Tag Archive | Technology

Revising the Future of Music Technology

Sound and TechThis is the opening salvo in Sounding Out!‘s April  Forum on “Sound and Technology.”  Every Monday this month, you’ll be hearing new insights on this age-old pairing from the likes of Sounding Out! veterano Primus Luta, along with new voices Andrew Salvati and Owen Marshall.  These fast-forward folks will share their thinking about everything from Auto-tune to productivity algorithms. So, program your presets for Sounding Out! and enjoy today’s exhilarating opening think piece from SO! Multimedia Editor Aaron Trammell.  —JS, Editor-in-Chief

We drafted a manifesto.

Microsoft Research’s New England Division, a collective of top researchers working in and around new media, hosted a one-day symposium on music technology. Organizers Nancy Baym and Jonathan Sterne invited top scholars from a plethora of interdisciplinary fields to discuss the value, affordances, problems, joys, curiosities, pasts, presents, and futures of Music Technology. It was a formal debrief of the weekend’s Music Tech Fest, a celebration of innovative technology in music. Our hosts christened the day, “What’s Music Tech For?” and told us to make bold, brave statements. A kaleidoscope of kinetic energy and ideas followed. And, at 6PM we crumpled into exhausted chatter over sangria, cocktails, and imported beer at a local tapas restaurant.

The day began with Annette Markham, our timekeeper, offering us some tips on how to best think through what a manifesto is. She went down the list: manifestos are primal, they terminate the past, create new worlds, trigger communities, define us, antagonize others, inspire being, provoke action, crave presence. In short, manifestos are a sort of intellectual world building. They provide a road map toward an imagined future, but in doing so they also work to produce this very future. Annette’s list made manifestos seem to be a very focused thing, and perhaps they usually are. But, having now worked through the process of creating a manifesto with a collective, I would add one more point – manifestos are sloppy.

Our draft manifesto is a collective vision about what the blind-spots of music technology are, at present, and what we want the future of music technology to look like. And although there is general synergy around all of the points within it, that synergy is somewhat addled by the polyphonic nature of the contributors. There were a number of discussions over the course of the day that were squelched by the incommensurable perspectives of one or two of the participants. For instance, two scholars argued about whether or not technical platforms have politics. These moments of disagreement, however, only added a brilliant contour to our group jam. Like the distortion cooked into a Replacements single, it only serves to highlight how superb the moments of harmony and agreement are in contrast. This brilliant and ambivalent fuzziness speaks perfectly to the value of radical interdisciplinarity.


These disagreements were exactly the point. Why else would twenty academics from a variety of interdisciplinary fields have been invited to participate? Like a political summit, there were delegates from Biology, Anthropology, Computer Science, Musicology, Science and Technology Studies, and more. Rotating through the room, we did our introductions (see the complete list of participants at the bottom of this paper). Our interests were genuine and stated with earnestness. Nancy Baym declared emphatically that music is, “a productive site for radical interdisciplinarity,” while Andrew Dubber, the director of Music Tech Fest, noted the centrality of culture to the dialogue. Both music and technology are culture, he argued. The precarity of musical occupations, the gender divide, and the relationship between algorithm and consumer, all had to take a central role in our conversation, an inspired Georgina Born demanded. Bryan Pardo, a computer scientist, announced that he was listening with an open mind for tips on how to best design the platforms of tomorrow. Though collegial, our introductory remarks were all political, loaded with our ambitions and biases.

The day was an amazing, free-form, brainstorm. An hour and a half long each, the sessions challenged us to answer a big question – first, what are the problems of music technology, then what are some actions and possibilities for its future. Every fifteen or twenty minutes an alarm would ring and tables would exchange members, the new member sharing ideas from the table they came from. At one point I came to a new table telling stories about how music had the power to sculpt social relations, and was immediately confronted with a dialogue about problems of integration in the STEM fields.

In short, the brainstorms were a hodgepodge of ideas. Some spoke about the centrality of music to many cultural practices. Noting the ways in which humans respond to their environments through music, they questioned if tonal schema were ultimately a rationalization of the world. Though music was theorized as a means of social control many questions remained about whether it could or should be operationalized as such. Others considered different conversations entirely. Jocking sustainability and transduction as key factors in an ideal interdisciplinarity and shunning models that either tried to put one discipline in service of another, or simply tried to stack and combine ideas.

Borrowed from Margaret Atwater.

Borrowed from Margaret Atwater.

Some of the most productive debates centered around the nature of “open” technology. Engineers were challenged on their claim that “open source technology” was an unproblematic good, by Cultural Studies scholars who argued that the barriers to access were still fraught by the invisible lines of race, class, and gender. If open source technology is to be the future of music technology, they argued, much work must still be done to foster a dialogue where many voices can take part in that space.

We also did our best to think up actionable solutions to these problems, but for many it was difficult to dream big when their means were small in comparison. One group wrote, “we demand money,” on a whiteboard in capital letters and blue marker. Funding is a recurrent and difficult problem for many scholars in the United States and other, similar, locations, where funding for the arts is particularly scarce. On points like this, we all agreed.

We even considered what new spaces of interactivity should look like. Fostering spaces of interaction with public works of art, music, performance and more, could go a long way in convincing policy makers that these fields are, in fact, worthy of greater funding. Could a university be designed so as to prioritize this public mode of performance and interactivity? Would it have to abandon the cloistered office systems, which often prohibit the serendipitous occasion of interdisciplinary discussion around the arts?

Borrowed from bfishadow @Flickr.

Borrowed from bfishadow @Flickr.

 

There are still many problems with the dream of our manifesto. To start, although we shared many ideas, the vision of the manifesto is, if anything, disheveled and uneven. And though the radical interdisciplinarity we epitomized as a group led to a million excellent conversations, it is difficult, still, to get a sense of who “we” really are. If anything, our manifesto will be the embodiment of a collective that existed only for a moment and then disbursed, complete with jagged edges and inconsistencies. This gumbo of ideas, for me, is beautiful. Each and every voice included adds a little extra to the overall idea.

Ultimately, “What’s Music Tech For?” really got me thinking. Although I remain skeptical about the United States seeing funding for the arts as a worthy endeavor anytime soon, I left the event with a number of provocative questions. Am I, as a scholar, too critical about the value of technology, and blind to the ways it does often function to provoke a social good? How can technological development be set apart from the demands of the market, and then used to kindle social progress? How is music itself a technology, and when is it used as a tool of social coercion? And finally, what should a radical mode of listening be? And how can future listeners be empowered to see themselves in new and exciting ways?

What do you think?

Our team, by order of introduction:
Mary Gray (Microsoft Research), Blake Durham (University of Oxford), Mack Hagood (Miami University), Nick Seaver (University of California – Irvine), Tarleton Gillespie (Cornell University), Trevor Pinch (Cornell University), Jeremy Morris (University of Wisconsin-Madison), Diedre Loughridge (University of California – Berkley), Georgina Born (Oxford University), Aaron Trammell (Rutgers University), Jessa Lingel (Microsoft Research), Victoria Simon (McGill University), Aram Sinnreich (Rutgers University), Andrew Dubber (Birmingham City University), Norbert Schnell (IRCAM – Centre Pompidou), Bryan Pardo (Northwestern University), Josh McDermitt (MIT), Jonathan Sterne (McGill University), Matt Stahl (Western University), Nancy Baym (Microsoft Research), Annette Markham (Aarhus University), and Michela Magas (Music Tech Fest Founder).

Read the Manifesto here and sign on if you dig it. . . http://www.musictechifesto.org/

Aaron Trammell is co-founder and Multimedia Editor of Sounding Out! He is also a Media Studies PhD candidate at Rutgers University. His dissertation explores the fanzines and politics of underground wargame communities in Cold War America. You can learn more about his work at aarontrammell.com.

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Sounding Out! Podcast Episode #2: Building Intimate Performance Venues on the Internet

Sounding Out! microphoneThe podcast is (or, can be) an intimate performance venue on the internet because it allows you to whisper into the ears of your fans. It allows you to grow close to communities of listeners. And podcasts also do one last thing, to be revealed at the end of this piece, after we’ve seen how far I can take you. For now, I will quote podcasters I admire to help explain these ideas in their own words. I also quote these podcasters in an audio format. I have recorded this essay as an episode of the Sounding Out! podcast. You can listen right here, and I suggest you do. Go ahead, press play:

The podcast is what’s happening if you’re listening to these words. Are you? Because remember: my central claim is that a podcast is an intimate performance venue on the internet. Keep that in mind.

I am a podcaster, musician, and assistant professor of Economics. I have released six episodes of my own podcast, The Lion in Tweed.

This is what I look like.

Me. (Photo by Hadassah Head)

This is the Lion in Tweed.  He's a lion who teaches economics.

The Lion in Tweed. (Drawing by Winston Rowntree)

My podcast is primarily a narrative, with music and sound effects interwoven. It is about a character, The Lion in Tweed, and his experiences as a musician and professor of economics. He is also a lion. The second half of each podcast episode is a references section where I cite my sources and leave the fictional Tweedoverse canon to discuss real things.

I am not the first podcaster to remark on the ability of podcasts to traffic in intimacy. Chris Hardwick, of the Nerdist podcast, has claimed that, due to their intimacy, podcasts are the best medium going. He stressed: “you’re talking directly into the ears of your listeners.” There is no doubt that Hardwick was referring to those white iPod earbuds, which are a primary method of listening to podcasts. Part of a podcast’s intimacy comes from the closeness of the earbud to the membrane in the ear. Listening to earbuds evokes the intimate, and physical, closeness of someone whispering in your ear. Hardwick’s style of podcast is also intimate: vocal storytelling, mostly three comedians talking about the funniest things that have happened recently. The fact that it is not visual accentuates the intimacy of “whispering in your ears.” Although I would like to argue that the visual always reduces a sense of intimacy, I may simply prefer the sonic over the visual. Nevertheless, I believe that, the intimacy to which Hardwick is refers, is tied to the fact it is only sonic.

Chris Hardwick

Chris Hardwick.

The Nerdist Podcast

The Nerdist Podcast.

COMMUNITY

Podcasts as performance have a strange kind of liveness, episode-to-episode interactivity. By this I mean that they are not immediate; they lack the urgency of a theater-goer’s applause, or a heckler’s retort. Though not immediate, they are still dynamic, with their episodic pacing. And, unlike heckling, almost completely positive. This sense of long-term interactivity provides a foundation for understanding a second way that podcasts are intimate: they can cultivate intimate and interconnected communities of listeners.

They [Stop Podcasting Yourself, hosted by Graham Clark and Dave Shumka] have a really good community of people, community interaction: people send them stuff, sometimes people send them stuff unprompted. And they have a phone number [for people to call in messages that they play].

To illustrate how interconnected this community is, let me describe to you where this quote came from. It is a clip of Dan Sai, recorded by Davin Pavlas at MaxFunCon (the annual convention of the MaximumFun.org podcast label). I know Davin because of our mutual love of MaxFun podcasts. When I brought The Lion in Tweed into the world, I advertised it on podcasts in the MaxFun network. When Davin heard the description, he began to listen to my podcast. Now we are collaborating on an episode of The Lion in Tweed, which will quote these very words when it comes out two weeks from now. Similarly, UK resident Will Owens and I exchanged tweets after he started listening to my podcast and I found out he reviewed various narrative media on his website, and now he has written a review of my podcast, which we both promote. Ours is a community in which a feeling of value comes with a sense of connectedness. The podcasts give a shared culture.

SO IN PODCASTS, WE FIND A MEDIUM that is both sonic and vocal. They provide a platform for intimate and interconnected communities, which are rooted in an alternative kind of interactivity (long-term liveness), to grow. The whisper-in-the-ear quality of podcasts, as well as the feeling of community, all but completely explain why podcasts are so intimate.

AUTHENTICITY

Podcasts may be hip and modern, but they are not ironic. Podcasts represent a distillation of what the podcasters genuinely love, and in that they find their authenticity. According to Paul F. Tompkins, a comedian and podcaster:

It’s very freeing to be able to say: “Here are all the things that I like; I’m going to put them all into this [podcast].”

That was at minute 50:32 of Nerdist podcast ep 33 hosted by Chris Hardwick, with Paul F. Tompkins as a guest.

Paul F. Tompkins

Paul F. Tompkins

The Pod F. Tompkast

The Pod F. Tompkast

Here is Jesse Thorn, mastermind behind the aforementioned MaximumFun.org, in an interview by Neiman Labs:

I can mostly just do things that I am interested in, and so I don’t have to do something that is false to me, and I can let my guiding light be, “Do I like this and think it’s worth doing?”

Jesse Thorn

Jesse Thorn.

The Sound of Young America

The Sound of Young America.

And we see that authenticity completes the puzzle: podcasts are intimate because they feel so real. In podcasts it feels like you are listening to a real person because you are listening to the things that a real person loves…and interacting with real people is much more intimate than feeling like you are interacting with a marketing department (as you may when listening to a CD, or radio-show).

This is how I construct intimate performance venues: Audio-only, voice/storytelling focused, in which I try to build and exploit supportive, interconnected communities of fans with a shared culture (the podcasts). And, in doing so, I try to remain true to what I truly love. This authenticity, I believe, deepens the intimacy.

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In the background of this podcast episode, Andreas plays an instrumental cover of “Bound for Hell” by Love and Rockets.

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