When is a drone not a drone?

by Dave Maier

In the Third Essay of On the Genealogy of Morality, Nietzsche levels a powerful attack on the modern Platonistic conception of mind and nature, urging us to reject such “contradictory concepts” as “knowledge in itself,” or the idea of “an eye turned in no particular direction, in which the active and interpreting forces, through which alone seeing becomes seeing something, are supposed to be lacking.” More recently, Donald Davidson’s attack on the dualism of conceptual scheme and empirical content, and thus of belief and meaning, requires us to see inquiry into how things are as essentially interpretative.

This idea can seem to conflict with our natural conception of the world as objective, fundamentally independent of what we say or think. In a similar context, Wittgenstein has his imaginary interlocutor challenge him (Philosophical Investigations §241): “So you are saying that human agreement decides what is true or false?” The implication is clear: if your position requires that what we say makes things true, rather than simply mirrors it, then that is an unacceptably irrealist result; how the world is cannot depend on what we say about it.

The suspicion can also arise – especially when the relevant reflections about language come from those steeped in literary theory – that “interpretivists” have mistakenly extrapolated from what may very well be true in the specific case of artistic interpretation and its objects to any discourse about the world at all. Similarly, defenders of the traditional view of objectivity such as John Searle (following John Austin here) have suggested that it is the specific cases of “illocutionary acts” such as “I hereby pronounce you man and wife,” which do indeed cause their objects to be thus truly described, that have unwittingly led to the interpretivist heresy. Read more »

Reverberance, Reverence, Deliverance: Echoing the Otherworld

by Gautam Pemmaraju

Suave locus voci resonat conclusus

(How sweetly the enclosed space responds to the voice)

—Horace, Satires I, iv, 76 (in Doyle, P, Echo and Reverb:

Fabricating Space in Popular Music Recording, 1900 – 1960; 2005)

The whispering gallery that runs along the inner periphery of the dome of Gol Gumbaz, the mausoleum of the medieval Bijapur sultan Muhammad Adil Shah (1626 – 56 CE) is an acoustic marvel. Multiple echoes of up to ten in number can be heard in the dome on a single clap. And a reasonably soft whisper can be heard across a distance of a hundred and thirty feet. The tourists visiting the place are mostly prone to whoop, shout, and clap with great enthusiasm, overwhelming the dome with dense sonic information. At quiet times though one can savour its rich, amplified reverberance—the timbre, colour and tone of the spoken word assumes an elevated quality, as if it were imbued by the sheen of something beyond earthly artifice.

Such sonic modulations appear to us to be of a higher order, sanctified by primordial forces. And in our own mimetic appropriations, of sermons and speeches, chants and songs, drones and dirges, we seek to texturize our words with an otherworldly aura. The use of delay effects in sound recording allows us then to ritualistically edify our anxieties and inadequacies and transpose them into reverberant solemnity.

The prosaic use of delay effects in recorded sound—echo and reverberation—has its place in modern times, but the phenomenon has for long resided in the realm of mystical experience. The Greco-Roman mythical character Echo, a nymph condemned to repeat all that she hears, is a tragic figure by all accounts. Rebuffed by Narcissus, the heartbroken Oread hides herself in woods, caves and mountain cliffs. She withers away there in loneliness, her flesh wasting away and bones turning into stone till all that is left is her voice. In this reduced, etheric spectral state, all she can do is to reply to anyone who calls out to her.

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Joanna Demers, “Listening Through The Noise”

by Dave Maier

Joanna Demers – Listening Through the Noise: The Aesthetics of Experimental Electronic Music (Oxford University Press, 2010)

DemersWhen I tried, in 1981, to interest my undergraduate music professors in progressive electronic music, they didn't get it: anything with notes was “harmonically simple” (“it hess to do with analeetical levelss”, explained one prof), and anything without notes left them completely at sea. Apparently “musicology” meant the theory, not of music generally, but of Western classical music in particular. For anything else you want “ethnomusicology”, which turned out to be basically a subset of anthropology, dominated by scrupulously objective descriptions of Javanese gamelan, Ghanaian drumming, and so on (worthy music all, but not what I was talking about).

I guess that's not too surprising. If you are trained from the age of five to think about music solely in terms of melody and harmony, or at least pitch and duration, then you should be equally flummoxed both by music which lacks these things entirely, and – perhaps even more – by that which subordinates them to other things, like sound texture and spatial location. So I have not been expecting much analytic help from musicological quarters. However, I am pleased to report that Joanna Demers's recent book displays an amazing degree of familiarity – for an academic musicologist at any rate – with the full range of contemporary electronic music and sound art.

Listening Through the Noise is not a work of criticism, but of aesthetic theory, and the discussion is a bit abstract at times, perhaps in order to avoid drowning the reader in technical detail. However, as appropriate to the subject as this abstraction is, Demers renders her subject approachable through the analysis of a wide-ranging array of examples, and her writing is clear and accessible. This is partly because she is laying the groundwork for future elaboration rather than making a definitive statement, but as a level-headed introduction to this difficult topic, this book is hard to beat.

Yet I think we're still talking about baby steps. Impressed as I was to see approving references in an academic book to the likes of Celer, Basic Channel, and Tetsu Inoue, a quick look at the discography and index reveals huge, gaping holes. Some are excused by the focus on aesthetic theory rather than history or criticism, but to see what progress has actually been made here, we need to take a closer look.

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A spacemusic primer (plus bonus ambience)

by Dave Maier

PhaedraIn my previous posts on the subject, I have assumed, or anyway not worried about, a basic knowledge of what spacemusic is, and simply presented sets of classic or recent vintage. But that was negligent of me, as for most people this material remains an entirely closed book. Maybe they've seen a movie (Risky Business, or Sorcerer) with music by Tangerine Dream – which band does turn up in the Rolling Stone Record Guide (described there in a five-line review of two mid-70s LPs as “kings of the synthesizer, German-style”, with all that that implies to rock 'n' rollers) – but they'll draw a blank on “Berlin-school spacemusic” in general. Today we rectify that omission, so if you skipped the other installments you may want to check this one out. We begin at the beginning, long before our story actually begins….

From the perspective of the new millenium, the origins of electronic music are obscured by the mists of a bygone era. Indeed, the term seems no longer to refer to anything worth picking out as a distinct type of thing, as many rather different types of music-making nowadays are dependent in some sense on electricity. We still use the word, but usually to mark an emphasis on electronic means in some one music relative to another: we can refer to techno as “electronic” relative to other types of dance music, without denying the use of electricity in making, say, funk. If we want to make an absolute distinction, we often speak of “acoustic” music rather than its opposite (although here too a relative use is available).

Early electronic musiciansEven in the dawn of time, however (= the 1950s or so), there was an important disctinction to be made. “Electronic music” was made with electronically generated sound, e.g. with voltage-controlled oscillators and amplifiers. But another important use of electricity, one which had been around for many years without (significantly, in our context anyway) affecting musical composition or performance, was the electronic capturing of sound, or recording. This was the basis for the other main approach for making music electronically in the early days: rather than generating sounds electronically, musique concrète pioneers like Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry composed by manipulating recordings of previously existing, often non-musical, sound.

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