- Narratives of progress
and innovation have dominated the story of music and technology throughout
the twentieth century. The pursuit of ever-greater expressivity, control,
responsiveness, clarity, and power, can be charted in instrument design,
the whole story of hi-fidelity audio equipment, and the digital revolutions
that are transforming musical production, distribution, and reception.1
Referring to the visual arts, Leo Marx has identified a rhetoric of
the "technological sublime," in which images of technology
are invested with "the capacity to evoke emotionsawe, wonder,
mystery, fearformerly reserved for images of boundless nature
or for representing a response to divinity" (qtd. in Jones, 631).
In music as well, technology has been both used and represented as the
embodiment of the modern, of authority, and of the future. One need
only think of the celebrations of the railroad, the factory, speed and
motion in works by the Italian and Russian Futurists, the role of the
machine in the Weimar era Zeitoper, and Boulezs high-tech
utopias of modern music at IRCAM.
- The corollary to
notions of technological progress is a rejection of what is out of date,
a sense of repellence of the outmoded. Writing in 1930 in Reaktion
und Fortschritt Theodor Adorno described surrealistic montage techniques
as depending on the "scandal produced when the dead
suddenly spring up among the living" (qtd. in Paddison 90-91).
Adorno was describing the use of tonal materials after the supposed
breakdown of tonality, but his words hold just as true for dead technologies.2
Indeed, few things in our culture are as vilified and detested as an
obsolete machine: the skeletons in our closets are most likely old computers
and printers. Music technology has been particularly marked by this
dynamic. A note on the record jacket of Michael Oldfields 1973
recording Tubular Bells, makes the following claim: "In
Glorius Stereophonic sound. Can also be played on mono-equipment at
a pinch." This tolerance disappears, however, in another note at
the bottom of the jacket. "This stereo record cannot be played
on old tin boxes no matter what they are fitted with. If you are in
possession of such equipment please hand it in to the nearest police
- One of the clearest
signs of how deeply ingrained these narratives of progress and obsolescence
have become is the strength of the counter-reaction that has emerged
in the last few years. A broad range of contemporary music now draws
on the sounds of old recordings, lo-fidelity sound equipment, vintage
electric and electronic instruments, and other ostensibly outmoded technologies.
The linkage to old machines and obsolete technologies ranges from groups
like the Lo-fidelity Allstars, Mono, or Stereolab for whom it is a defining
featureinscribed even in their names, to bands like REM that have
used old sounds as an isolated special expressive effect on a few songs
(see, for example, the song "Hope" from Up ).
An entire "authentic instrument" subculture has sprung up
around instruments like the Mellotron and old synthesizers, with the
requisite collectors, museums, restoration experts, and recorded anthologies.
This is, of course, just one manifestation of broader cultural trends,
a sounding of which might be taken in an article like, "Technologys
Golden Oldies," in the May 1999 Yahoo, which lists internet
sites such as "8-Track Heaven," "The Obsolete Computer
Museum," and "The Dead Media Project."3
- In a short essay
entitled "The Revenge of the Intuitive," from Wired
magazine, the producer and composer Brian Eno writes:
Since so much of our experience
is mediated in some way or another, we have deep sensitivities to
the signatures of different media. Artists play with these sensitivities,
digesting the new and shifting the old. In the end the characteristic
forms of a tools or a mediums distortion, of its weakness
and limitations, become sources of emotional meaning and intimacy.
("Revenge of the Intuitive")4
But what sorts of
meanings are produced and how? The resurgence of interest in old and
out-moded media, sounds, and machines goes far beyond any simple "retro"
aesthetic or nostalgia, but raises issue about how musicians and listeners
use music to generate meaning, to locate themselves in a tradition,
as well as to produce and transform that tradition.
In this essay I will discuss how the
sounds of old machines can be made to speak in a variety of interpretative
frameworks: authenticity vs. artifice, modern vs. postmodern, blackness
vs. whiteness, and human vs. mechanical.5
In reference to a group of pieces that foreground the technological
dimension to the point of making it an integral and at times dominant
part of the musical material, I will be charting some of the modes
in which this revival of old sounds and old technologies is being
used in recent popular music, from pastiche, to the recuperative or
nostalgic, to the elegiac. I will conclude with a discussion of ways
in which the use of old sounds might achieve a critical potential.
While my examples are taken from a fairly narrow generic slice, primarily
dance and electronic genres that feature sampling and the manipulation
of preexistent materials, the phenomenon is prevalent in a wide range
of contemporary popular and concert music.