December 2 Reading Responses

Jeff Shuter – Mobile Listening Article Reviews/Discussion

This week our readings investigate how mobile technology impacts music listening practices and music consumption.
I’ve outlined a few key themes that run through each article:

1. The merging of technology and content

In Michael Bull’s “No Dead Air!” he suggests that the private experience of listening (as mediated by the iPod) is “increasingly wedded to the ability of consumers to create their own soundworlds…. through the individualising of ‘representational space’ (347). He suggests that music content is perceived differently when users listen on the move. The iPod as a portable listening device merges the content of a song with the daily routines and geographical space the user inhabits. Instead of passive listening to music in a traditional venue, or through a speaker system, the versatility of portable music players activates the listening experience. The merging of sound and mobile technology turns music into activism, wherein users color the public spaces they inhabit with their own, private, sonic trace (what Bull considers the production of “representational space”).

De Vries and van Elferen, in their work “The Musical Madeleine” further the idea that music content merged with mobile technology amplifies/re-articulates how people perceive musical recordings. They note, “the convergence of digital media technology, telecommunication, and entertainment in global cultural industries has resulted in a complete merger of technology and content” (65). De Vries and van Elferen examine the mobile ringtone as a hub of musical technique, cultural memory, and technological consumption. They write, “The ringtone has a musical authenticity similar to that of other mediated music, and therefore can still be considered ‘music.’ Even Adorno held the opinion that the LP could render a musical perfection unequalled by most live performances; mass reproduction and mediatization, therefore, do not necessarily diminish music’s authenticity or meaning” (65). Instead, the merging of mobile technology and music content helps unpack the cultural memory embedded in music, amplifying/reifying such memories via consumer subculture and popular lifestyle.

David Beer, in his work “Mobile Music, Coded Objects, and Everyday Space” contrasts the previous authors by suggesting the merger of technology and content is, in fact, “the embedding of ambient and automated technological infrastructures that are affording the increased traceability of the relations between people, objects and places” (473). Beer suggests that while portable, mobile music activates the listener and empowers the individual with control over her sonic environment; the layers of software, network, and code that enable our mobile ‘empowered’ listening is, in part, designed/crafted by the creators of mobile music technology (Apple iTunes).

Question for Discussion: Do you think the convergence of musical content with mobile listening technology has shaped our music preferences? Do we favor music production/genres that are more conducive to our increasingly mobile routines? What about sounds that challenge us and push back against the lifestyles featured in mobile tech advertisements?

2. Politics of private listening and public spaces

Bull: Suggests that the use of mobile sound technologies informs us about how users attempt to ‘inhabit’ the spaces within which they move. He writes, “The use of these technologies appears to bind the disparate threads of much urban movement together, both ‘filling’ the spaces ‘in-between’ communication or meetings and structuring the spaces thus occupied”. What I found particularly interesting in Bull’s analysis of how private mobile listening inhabits public space is his discussion of “non-spaces” in the public sphere. He writes, “iPod use provides users with their own ‘unique’ regulated soundscape that mediates the experience of whatever space is passed through and regulates the flow of time as they wish. The meaning of these spaces, often received as ‘non-spaces’ by users, is overlain by the mediated space of their very own sonic envelope from which meaning emanates” (351). The non-space is where music or sound is amplified by 3rd parties to set boundaries of space/territory (i.e. supermarkets, muzak, car radios, etc). iPod users see “non-spaces” as a canvas to be colored over with their own sonic envelop. Here, the act of private listening against the public non-space via mobile technology is akin to performing a private secret in public.

De Vries and van Elferen: in their analysis of mobile ringtones suggest that telephonic communication in general and mobile communications in particular “present us with a special performative situation. In unmediated forms of human interaction we can usually point out a singular performative space… situated within a single geographical location or fixed locale” (63). De Vries and van Elferen classify such performed ‘telephonic geography’ as two distinct acts: One, the inner performance, or, “a caller actively setting up a connection with another person… which is played out as a one-to-one conversation using the connection as a stage. Two, the outer performance, or, the simultaneous exchange between both sender and receiver of a phone call, each performing their end of the conversation in different geographic locales, possibly “in front of a chance audience that is physically present in their surroundings. Especially with mobile phones, which are unattached to physical locations, manifold chance audiences are readily in attendance” (63).

Beer: He suggests that the software/network behind mobile listening software undergirds how the user not only listens to music content, but performs their experience of listening. Beer suggests that logjets, or ambient software tracking algorithms “capture the details of everyday movements, connections and mobilities” (481). In short, Beer asks that we consider mobile music listening as the sonic experiences of the everyday, “captured in a context of informational infrastructures, predictive analytics and capitalist interest” (481). As the previous authors suggest the performance of mobile listening re-articulates how listeners interact with their physical environments, Beer suggests that software algorithms track how we perform mobile listening tend to seek out the listener.

Question: Performing private listening in public spaces harmonizes the individual with their geographic locale. But the idea of harmonizing is a tricky concept. Some folks (like Attali) interpret musical harmony as an act of subjugation – a ‘going with the flow’ set forth by dominant political interests. Is private public listening an act of approval toward the public infrastructure that surrounds us? By individualizing our soundscape, do we also relinquish our agency?

3. Musical memories and the ‘technological unconscious’

Beer: He describes the ambient presence of technology as “constituting a kind of technological unconscious” (474). He asks that we no longer think of listening to music as being an individual practice that is “somehow segregated off from something as important as the generation and use of transactional data” (476). The idea that music listening practices are tracked through time and space, and that entities who gather, harvest and data-mine this information convert musical memories within content, and the user performance of such content as a kind of ‘knowing capitalism’ that undergirds what users consider as privatized, active listening.

Bull: iPod users might be understood as creating spaces of freedom for themselves through the very use of technologies that tie them into consumer culture. At the same time, “the increasing ability and desire of users to make the ‘public’ spaces of the city mimic their desire for accompanied solitude also has other potentially ambiguous results. It appears that as users become immersed in their mobile media sound bubbles, so those spaces they habitually pass through in their daily lives may increasingly lose significance for them and progressively turn into the ‘non- spaces’ of daily lives which they try, through those self same technologies, to transcend” (354). In short, Bull finds that mobile listeners who habitually graft their inner listening worlds onto public environments risk merging their agency with the contents/style of their playlist. Active listening can become a passive habit when users only associate their physical routines with certain musical content. Technology replaces agency as the user is fused with their listening device unbeknownst to them; instead of coloring their environment with their own sonic experience, the user unconsciously rehashes the marketing plan behind their listening device. The user becomes their iPod.

De Vries and van Elferen: This idea of a user identity fusing with the marketing of their mobile playback device appears in these authors’ analysis of the ringtone, although its suggested that even the technology itself behind mobile listening is a musical experience. They write, “Hearing a ringtone calls forth the experience of hearing the song that it plays. The qualitative inferiority of mono- and polyphonic ringtones has only a little influence on the remembrance, re-experience, and re-enactment of former hearings of the same song” (66). “The ringtone can function as an active marker of the new floating (sub)cultural communities and their outward appearance, attaching the cultural memory of a certain song to both caller and callee” (67). De Vries and van Elferen ask that we consider the power of musical memory, that a “ringtone entails a rich amount of cultural information and… forces us to interrogate the thin line between the earworm we carry around in our heads and the sounding music on boomboxes or iPods” (72).

Question: Do we perceive musical memories differently in private listening experiences versus public listening experiences? To what extent does sound reproduction technology alter musical meaning and should it matter?


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