Sept. 16 Reading Response

Perspectives on the readings…

John Philip Sousa - The Menace of Mechanical Music

Well, if the title doesn’t sum up the article, then one needn’t read much further. Within the first five paragraphs, Sousa describes mechanical music as:

1. An inadequate substitute for human skill, intelligence, and soul.
2. Akin to the English sparrow, which contributed to the demise of native songbirds.
3. Instigating an alarming “deterioration in American music and musical taste”.
4. A reducer of the “expression of music to a mathematical system of megaphones, wheels, cogs, disks, cylinders,…”
5. As similar to “real art as the marble statue of Eve is like her beautiful, living, breathing daughters.”

Similarly, he decries the phonograph as having any value in music education and composition:

1. “It is the living, breathing example alone that is valuable to the student.”
2. “I could not imagine that a performance by it would ever inspire embryotic Mendelssohns, Beethovens, Mozarts, and Wagners…”

Apparently Sousa is using his platform to give us an article that is little more than a laundry list of everything that “mechanical music” lacks and is not – in his words, a technology that is “without soul, barren of the joy, the passion, the ardor that is the inheritance of man alone.”

Is that all he has to say?

Well, hold the phone… or pick up the phonograph needle…. On page 282 (yes, five pages into this mere seven page rant) Sousa reveals what it’s really all about. It’s not about the character, lack of soul, or the demise of music in home or country – it’s about the money.
Sousa is, fundamentally, upset because he gets nothing every time a “talking machine” plays the Stars and Stripes Forever. Now, don’t get me wrong, intellectual property rights have come a long way since Sousa’s day, and he was completely within his rights (judging by today’s copyright standards) to raise this issue – but if he received a dime for every performance of his work on these machines, would he have even written the article? So why use as a facade the argument that these machines are inherently evil and will ultimately destroy American culture? The answer of course is that if he did not use that argument, he might appear no better than the capitalist opportunists selling the machines themselves. Thus, seeking moral cover, he plays the “destruction of culture” card in hopes that he can pad his wallet. Now, now, Johnny boy, really?

Pinch and Bijsterveld Should One Applaud?

Clearly more nuanced than Sousa (not to mention lacking Sousa’s vitriol), Pinch and Bijsterveld are asking the fundamental question which seeks the “boundary between ‘instruments’ and ‘machines’ – a question that Sousa answered before setting pen to paper. The question of applause (“should one applaud when the performer is a machine?”) is merely an extension of the basic question of that boundary.
To this end Pinch and Bijsterveld are exploring the definition of “art”. Critics in the debate over mechanical instruments define real art as containing “mastery of technique and control over interpretation, for romantic passion, expression, variation, and uniqueness”. Astutely, the authors point out that performers and teachers “feared for their jobs”. (again, this is related to Sousa’s concern over copyright and money – the quest for cash seems to be an underlying theme across this weeks readings). Of particular interest is the notion that the player piano would “democratize” music and leisure – a point raised both pro and con.

Pinch and Bijsterveld provide us with a brief history of synthesizer development:

Milestones in Music-Tech:

1832-1932 – Welte-Mignon – early mechanical piano player technology.
1880-1920 – the Pianola.
1897-1912 – the Teleharmonium (weighed between 7 and 200 tons. Yes, tons.)
1920s – the Theremin (Robert Moog later had a “kit” to build your own)
1928 – Ondes Martenot. Early electronic instrument.
1929 – Trautonium.
1910-1930 (approximately) - the noise artists – Russolo, Mondrian, and Antheil.
1958 – RCA Mark II Synthesizer – room sized.
1964 – Moog Synthesizer
1968 – Switched on Bach (Walter/Wendy Carlos) – “acclaimed as real music”
1970 – Minimoog (current price: @$5000)
1983 – Yamaha DX7 (introduction of MIDI)

•Moog and Buchla – instrument or machine?
Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company – the patch changes took so long the band showed cartoons between pieces.
Minimoog – instrument or machine?
•“The importance of the musician being able to exercise control” – so that “the synthesizer took on the characteristics of whoever was using it”
• The concept of the “importance of personal achievement”.
• “Today there is no doubt that the synthesizer is a unique musical instrument” (pg. 557),
•Michael Boddicker (from CR, went to the UI)
•John Chowning: “The commercial view of the effect of synthesis [in replacing conventional instruments] I just think is absolutely beyond belief. It’s bullshit.”
•“The synthesizer has changed the face of much popular music”
•“The value ascribed to skill has restricted the role of the machine.”

As you see above, Pinch and Bijsterveld provide us primarily an historic overview of the development of mechanical music technology and synthesizers. While they initially pose important questions such as where the boundary lies between instrument and machine, they never get around to completely answering them. The closest they come is in stating the need for “human control over performance and interpretation” – presumably in order to qualify as an “instrument.” Their conclusion appears to be that as good as synthesizers and computers have become, they will never replace acoustic instruments. But then, is replacing acoustic sound necessarily the goal of technology?

Lisa Gitelman: Media, Materiality, and the Measure of the Digital; or, the Case of Sheet Music and the Problem of Piano Rolls.

Gitelman maintains that media is both transparent and inevitable.

Gitelman’s basic take on player pianos vs. talking machines: “Pianolas and player mechanisms played live music on real pianos, not bottled, pickled, or canned. What they sidestepped was the skill of reading music and, for many, the obscurantism of musical notation, the tedium of practice, and the widely remarked discomforts of listening to imperfect, amateur playing.”

Of note as well is Gitelman’s recurring observation that at the turn of the century the amateur home pianist was most often female. Professionally, men dominated the music world, thus this is a curious juxtaposition.

In Gitelman’s comparison of music rolls to digital technology, of particular interest are the so-called “reproducing rolls”, which captured an actual performance, often of a master pianist. This technology reportedly had the ability to allow corrections after the recording was made but before copies were made available to the public. Corrections, according to Gitelman, that included adjustment of timing and mistaken notes, pasting of sections, etc. These features are commonplace in today’s digital sequencers and audio workstations; thus in this regard these “reproducing rolls” could be considered precursors of modern digital technology.

Gitelman’s view of music rolls and player piano technology is summed up succinctly on pg. 213: “music rolls offered a new form of access that was immediately enrolled within a rhetoric of democratization by some and painted as trespass by others.”

THOUGHTS FOR DISCUSSION….

Gitelman:

Gitelman offers a broad overview of music rolls and piano player technology – yet her fundamental question seems to be one of copyright and ownership. She refers to the Sousa article when she raises the question the courts faced at that time – is ownership defined materially, or by a work that exists in vacuo. At that time the courts leaned towards a material definition; in the decades since this definition has been greatly broadened and reinterpreted. At the end of her article Gitelman alludes to the comparisons of the music roll issue with todays digital file downloads, streaming, mp3 file sharing, and all manner of digital content technology that the future will undoubtedly hold.
• When it comes to ownership of intellectual property, where is the line between what the creator can legitimately claim as property and that which should be considered fair use?
• The two extremes of this issue would seem to be that on one hand a creator has limited rights, if any, to the mediums in which their work can be reproduced. On the other hand should we grant authors complete and sweeping rights to control their work in any form?

Pinch and Bijsterveld:

Pinch and Bijsterveld, in the context of synthesizer technology, are asking the fundamental question: What is the distinction between machine and art? One of the composers mentioned in the article is Michael Boddicker. Boddicker is a Cedar Rapids native, attended the University of Iowa, and has been an influential synthesis studio jock and composer in Los Angeles for many years. Among his accomplishments are most of the synth work on Michael Jackson’s Thriller album.
• Can a synthesizer be considered an instrument, or does it lack “mastery of technique and control over interpretation, for romantic passion, expression, variation, and uniqueness” required to define it as such?
• When listening to the synth work on Thriller, it is difficult to argue that those sounds are mechanical and lacking in technique, art, and passion. Is this a question of either / or, or do technologies that begin more as machine have the ability to develop and morph into truly expressive instruments?
• Minimoogs currently sell for around $5000. Granted, that’s not a Stradivarius price, but it does seem like a lot for a cold, soul-less machine incapable of producing real art…

Sousa:

Sousa raises two issues: 1. That music created via machine is, by nature, in-expressive, inadequate, and invalid and will bring about the collapse of culture. 2. That composers whose works are used in these technologies have had their rights abrogated and deserve compensation.
Now, it appears that Sousa’s emphasis on the collapse of culture is, in part, a smokescreen to validate his claim of copyright infringement.
• Is Sousa completely out of touch when he raises the argument that any music derived from a machine is lacking in taste and devoid of true art? Again, is this a yes or no question, or does the question of what is art and what is capable of producing art not only highly subjective, but also one that exists on a continuum – i.e., instruments and technologies that lack expressiveness today may develop so over time.
• Regarding copyright, and tied into Gitelman’s piece, has copyright law kept up with computer technology? Has it gone too far or not far enough?
If would seem that to take Sousa’s argument to the extreme, any melody one conceives in their head deserves copyright protection – even if that melody is never fixed it into any medium. Should copyright law go this far? If not, where is the line in the sand? Is it a line or a grey area?


Add a New Comment
Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License