Ode To Technical Reproducibility

Dear Friends,

I came upon this fascinating article, by Frederic Rzewski, straight and pari-passu from The Opinion Pages of the NYT.

I simply could not hold back, as it deals with one of my greatest intellectual concerns, the interplay of music and technology (and society for that matter) – I simply have to share it with you urgently…so enjoy.

Manhattan Out

Prophecy of Machines


Is music technology?

Max Weber, in his last book, “The Rational and Social Foundations of Music, ” published in 1921, a year after his death, says, basically, yes.  Like every other aspect of civilization, music is subject to a relentless and irreversible process of rationalization, culminating (for him) in the organization of the symphony orchestra.  This was at a time when the recording industry was in its infancy, and radio had only just launched the new technique of broadcasting.  Weber could not have foreseen the effect of these two things on the art of music, but he might well have imagined it.

It was a revolutionary time, full of explosions: you can hear them in the recordings of Marinetti reciting his poetry; you can see them in Tatlin’s designs for enormous skyscrapers. It reeked of the future.  Artists (like Schoenberg) thought of themselves as  prophets.  They imagined things that one could do with technology, liberating people from older forms.  Some of these visions became reality decades later.

What survived the 1950s were not the masterpieces of Varèse and Stockhausen, but the techniques they developed.

Whatever prophetic aspirations artists may have had 100 years ago, however,  today they belong to the past.  This world has been abandoned by its gods— among them the notion of the artist as a kind of shaman or wise man.  Today artists are proletarians with privileges: workers in the culture  industry, like the writers in Fitzgerald’s “The Last Tycoon,” well paid sometimes, but servants nonetheless.

Recording, like electricity, has been around for little more than a century.  Radio as a public medium for less than that. Computers have only become widely available since the 1980’s.  Edison did not grasp (at first) the consequences of his gramophone for music; he thought of it as an office machine.  Why wasn’t it invented 100 years earlier?  It was a fairly simple mechanical device.  Mozart might have liked it.  There is no technical reason why we couldn’t hear recordings of Beethoven’s improvisations.  But the time was not ripe.  It didn’t take long for Edison to realize the commercial potential of his machine, nor for the machine to have an effect on the art of music itself.

One of the most obvious effects of recording was to replace musicians with machines.

For Mahler’s audiences, for dance halls where the big bands played in the 1930’s,  and for people who went to the Community Concerts in the ‘40’s (when the United States was the center of classical music), music was an activity, a social event.   Today for most people “music” is a piece of plastic that you buy in a store, or a magic pod around your neck.

In the 1950s, when the first electronic music studios were created, it was still possible to imagine that a new form of music was being created that was ideally suited to electronic media.  What survived, however, were not the masterpieces of Varèse, Stockhausen and other experimenters of the time, but the techniques they developed, which then became a part of the standard vocabulary of industrially produced music.

For better or for worse, technology has surpassed art, not only in its power to reach and influence public imagination, but also in prophetic vision.  The technology of music lays the ground for the further evolution of music itself, and of other technologies as well.

(Whether the progressive rationalization of music, however, is a process which must expand indefinitely, or on the contrary must reach a limit, depends largely on the fate of capitalism. If the primary form in which music is consumed is increasingly that of electronic media, this process is part of the expansion of monopoly capitalism in the late 20th century.  The reduction of music to data accelerates the circulation of capital.)

Technological innovations come about, independently of the consciousness and will of their creators,  because they are objectively necessary.  At the time Weber was writing his book, artists, musicians, and poets were full of prophetic visions, largely based on the glorification of machines.  In the meantime, this prophecy has become a reality.  What has become of the vision?

In the century that separates us from the futurists, a subtle change has come over the relation of art and technology:  if the “avant-garde” (a military term first used with reference to culture and society around 1820 by the French socialist writer Saint-Simon) was once prophetic, it now occupies a subaltern position.  Technology is now dominant, art an appendage, a marketing tool.

Or is it?  Is there something left of the visionary avant-garde, or is it a thing of the past?

Can art still have something of the prophetic function assumed by the avant-garde of the late 19th and early 20th century, or has it been irrevocably absorbed by industry? Can art still be a harbinger of technological progress, even to the extent of forecasting its demise, along with the capitalist system of which it is a part?

Art has become a tool of the machine it has helped to create.

Music notation,  which is at least as old as writing itself and possibly older, is nonetheless in its modern form a technology which has evolved over the last thousand  years, and which has had a profound effect on the art.  It makes counterpoint possible, as well as the coordination of disparate elements in an orchestra.  Everything from instrument design and construction to the machines used for recording and transmission has affected the art itself.  So yes, Western music is very much technology.

In the 18th-century innovations in instrument design greatly expanded the dynamic range of many instruments: a development reflected in Beethoven’s chiaroscuro techniques and in the massive orchestral effects of 19th-century symphonic composers like Berlioz and Wagner.  Such effects are still to be found in the early electronic music of half a century ago.  Now that most music is heard through one or another form of electronic reproduction, the dynamic range has been reduced to zero.  There is only one dynamic: loud.  As a result composers (as if in imitation of Beethoven) become deaf.

The explosive expansion of technological resources has led, paradoxically, to an impoverishment of the language of music.  This process— consisting in a return to basic tonality, harmonic simplification, disappearance of counterpoint, replacement of developmental variation by hypnotic repetition, mindless re-juggling (sampling) of pre-existing historical models rather than genuine innovation, general dumbing-down of the vocabulary — corresponds historically with what has been called the “Great Regression”  (1980 to the present):  a period characterized by the crumbling of the great guiding models of the past (without any viable new ones), and an ensuing cultural, economic, and political stagnation.

(Some 20 years ago I attended a concert of Elliott Carter’s music followed by a  discussion with the composer.  Someone asked why he had not done any electronic music.   He replied that electronic music was primarily concerned with sound, whereas he was interested in writing; and in this context electronics, far from being an  advance, was a regression to the stage of hieroglyphics.)

Technology has no doubt conditioned art from its very beginnings.  But for most of its history art has nonetheless been master of the relation.  In the course of the 20th century a subtle reversal has taken place.  Art has become a tool of the machine it has helped to create.  The art which half a century ago set out to change the world has become a passive instrument  of that world’s malfunction.

Where there is danger, the Saving grows also. (Hölderlin).  Technology has undeniably had a positive effect on music as well:  The technical level of young musicians today is astonishingly high; instantaneous access via the Internet to the great masterpieces could lead to an increase in musical literacy; and the mutual confrontation and merging of different musical cultures could result in a quantum leap to a new stage of the art.  This would depend, however, on a major breakthrough in public consciousness, something theoretically possible for which there is little evidence at present.

Music is more than just technique.  It must have what Arthur Rubinstein called “soul,” or it is not worth the paper on which it is written — just as a technically perfect performance without understanding is no more than the sum of its inert mechanical parts.  If the “avant-garde” has no soul — if it is simply a branch of the market — then it has given up its historical claim to leadership.  It is dead.  But the questions that gave birth to it in the first place remain.  The new materials, the new channels of communication dictate the content.  But they also cry out, like the locomotives and steamships in Mayakovsky’s poem, for “new forms”.  We need, more than ever, a new art that will “drag the republic out of the mud.”

This article was adapted from an address given by the author at a conference on music and politics at the University of Warsaw in September.

FYI : Frederic Rzewski is a pianist, teacher and composer, and was co-founder in the mid-1960s of the group MEV (Musica Elettronica Viva), with Alvin Curran and Richard Teitelbaum. He has performed and recorded worldwide and written many pieces, including “Coming Together” (1971) “Attica,” (1972) and “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!” (1975)