Jarrod Hopfer

Emerson College MA547

History and Aesthetics of New Media

Final Paper

The Technology of Music and Sonic Art:

Ideology Before Technology


Music, a sonic art form, has been around for thousands of years. In Ivan Macák's Article, The Frcák: A musical instrument with no analog?, he talks about a musical instrument that dates back to the 9th century. This is the one of the oldest instruments found, however the voice was truly the first instrument. At first there was vocal music, next came percussive and instrumental music and as the human race started to become more technologically advanced, it's art forms too became more advanced. At first we were limited to musical performance based on what we could commit to memory. As time went on more and more types of instruments were invented due to technology and by the medieval times one of the most important technological advancements were made, a method of inscribing musical notation was created in order for monks to save their chants for the use of prayer. As time passed, musical notation was revised and evolved into a standard notation, which is what we use today. The next great technological advancement in music occurred in the 19th century when we gained the ability to record sound using analog electronic equipment. Here we are, now in the 21st century, and we have now moved into the digital domain. Through the creation of musical notation we could capture the idea of a song or composition, but with the ability to record the actual song itself as it was performed, we gained the ability to access music without having to have a performer present. Now we are in the "Digital Age" and our computers can encode music and sound recordings into a series of ones and zeros and this binary system is opening many new doors. The computer is now beginning to be used as a musical instrument and software is being created not only to record sound, but to create and modulate sound as well. Through the use of digital technology, we are now possibly at the threshold of another major advancement in the realm of music and sound art. At this point, we are still using the old and familiar technologies, techniques and processes but at the same time new techniques are being developed, new questions are arising and new territory is being explored. This is a very exciting time for art, but is also a dangerous time… it is important to remember that ideology supercedes technology. Although technology has helped in the progression and evolution of sound and music, without the Mind… without the Idea, technology is useless. Technology is not an instrument itself, it is just a means to achieving ideology.

When creating music and sonic art in the digital domain, we still have the ability to use the information we have worked so hard to achieve, but in ways we have not yet done. Up until the 20th century the human race only had control over pitch, volume, length and tempo of music. Today pretty much all parameters of sound have become tangible… we have gained the ability to literally sculpt sound with as little or as much control as we want. This was made possible by DSP, otherwise known as Digital Signal Processing, where the computer processes an audio signal in pretty much anyway we want, need or can dream. This has dramatically changed the technique and process of creating music. No longer does the artist have to have total control over the sound they are producing, they can have as much or as little control as they want. Digital musicians can work in an additive way, from the ground up, starting with silence and ending with whatever they want or they can work in a subtractive way starting with white noise, every frequency occurring simultaneously, and extracting only those frequencies they need for a piece. They can create music as formulaic and calculated as Bach, or they can give the computer total control and leave the results up to the random. There are so many new processes and techniques when creating digital music, but as Jackson Pollock said, "Technique is just a means of arriving at a statement. When I am painting I have a general notion as to what I am about. I can control the flow of the paint" (http://www.nga.gov). Although Pollock was using paint as his media, the same applies to music. Basically he was saying that technique is just a means of arriving at an ideology, regardless of how rudimentary or complex, primal or technological.

Walter Benjamin, in his essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, introduced the concept of Aura. "That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. This is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art. One might generalize by saying: The technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence… If, while resting on a summer afternoon, you follow with your eyes a mountain range on the horizon or a branch which casts it's shadow over you, you experience the aura of those mountains, of that branch." I recently went to a sound installation called Resonance^3 by sonic artist, Jeff Talman, at the Bitforms Gallery in New York City. When I walked into the gallery and heard the sounds resonating in that space, I experienced the aura of the installation. What Mr. Talman did was record the room tone of the gallery (the silence of the gallery) and analyzed it digitally. He then found the resonant frequencies of room tone and extracted them from the analysis. He took steel tubes tuned to the resonant frequencies and used those tubes to re-resonate those frequencies inside the gallery space. He did all this mostly within the digital domain, but the aura was found not in the digital world, but in the sound resonating through the gallery space… but What happens when a piece never escapes the digital domain? What happens if it never exists in the present as an individual performance? Benjamin says that a mechanical reproduction is void of a piece's original aura, "By making reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence… " The reproduction is compromising the original idea, the process in which the piece was created and the relationship between the original idea and process to its receptors (audience). If someone records a symphonic orchestral performance, the aura is indigenous to the original performance and does not exist on that recording. In a lot of digital music there is no original performance, there is a writing process in which the artist decides on what notes go where and how the piece will sound. There is a lot of button pressing, mouse clicking and this process takes a lot of time. Where musicians, bands and orchestras can produce music in real time, the composition of digital music can take forever. After a digital composition is created, mixed down, saved and transformed into an audible format there really is no original, the piece is basically a file type… a binary code, that is it. What does it matter than if a digital piece like this is reproduced then? They have no natural existence so where is the aura of these pieces then? I cannot prove where the aura is or is not, but I believe that the aura rests in the ideology of that piece.

Where does the ideology come from? In order to gain a better understanding of this not just in the digital music realm, but in the art world in general it is crucial to look at works from both Plato and Aristotle. In Plato's, Ion, Socrates says to Ion, "…the Muse first of all inspires men herself; and from these inspired persons a chain of other persons is suspended, who take the inspiration. For all good poets, epic as well as lyric, compose their beautiful poems not by art, but because they are inspired and possessed… for not by art does the poet sing, but by power divine." Plato introduces the concept of magnetic rings in which Muse is at the top sending out inspiration and the spectator is at the bottom receiving inspiration. Is it divine power which gives the artist his/her ideas and principles? Is it divine power which gives art aura?

Plato, in Book X of The Republic, talks about form and the imitative artist. Plato again suggests that divine power plays a large role in the creation of art. "We have three forms of couch. There's the one which exists in the natural order of things. This one, I imagine we'd say, was the work of a god… Then there's the one made by the carpenter… And then the one made by the painter." The couch which exists in the natural order of things we would say is the form; the couch that a carpenter makes is a manufactured couch, a replica of the form. The couch a painter paints is a replica of the manufactured couch, which is in turn a replica of the form, hence a painted couch is a replica of a replica. The painter is, as Plato wrote, "nothing but an image maker who stands far removed from the truth." Plato's student, Aristotle developed his own idea from the imitative artist which in, The Art of Poetry, he describes as Mimêsis (Greek), meaning to replicate or copy. "The desire to 'imitate or represent' is instinctive in man from childhood… he is the most mimetic of all animals, and it is through mimetic activity that he first begins to learn." In terms of art, Aristotle thought that the more mimetic the art in relation to the human condition, the further away it was from the truth. For this reason he put painting at the bottom of his list of due to the fact that it is static and completely non-dynamic, it was an imitation of truth and therefore deceives. At the top of his list of truthful art was music. The reason for this was because, to Aristotle, music was dynamic, it captures human action and emotion and does not depict what was like painting, but instead what could have been possible, but not what really exists in Nature. The difference between Plato and Aristotle is, Plato believed art shows nature as it is and Aristotle thought art shows how nature acts. For Plato, Benjamin's concept of aura exists in the form of an object, the divine idea of an object. The artist draws inspiration from the form, where the ideology of the piece is encased, and from Muse who sends inspiration to the mortals. For Aristotle aura exists in the natural world, the artist draws inspiration from the human condition.

Although Aristotle would say art is created through mimesis and Plato might say the artist is imitating the original form of a subject, Benjamin says something that contrasts the idea of mimicry. "The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from it's being embedded in the fabric of tradition. This tradition itself is thoroughly alive and extremely changeable. An ancient statue of Venus, for example, stood in a different traditional context with the Greeks, who made it an object of veneration, than the clerics of the Middle Ages, who viewed it as an ominous idol. Both of them, however, were equally confronted with its uniqueness, that is, its aura" To Benjamin, works of art are not imitations, they are unique, and that uniqueness is its aura. That unique quality of the art is closely knit into the traditions of society. "Today’s avant-garde music draws upon a tradition that dates back at least to 1913, when the Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo published 'The Art of Noises,' a manifesto calling for the inclusion of the noises of everyday life into music. This concept spread further in the post-World War II era with John Cage and the French "music concrete" movement in the 1940s that incorporated chance and manipulation of sounds into compositions. This has had an extraordinary impact on composers from the mid-twentieth century to the present. Today’s composers use the innovative tools of technology for inventing new techniques of sound creation, manipulation, and production. They incorporate popular styles of the last several decades and create work that reveals the concerns of our time" (Nina Colosi http://www.evo1.org).

In our time, tradition, through globalization, especially within the digital domain, has become more geographically homogenized. John Cage said, "The musical world is in a very different situation than it was when I was young… It comes through a great change in technology and through a really changed world in which people who were formerly in cultures that were separate are now fully aware of each other" (Kostelanetz 290). Digital music is becoming more and more of a global phenomenon, especially through music on the internet. Digital Art on the internet can be distributed thousands of miles over in seconds, this totally changes the technique and process of art due to the fact that "it places us in a creative cycle, in a living environment in which we are always already co-authors. Work in progress? It shifts the emphasis from work to progress. Its manifestations will relate to moments, places collective dynamics, but no longer to people. It is an art that bears no signature" (Pierre Levy).

In his article, The Art of Cyberspace, Levy brings forth the idea that digital art can become organic. It will have no one author but will find its way to the creative submission of many and thus it will take on a life of it's own. At this point there will be a blur between the audience and the artist. We are beginning to see this occur in digital music in the different remixes fans do to pay homage to their musical idols and post on the internet. When and if digital music and art gets to the point where it does become somewhat organic and take a life of it's own, what will be it's ideology and where will we find it's aura? I think we will find its aura in its uniqueness, but what will be it's ideology, it's principles and philosophy? One can really only speculate.

Today we are possibly at the cusp of a new technological breakthrough in music and art by entering the digital world. There are so many new questions, ideas and thoughts about where digital art is headed and at this point no one really knows what direction things are moving… hopefully in a positive one. At this point one thing is certain, technology just opens new doors for us, it is not a creator of art… it just gives us a little push in one direction or another. We are the creators… as Willy Wonka said in Roald Dahl's, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, "We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of the dreams."


Aristotle. The Art of Poetry


Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction


Bitforms. Home Page. 27 Nov. 2002. <http://www.bitforms.com>


Colosi, Nina. The Antennae of the Race. <http://www.evo1.org>


Kostelanetz, Richard. Esthetics Contemporary (Revised), New York, NY , Prometheus Books, 1989


Levy, Pierre. The Art of Cyberspace


Macák, Ivan. The Frcák: A Musical Instrument with No Analog ? (essay came in a packet with no indication of who published it)


Plato. Ion


Plato. The Republic, Book X

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