From edition

Ian Reyes, Music Between Performance and Plasticit

Do You Believe in Magic?
The cultural study of popular music is challenged to address more than the continuities or variances that distinguish it as a type of music it must also account for the technologies enabling its popularity. Theories of popular music today ought to be responsible to a culture of recording in which the aesthetic differentiation between a recording and that which a recording is of is inappropriate. Given the ubiquity of recordings in popular culture and their primacy in our experience of popular music, it seems fair to say that we ought to give theoretical attention to recording as an art and not merely as a substitute, transmitter, or container for something else.   
To begin, the idea that recording is something more than mere engineering aimed at faithfully reproducing sound may need justification as the history of sound recording is commonly cast in terms of increasingly transparent mediation. The greater the fidelity-as the ideology goes-the more `live’ the recording, or the more the recording sounds like the instruments it supposedly stands in for. The anachronistic perception of the studio as a passive and-ideally-transparent transmitter pervades popular music. The transmission-theory of the recording arts has difficulty coming to terms with studio work as anything other than a necessary evil for a commodity culture. Even though sound engineers have long understood the creative potential of recording technologies, their work has mostly been cast as something beside the point of the real artistic endeavor (cf. Kealy, Gracyk). So-called `studio magic’ seems more about mass production than music production, the proper site of which is somehow neither the recording studio nor the sounds produced there. The studio and its magic are believed to offer shortcuts to musical ends that may somehow be realized just as well elsewhere, but where would that be? To where do studio shortcuts lead? To answer, let’s go by way of a more well-known question: “Is it live or is it Memorex?”

Is It or isn’t It?
Possibly the most well-known slogan for blank media ever, what’s most interesting about Memorex’s rhetorical question is that it isn’t directed at studio engineers. In other words, they aren’t promoting a product intended to record anything live. Memorex’s market is a general audience that duplicates commercial recordings at home. Suggesting the possibility of copying the liveness already captured on recordings is a bold pronouncement of the end of the age of fidelity.   Regardless, as far as the Memorex-minded are concerned, the only creativity involved in recording would be in concealing the artifice and preserving the illusion of a human performance. This idea of fidelity to the sound of a live performance-which is presumably a performance of a pre-formed idea-undoubtedly informs the history of recording and its technologies
Edward R. Kealy’s essay “From Craft to Art: The Case of the Sound Mixer” recounts the changing attitudes of and toward recording engineers and recorded music. Pointing to the diffusion of second-hand recording equipment in the 1950’s and the subsequent boom of independent recording studios, Kealy links the inception of an aesthetic consciousness of recording to a decline in the authority of expert union engineers schooled in the tradition of `concert hall realism’. We might also note that this new awareness of the creative potential inherent in recording technologies not only rose from the amateur appropriation of supposedly inferior technologies, but also that the supposed superiority of the new technologies was in their greater fidelity-i.e., their greater capacity for realism but not their potential as expressive instruments in their own right.
Of course, the ideology of fidelity that asks us to listen through rather than to is not entirely determined by the technology itself. As one might expect, it’s fueled largely if not primarily by commercial aims. Before learning that it was more profitable to standardize the machinery and focus on promoting artists, the main appeal from record companies was the technology itself and only its inventors were the stars. Still even within a commercial logic, there’s nothing to prevent record producers from being promoted as artists and indeed this has been happening with increasing frequency. As distinctions between stage and studio are reduced to simple changes of venue, it’s become more widely expected that technical production skills ought to be as central as performance skills for popular musicians (cf., Campbell, Kealy, Theberge, Frith, Gracyk).
Yet even the self-styled techno-cognoscenti of Wired magazine professed amazement in 2002 with the idea that computers may be thought of as musical instruments. “Who’s in control,” asks a headline from their special music issue, “the machine or the musician?” (96) While the article is very clear on the answer-the same old musician is still in control, only the instruments are new-it arrives at a murky conclusion: “As programmers further develop the computer for musical purposes, the distinction between the instrument and the music the instrument makes begins to break down” (99). Presumably, within the context of the article, the author means that nobody needs to play anything for there to be music. Of course, this has long been true for audiences who only need to press ‘play’ to hear music-it’s the basic appeal of phonography-but the author in question is worried about the making of the music, its source and substance. In this regard, the argument seems to be that it’s not only traditional but also necessary for music to come more by hand than ear.
Wired writers are hardly alone here. Automation rarely rests easy with us. One need not be a Luddite to feel some anxiety in witnessing this kind of displacement. As the ontological valence of recording grows in popular music the art becomes far more plastic, which is not to say that there is no more play involved, only that it is of a different order: not the play of players, but the play of ears. Theorizing this type of work, however, entails a substantial re-orientation on our part. Nonetheless, we’d also do well to attend to what remains constant in our experience of and thinking about music, and we find a good example of a constant in the extant argument regarding computer-music. To insist there is and ought to be a difference between an instrument and the music it makes and, further, that this difference is rooted in musicians exhibits an underlying disposition that supposes a musical idea which for one reason or another can never be satisfactorily manifest in itself. If the recording studio does in fact offer shortcuts, it’s surely to such an idea. Lest I wander too far from the central topic, however, let’s re-focus our attention on the audience’s stake in the recording arts.

Between the Ears of Tweakers and Teen Idolators: Audiophilia and Interpassivity
Marc Perlman theorizes recording through studying the subculture of audiophiles. His examination of these ‘tweakers’-who are named for their propensity to modify, or ‘tweak’, their playback equipment-is a paradigmatic case of the aporia confronting post-fidelity listeners. Like myself, Perlman wants to give closer consideration to the role of technology in the culture of popular music audiences. However, as he finds, even the audiophile set isn’t quite ready to wholeheartedly embrace this aspect of their lives. “[M]any audiophiles are wary of defining themselves entirely in terms of mechanical and electronic devices. They publicly present themselves as people who truly care about music, who take it much more seriously than the average person” (Perlman 4). Audiophiles tweak not for their love of machines, but for their love of music.
In some way, this kind of audiophilic activity is part of the long history of acoustics. It wouldn’t be difficult to connect tweakers to those who refined concert hall architecture, who pursued and-perhaps unwittingly-invented the ideal, albeit
assisted, encounter with sound. Regardless, the kind of audiophilia Perlman describes is more proper to the age of recording. Tweaking was once somewhat of a necessity. With early mechanical devices, there was a good deal of set-up and maintenance required. In addition to these drawbacks of mechanical technology, however, is the bonus that it’s relatively open to us. Literally getting into the machine to work with it, fix it, or improve it is entirely possible-it even seems inviting. Perlman sees tweaking as “an act of devotion to sound. The personal effort involved makes tweaking a way of investing the equipment with one’s self” (Perlman 8). The trouble for audiophiles, then, came with the improvement of sound technologies.
As they became more reliable, Perlman observes, playback machines became more closed-off from users, more difficult to invest with subjectivity through interaction. With the advent of CD’s, audiophile tweaks became more mystical than technological-e.g., freezing CD’s before playing them or using foil to counteract the effects of gravity-and only rarely if ever do they produce any measurable differences in sound quality. Not surprisingly, scientific details make no difference to the practitioners of these techniques who insist that hearing reveals mysteries beyond the reaches of scientific observation or explanation (Perlman 11-12). Without a doubt, there is a definite material basis for many audiophilic practices. Yet this makes it all the more striking that even those with the means and the inclination to attend to recordings in their specificity still encounter difficulty hearing what they would like and can find themselves in quasi-spiritual relationships with their machinery. Of course, audiophilia is not the norm. It’s obviously an extreme. Nevertheless, as extremes can be instructive and time is short, allow me to sketch another extreme, one which may be more native to the age of recording.
As I’ve said, what listeners encounter in recordings is not exactly music as played but it’s certainly music as heard. Since the transparency, or fidelity, of a recording is an effect and not a fact, there is still a good deal of interpretive play. Even in cases where traditional musicians are recorded playing regular instruments as an ensemble-which still actually happens sometimes-there is considerable critical engineering that determines what appears to us as a complete work on record. The job of record producers is not just to have performances engineered, but also to hear them on behalf of an audience to be. If there is a musical idea being realized, it is at least through if not of the producer’s ear. Yet if recorded music is in some way already listened-to, it stands to reason that there’s not much listening an audience needs to concern itself with. With audiophiles positioned on one extreme, that of maximum interactivity, we can begin to notice another extreme, that of maximum interpassivity.
Robert Pfaller has offered his theory of interpassivity as a corrective to the prevailing values of interactivity in art. Pfaller finds the ‘philosophy of interactivity’ to be deficient in its assumptions about aesthetic enjoyment. Participation is not a prerequisite for pleasure. That a production need not strive for depth of engagement in order to involve us is, as Pfaller readily acknowledges, one of the great lessons taught to us by television. Picking up on Slavoj Zizek’s analysis of ‘canned’ laughter, Pfaller makes the case that interpassive audiences delegate their enjoyment to a medium that works as an agent of pleasure on their behalf.
If we consider, first, that there are significant political-economic restrictions affecting our overall access to popular music, second, that the history of playback equipment is marked by a trend towards increased standardization, and, third, that record producers are in effect professional listeners who make critical decisions about what one hears in music, it’s not difficult to sense the limitations of theories requiring the possibility of participation. To be sure, Pfaller doesn’t try to rend enjoyment from participation. The argument is not that some people enjoy doing nothing, it’s that interpassive audiences prefer to avoid responsibility for their enjoyment entirely. Here, one may begin to understand how the art of record production is such that very few need listen at all. While this, too, is an extreme, it may be just the right element in forming a more holistic theory of popular music, able to account for what makes it possible to have a culture of popular music in which the social function of idolatry is tantamount to having listened to and understood the music.      
The work of recording makes music an art of as well as for the ear. Ears today are free to realize desire without impediment. What I’ve tried to sketch for you here, however, is a classic scenario in which freedom and desire don’t mix well. The ear is now burdened by responsibility like never before. In responding to this, there are various means of constructing aesthetic lacunae that accommodate our enjoyment more comfortably than the explicitness of recordings. Whether the mysticism of tweakers or interpassive tuning-out, the state of the art of recording calls for us to investigate the places where boundaries of aesthetic experience are changing. In accommodating ourselves to a post-fidelity culture, we discover such boundaries as may be posited rhetorically (within an ideology of fidelity), produced technologically (through interaction with professional and consumer electronics), as well as promoted culturally (thanks to interpassive qualities inherent in the recording arts).

Ian Reyes
Department of Communication and Rhetoric
University of Pittsburgh

This entry was posted in Miscellaneous and edition . Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
  • Pages

  • Categories

  • Issues