09 September 2011

Music and the Media Industrial Complex

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was engaged in a collaborative research project headed by Charles Keil on the question of 'participatory discrepancies' in music. Keil contended that the engaging elements of music were in the subliminal, subsyntactical, micro-timed details, that these minor variations or, as he put it, discrepancies, are evident over the course of a performance in the interactions between players. This offered a new way to think about music that was not tethered to the conventions of Western musicological scholarship and I was thrilled to be involved in a project that was questioning the status quo in academic research on music. Keil asked if I could demonstrate that these 'PDs' existed by using then current analog to digital converter technology to visually observe musical performances on the micro-timed level. The resulting research was published in 1995 in a special issue of the journal 'Ethnomusicology,' for which the editors solicited responses from a number of noted ethnomusicologists and rejoinders from Keil and I to those responses. What follows is my rejoinder, which begins by referring to the responses but then veers in another direction.

In my reply, I chose to address how participatory discrepancy research might be related to the commodification and homogenization of musical diversity through technology. This reply was inspired in part by responses to the research from Waterman and Kippen, but also by some recent and relevant developments at the time in these areas. I will frame this discussion with some brief reflections on two other general issues: first, the relationship between ethnographic and technical work, and second, the implications of participatory discrepancies theory for music education.

In other responses to the research, Monson and Locke stress the continuing importance of situating music in its cultural context through ethnography, with Monson noting that technical work can be an important part of a multiple research method. Shepard and Kisliuk also commented on the possible relationship between technical and ethnographic work, with Shepard noting that participatory discrepancies research could play a role in helping to determine exactly how people and music interact. Meadows has begun to explore the potential of participatory discrepancies research in generating research questions. This emerging consensus suggests that participatory discrepancies research could be the catalyst to help provide balance in the methodology employed by ethnomusicologists, since there is some concern that music research has begun to neglect how music works. For example, Winkler notes that, with a few exceptions, 'most popular music scholarship still treats music itself as a kind of "black box"--undiscussed, unknown, perhaps unknowable' (1994, p. 2).

The study of micro-timed phenomena may help us to say important things about musical change. Waterman notes that something similar to participatory discrepancies research has suggested that 'the timing gaps of Wolof social dance drumming are compressed in Parisian studio recordings of mbalax music, sucked up against the equal pulse base by the gravitational field of Worldbeat aesthetics.' He also points out that participatory discrepancies research can help us figure out 'the musical correlates of culture change and imperialism.' I am in complete agreement here, but also believe that there is another aspect to this issue. It seems clear to me that the 'media-industrial complex' (Crawford 1994, p. 22) is working hard and fast to figure out how participatory discrepancies work. While I agree to an extent with Kippen that the subtleties of musical 'feeling' will remain 'beyond the reach of computers for a long time,' this does not mean that computer technology cannot create compelling grooves and inflict serious damage on musical diversity worldwide. We cannot sit back and blissfully claim that the feelingful parts of music are beyond the reach of the media-industrial complex. We need to do something.

Technicians at Stanford University's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA, pronounced 'Karma') are in the process of developing a synthesizer which they claim will be able to 'sing like Pavarotti,' among other things (Clark 1994). Yamaha has already made much money from Karma's research in the 1970s and 1980s, with Karma and Stanford pocketing $20 million from the incredibly popular DX7 frequency modulation synthesizer alone. Surely someone is envisioning the next fortune to be made from Karma's latest 'ultimate musical synthesizer.' The new technology is called 'waveguides,' and it 'mathematically recreates the expressive signatures of instruments - the flutter of a flute, a saxophone's squawk or the scrape of a bow on a string' (Clark 1994). Interwoven with this research is the assertion that 'with certain permissions, a [synthesized] singer could sing works that had not been composed in his or her lifetime' (Clark 1994). These 'certain permissions' spell patents, and that assertion amounts to an admission that if computers ever can 'sing like Pavarotti,' there will be legal mechanisms to assure that whoever controls the Pavarotti-like waveguides will be doing it for big profit. There is not as much money in making a synthesizer sing 'O Sole Mio' as there is in getting it to reproduce the grooviest grooves and then patenting them.

It is not clear if the technicians at Karma are doing groove work yet, but it is clear that they have control of some timbral PDs. What next? CEOs determining the precise PDs for the most sellable groove? Global McMusic studios controlled by entertainment megacorporations? Or, worse yet, a redefinition of the human grooves of many musics with a quasi electronic cybergroove? Perhaps the most worrisome prospect is having patentable grooves become the criteria for good musicking the way scores did with other kinds of music.

If the patents are being designed by those who know what makes grooves groovy (at least to some extent) then we need some people who also know how grooves work but who are not in the service of the groove barons. This seems to be an immediate necessity since the McMusic merchants are already making headway toward patenting musical diversity.

A useful cognate to this discussion is the issue of patenting DNA. Shiva points out that 'scientists accept that in the future, goals of biotechnology research will be for profit and not for public interest (1989, p. 136). For now, there are still some scientists who do not accept this, and they are working together with farmers to resist the patenting of seeds. Idris notes that in India, centuries of farmer know-how is being incorporated into exclusive corporate patents by way of high tech gene splicing, and that scientists are joining with farmers in protesting this kind of takeover (1993, p. 30; see also Piller and Yamamoto 1985 for similar protests in a somewhat different context). The point is that those who know the inner workings of genes and DNA are taking part in both exploitation and resistance to exploitation.

Ethnomusicologists may find themselves at a similar juncture sooner than they think. This should involve taking as stand. Taking no stand, or denying that there may be a threat on the horizon could amount to tacit approval. Neither Keil nor I, nor most other ethnomusicologists I would imagine, will claim that developing PD theory and practice is intended to sell patents to Yamaha. Yet by asserting the music is beyond quantifying, we are in a sense giving in to those who want to turn a profit on culture, even if what they clone is not the 'real thing.'

There is a lot of talk lately of cyborgs, with some noting their liberating aspects (Haraway 1991, p. 149-81), and others their tragic aspects (Christie 1993). The consensus on cyborgs is not in yet, but it is clear to me that if the media-industrial complex has its way, all of the 'cybersurfing' that computers make so easy may simply be paving the way for us all to become 'cybersurfs' (Shell 1994). Tagg may have already flagged some of the early stages of musical cybersurfdom in some of the questions he is posing about 'rave' and 'techno' music (1994, p. 219). It is in this context that coopted PD research can be most dangerous. According to Tagg, rave music producers are already doing what sounds like PD manipulation, in their 'quantised,' 'offset,' 'delayed,' 100-percent-synthesized songs (Tagg 1994, p. 214). It seems timely --if not urgent--for ethnomusicologists to participate in PD research, not simply to 'prove' whether or not they exist, but to equip ourselves for the challenges that the media-industrial complex will surely pose for the musical commons.

Perhaps what I have outline above suggests a worse case scenario. I agree with Jerry Mander that technology is often only viewed in terms of best case scenarios, and that this is a dangerous and potentially destructive tendency with all sorts of implications for cultural survival (Mander 1991, p. 37-51). But if we are willing to at least consider a few worst case scenarios, then it becomes important to consider alternatives.

One alternative involves education. The media-industrial complex would not appear as threatening were it not for the general failure of compulsory schooling to produce engaged and responsible individuals. Gatto believes that most schooling ends up imparting seven general lessons to students: confusion class position, indifference, emotional dependency, intellectual dependency, provisional self-esteem, and the notion that one is always being observed (1992, p. 1-21). PD theory may provide a way to counteract or alleviate some of these tendencies. Small, Harwood, and Cowdery all note the importance of the processual and participatory aspects of PD theory, with Cowdery stressing the potential for music education on the macro level. I agree, but also believe there is a role for micro-level research to help us bring out-of-awareness culture into awareness, at least in the way we think and talk about music. Hall makes important distinctions between 'learning' and 'acquiring' culture, and stresses that acquiring culture takes place 'totally out of awareness' (1992, p. 225). He believes that children live in an 'acquired world' until about the age of six (which is about the time that the learned world of compulsory schooling takes over), and that 'it is in the process of playing with the material of that world that they are able to master the unwritten, unspoken rules controlling their world' (Hall 1992, p. 226). All of this suggests to me that if we are even half correct about the amount of musical power and core cultural transmission that is going on subliminally and out of awareness as little children acquire drumming and dancing, singing and chanting by participating, then we might want to rethink the benefits of learning about the noun music, or worse yet, learning to appreciate the object music.

Christie, John R. R. (1993, Friday 6 May). A tragedy for cyborgs. Configurations: A Journal of Literature, Science, and Technology, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 171-96.
Clark, Don (1994). Making a synthesizer sing like Pavarotti. The Wall Street Journal, B1, B3.
Crawford, Rick (1994). Techno Prisoners. Adbusters Quarterly: Journal of the Mental Environment, Vol. 3, No. 2, pp. 17-23.
Gatto, John Taylor (1992). Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling. Philadelphia, New Society Publishers.
Hall, Edward T. (1992). Improvisation as an Acquired, Multilevel Process. Ethnomusicology, Vol. 36, No. 2, pp. 223-35.
Haraway, Donna (1991). Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. London: Free Association Books.
Idris, S.M. Mohamed (1993, November). Doublespeak and the New Biological Colonialism. Third World Resurgence, Vol. 39, pp. 30-31.
Piller, Charles, and Yamamoto, Keith R. (1985). Gene Wars: Military Control over the New Genetic Technologies. New York: Beech Tree Books.
Shell, Barry (1994). Will We Be Cybersurfers or Cybersurfs in the Information Age? Adbusters Quarterly: Journal of the Mental Environment, Vol. 3, No. 2, pp. 28-9 80.
Shiva, Vandana (1989). Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development. London: Zed Books.
Tagg, Philip (1994). From Refrain to Rave: The Decline of Figure and the Rise of Ground. Popular Music, Vol. 13, No. 2, pp. 209-22.
Winkler, Peter (1994). Writing Ghost Notes: The Poetics and Politics of Transcription. In Kassabian, Schwarz and Siegel (Eds.) In The State of the Art: Refiguring Music Studies. University of Virginia Press.

[This is a slightly modified version of J. Progler's rejoinder to the responses to his and C. Keil's research, originally published in a special issue of the journal Ethnomusicology (Vol. 39, No. 1, Winter 1995, pp. 21-54) dedicated to Keil's theory of 'participatory discrepancies.' Progler's main contribution to that issue was a research article focusing on jazz swing, and his update and expansion of the ideas presented in this rejoinder were published in the online journal First Monday (vol. 4, no. 9, September 1999).]

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