1. Fundamental to this study is the question of how instruments and media become marked as "old" or "obsolete" in the first place. Perhaps in music above all, age does not have to imply obsolescence or inferiority, as in the case, for example, of a 300 year old Stradivarius or a 30 year old Stratocaster guitar. While it is clear that technologies develop and change, the linkage of older technologies with the idea of obsolescence is not self-evident but is created by economic and social factors, the power of advertising, and shifts of fashion that are at least partly uncontrollable. Yet music is not limited simply to reflecting these more general narratives concerning technology and progress. An example from Pink Floyd’s 1975 album Wish You Were Here, illustrates how individual pieces can—in their own material—inscribe, produce, and in some cases even transform these progressive narratives linking technological change to stories of power, innovation, authenticity, and expression.

  2. Technology figures significantly in Pink Floyd’s music, marked by the early virtuosic use of synthesizers, elaborately recorded and produced albums, and lavish stage shows. Many songs explicitly reference the world of machines, significantly adopting modernist techniques of musique concrète such as "Money" from the album Dark Side of the Moon (1973), with its rhythmicized sounds of cash registers and change, or "Time" with its clock-store-gone-berserk sound effects. As is evident from these examples, the images of technology in Pink Floyd’s music often lean toward the dystopic. But at the same time, these representations ultimately operate within an essentially modernist teleology.

  3. This is brilliantly staged in the transition between "Have a Cigar," a bitter attack on the corrupting influence of the music business, and the song "Wish You Were Here" from the album of the same name. As if to enact the threat of commercialization, the raucous hard rock jam that concludes "Have a Cigar" sounds as if it is sucked out of the speakers into a lo-fidelity AM radio broadcast. The radio is evoked first through the cramped, tinny sound quality and static, and then confirmed as the radio is retuned through several channels—in what is itself a striking trajectory through newscasts, discussions, and excerpts of symphonic music—before settling down on a station broadcasting a mellow guitar accompaniment. As the radio continues to play, we become directly aware of the person in the room who has been tuning the radio, as he clears his throat, sniffs, and then starts to play along on an acoustic guitar.

  4. This intimate private moment enacted for us on the public stage of the record, no doubt is meant to evoke a host of responses. Clearly to some degree the peculiar thin scratchy sound of the radio is meant to be nostalgic, reminding listeners of a certain age of a similar experience of listening to the radio. And the qualifying "listeners of a certain age," is important, because the particular sound quality created here would only be recognizable to someone who had listened to a portable AM transistor radio. In keeping with the modernist framework, the historical location of the old technology is clearly marked both in place and time by the sound quality and the range of sound materials that are assembled. Similarly, Brian Eno notes how the characteristic limitations of a medium such as "grainy black and white film, or jittery Super 8, or scratches on vinyl," communicate "something about the context of the work, where it sits in time, and by invoking that world they deepen the resonance of the work itself" ("The Revenge of the Intuitive"). Many striking examples of this process were aired as part of National Public Radio’s series of reports entitled "Lost and Found Sounds," which used a range of old recordings to explore both personal and national pasts.6

  5. Eno’s remarks suggest an understanding of the function of media—one more limited than media theorist Marshall McLuhan’s—that is particularly useful in this context. The Pink Floyd example demonstrates how media shapes its message, comparable to the way language shapes a communication ranging from the addition of an accent to outright translation into another tongue. When a technology is current we are trained to overlook its limitations and believe the promises of transparency and fidelity. The story has been dominated by the dialectic of music and noise, with the battle lines drawn over frequency range, distortion, scratches and pops, hiss and rumble. Yet rather than a battle, it was more of a cold war: reducing and eliminating these imperfections was a major concern, but it was never possible. Listeners have always had to learn to listen past these sounds, to filter them out, to keep the medium distinct from the message. At each stage of the development we are told that we are finally being given the truth: the authentic sound and performance just as if we were in the concert hall, or the musicians there in our living room. But when technology is replaced the limitations come to the fore; the veil of transparency is lifted and we are forced to start listening to the accent as all the repressed characteristics of the old emerge with shocking clarity. Before color television came along most viewers probably learned to not notice that they were watching black and white. The hype around high resolution TV promises a similar revelation of a whole sphere of detail, depth and reality we don’t yet know that we are missing. In musical terms, this process has been repeated over and over again in the progression from wax cylinders to Digital Audio Tape.7

  6. In "Wish You Were Here," the hierarchy of technologies and the march of progress are by no means questioned; indeed the special sound quality of the AM radio serves to underscore the immaculately recorded acoustic guitar, engineered to sound as if it were immediately before us. The clarity of the sound, together with the conjuring up of the body through the sounds of breathing and the physical act of tuning the radio, all combine to offer us an authentic human presence. Thus the song presents the old technology of the AM radio as limited and implicated through the link with the previous song as corrupted by commercialism. By the same token, this passage depends on and even fetishizes the capabilities of current recording techniques; the particular sonic effects of old machines used here demand in turn the new technologies of FM radio and high-end stereos. In other words, much of the effect of this passage would be lost if you were only able to hear it on the AM radio it represents. Yet in "Wish You Were Here" this framing technological dimension is disguised; we are not meant, I believe, to be aware that we too are listening to a recording or to think about the record executives who helped to bring it about, but rather to imagine ourselves there in the room playing the guitar.8

  7. The lyrics of the song deal directly with the problem of presence and absence, authenticity and artifice, asking us to distinguish "heaven from hell, a green field from a cold steel rail." Yet the doubts raised in the lyrics are countered by the sonic narrative of the song which clearly locates its technological materials in a developmental plot, which places the listener in a specific temporal and national space, and which mystifies its own technological apparatus.