for the Left Hand, for example, continue to set debates about ability and disability into motion. Is not this foregrounded disability case for the exercise of compromised hyperability - a new spectre of ability invoked to counter the disable body? And yet an entire field of amateur instrumentism articulates boundaries of subscription and exclusion, carefully intersecting with industries, medias and economics. On the other hand, Alvin Lucier's "I am sitting in a room" tackles another field of disability, precisely by using the discursive realm of "music" (thereby also challenging its conceptual givens) to overcome physical "natural" disability. Specifically, "I am sitting in a room" effaces the Barthesian "grain" of disability within the voice (his stutter) by channelling it into the "playing" of spatial sonorities. Disability, it seems, is performed into ability - composerly (and aesthetic) ability that, by its repeatability, provides the blueprint for not only erasing Lucier's disability, but his locatedness in the produced musical and sonorous text, relegating it into the sphere of conceptual authorship rather than sonic authorship.