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  1. 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 emotions—awe, wonder, mystery, fear—formerly 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 Boulez’s high-tech utopias of modern music at IRCAM.

  2. The corollary to notions of technological progress is a rejection of what is out of date, a sense of repellence of the outmoded.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 Oldfield’s 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 station."

  3. 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 feature—inscribed 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 [1998]). 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, "Technology’s 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

  4. 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 tool’s or a medium’s 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.

  1. 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.