Home Arts The art of reproduction in the age of mechanical music

The art of reproduction in the age of mechanical music

by Archives April 2, 2003

Technology has pervaded art, and it has saturated music with techniques in the fabrication of sound. That may seem like a dire statement, but it is not.

Since the development of the sound recording industries in the first half of the 20th century, musicians have come to rely increasingly on electronic machinery in their creations. Turntables, synthesizers, samplers, personal and portable computers – these are the musical instruments of our age.

The spectrum of sound that man and machine have realized in their embrace of electronic reproduction has erased our previous conceptions of the properties of music. Technology has enabled creation without the aid of a single conventional musical instrument, in that the physics of strummed strings has been superceded by digital manipulation of every link in the sonic chain that conjoin hand and ear. Music now has at its disposal an uncharted palette of sound with which to compose. The already porous boundaries that separate music from noise are being continually challenged, such that even our understanding of what a musical instrument is must be reconsidered.

Electronic music is the creation of sound by unconventional means. Despite their revolt against convention, though, these methods of reproduction have become central to the construction of all contemporary music. Yet the integrity of electronic music still comes into question. Because of its apparent deficiency in authenticity, a concept developed by Walter Benjamin in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” The electronic music will continue to be criticized for its apparent alienation of the audience from art, and art from the artist, because essential musical elements, like instrumentation, are obscured. As Benjamin wrote in his essay, “The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from being imbedded in the fabric of tradition.” Authenticity, then, is an idea which seems completely foreign to electronic art.

However, art is a cultural reflection of the society to which it refers, so it is even expected that new machines be so pivotal to the creation of music amidst our climate of advancement. Electronic music has made possible new and unknown realms of listening, feeling and thinking. Its integrity may then be only cleverly disguised.

Authenticity is a quality of art that did not exist until art itself became reproducible. “The authenticity of a thing,” Benjamin describes, “is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginnings ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced.” The existence of an original, and the possibility of innumerable copies of it threatens to extract the most elemental qualities of an artwork. Benjamin contests that the mechanical reproduction alienates the essential qualities of aura – the uniqueness of art – and authenticity that belong to the one rendering of creativity that is unique in time and space – the original.

Benjamin’s essay appeared in 1935, well before electronic reproduction was recognized as a popularly viable means of making music. Of course, the idea of it was soon in development with the experiments of soothsayers John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen – visionaries in musique concrete. The new media technologies of their time – such as Edison’s phonograph, the gramophone and advancements in film and photography – were thought to destroy the pure qualities that were inherent to art by enabling reproduction of it. Yet, certain minds foresaw the worth of reproducibility, illustrated by this quote from John Cage:

“I believe that the use of noise to make music will continue and increase until we reach a music produced through the aid of electrical instruments which we will make available for musical purposes any and all sounds that can be heard.”

Ruining an art form?

The newfound reproducibility of art not only subjected the sacred original to the erosion of reproduction, but also to commodification. The culture of art had become something which could be captured, duplicated, bought, sold and transmitted. “To pry an object from its shell,” Benjamin wrote, “to destroy its aura, is the mark of a perception whose sense of the universal equality of things has increased to such a degree that it extracts it even from a unique object by means of reproduction.” However, Benjamin does not overtly denounce the loss of authenticity. Instead, he, like Cage, anticipated the potential for new art through reproduction:

“We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art.”

Despite the limitless potential some foresaw, electronic music encountered steadfast objection in both academic and popular culture. What is electronic music if it carries the indelible mark of the machine? Well, it’s not art. And if there are only traces of human presence in it? Laptop computers and the violin are now used as means towards the same end; both are now feasible musical instruments. The pianist is now of no more (maybe less) importance than the turntablist. Really? The emphasis in the production of music has become creation designed strictly for reproducibility.

Although mechanically conceived music can be admired for its imaginative and resourceful musical arrangement, an audience usually cannot identify with the physical creation of it. To Benjamin, even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space. The relative absence of electronic music then begs the question: where is its place of original creation? For instance, it is a puzzling experience to attend an electronic event today; to observe an artist click his mouse from behind a laptop and not be able to comprehend how, to what extent they are affecting sounds. It is as such that music, heretofore solely the product of man’s observable manipulation of a conventional instrument, chose to dive into the realm of the machine. If by authenticity Benjamin refers to the irreproducible quality of original acoustic music, then electronic music is starving of it.

A different sort of sound

However, electronic music is not conventional music, and has succeeded as art for that very reason. Electronic music surpasses the music from which it borrows in authenticity specifically because of the new context in which it is created. Electronic music capably borrows from the whole history of sound. Our sonic capabilities have exploded in scope, such that sound genesis now defines its own boundaries. The finiteness of man’s physical ability is simply skipped over by electronics. The mechanical limitations of certain conventional instruments have been defeated too, in that the previously impermeable space between semitones can now be explored. With digitization, the imagination is left unimpeded by the disjuncture between mind, body and tool. Electronics have created new ways of listening, thinking, feeling and playing because of the mechanization of sound. The music of this era is not only a departure from Walter Benjamin’s theories; it recreates the essence of his ideas.

Man’s experimentation with reproduction techniques has led to the creation of a highly original sound, and this is the primary source of its authenticity. Technology has dropped directly into our laps musical possibility that was otherwise only audible to the imagination, and has conceived new trends in music which have only begun to mature. As turntablist-academic Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky) epitomizes in his essay Dark Carnival: “Sampling to me is like sending a fax to yourself from the sonic debris of a possible future; the cultural permutations of tomorrow, heard today, beyond the corporeal limits of the imagination.”

Then again, artists need not look beyond their immediate environment for inspiration, as music has now grown to encompass organic sound. That is, electronic artists have begun to explore the fusion of electronic and natural sound. Made possible by the digital processes that we are now enabled, common sounds like those found within the walls of one’s apartment, for instance, can be understood in a new light; the steady duple meter of a leaky faucet, polyrhythmic dripping in the drain, the broken beat of soap bubbles popping. As well, artists such as the Books effectively employ acoustic instruments in a completely digital setting. So as the mass movement toward developing all things electronic snowballs, there is also a concurrent recourse to the acoustic and organic roots of music.

For instance, certain artists at MUTEK 2002 in Montreal, such as Janek Schaefer and Radio Boy, displayed how electronic music can be an observable performance art: Schaefer’s live manipulation of a homemade dual-arm turntable was engaging, and Radio Boy’s anti-capitalist set using real-time arrangement of sounds culled from McDonald’s wrappers to the tearing of a Gap sweater entranced a crowd of a thousand. The creative use of organic sound has also influenced the mainstream to an extent not yet realized by its listeners. Led by the example avant-gardists Matmos (whose own glitch-fests reference the sounds of plastic surgery), Bjork now uses home recordings of Rice Crispies and Icelandic snow beneath her feet to create her widely acclaimed pop soundscapes.

Experimentation is key

Apparently, nothing is truly beyond the corporeal limits of the imagination, especially as is illustrated by found sound experimentation. Whereas author Thomas Janzen’s statement – “People and machines neither hear nor make the same noise” – might seem true, perhaps the disjuncture therein is narrowing. Just as electronic music travels away from its eventual beginnings, so does it return.

The mechanical means to create make music so accessible that the previously clear distinction between the artist and the audience is shifted. What we see now is the democratization of music. As Edison had boasted upon the invention of his phonograph, one who has no knowledge of musical theory is now able to create music. Experimentation is significantly closer to an otherwise musically inept audience because of the relative ease and availability of the proper ware. Music truly has become a shared property of the masses in that anyone who so desires can participate in its creation.

As electronic music continues to influence our understanding of sound and culture, it is a peerless thought to wonder where it might lead to. Electronic music is a meaningful art form precisely because it presents all the emotive qualities of a society that is caught up in incessant forward transition. It is industrialized, mechanized, digitized and ephemeral. It is modified, commodified, plundered and original.

Modern artists have realized the most lucid representation of contemporary society conceivable, and it is as such that electronic music is an art form that wallows eye-high in authenticity.

Music has suffered deeply from the capitalist intentions that have plucked it from its divinity. But, electronic music is not so much an industry as it is a forum for innovation. It is a stream that meanders through the fabled lost land of pure artistic freedom – it’s true, it does still exist! Imagination has finally returned to the heart of the art of music. Electronic music is about a recollection of the past and a vision of this planet’s future. . . to DJ Spooky: The world as a vast skipping record.

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