Bone Flutes, Pianos, and iPods

Notes on Music, Technology, and Embodiment

by Jonathan De Souza

14 March 2010


New Potential, New Limits

Even if music has lost its body, we haven’t lost ours.

Within the past decade or so, it may seem that music has suddenly dematerialized. Thanks to lightning-fast internet connections, there is now a global flow of information, in which music is a primary commodity—even if it is not always paid for. iTunes and the iPod—both introduced in 2001—make this particularly clear. When an “album” is purchased online, the buyer does not receive a physical object (nor does the buyer pay with physical money). Instead, a file is downloaded that can play on a computer, be transferred to an iPod, or burnt to a CD. This music isn’t tied to a particular artifact like an LP. It’s ultimately just a cryptic, matrix-like pattern of ones and zeros that can be converted into music by computers like any other information-based file.

Even if music has lost its body, we haven’t lost ours. Digital technologies, from MP3 players to musical video games, have clearly changed the way we experience music—but we still experience it in our physicality. So what is the relationship between the iPod and our bodies, in terms of resonant contact between body and tool?

Once again, this technology is made for the human body. Tiny earbud headphones fit snugly into the ears like hand in glove—except in this case, your body is the glove and the earbuds are the hand. And the iPod itself is small enough to tuck into a pocket or wear on an armband, permitting complete mobility. Especially as new models shrink, the iPod almost disappears or blends in as a part of the body. Remember Apple’s iconic ads for the device? They don’t depict the machine on its own; they show exuberant, plugged-in, dancing bodies, waltzing, twirling, and swinging along to their iPods. The ads highlight the physical freedom that the iPod enables, even encourages. Whether you’re jogging around the park, driving down the freeway to work, or flying home on an airplane, a massive library of music, weighing no more than 4.9 ounces, can go with you.

New potential, though, also brings new limits. In Hutchins’ terms, the piano was a relatively “open” technology, visible and audible to everyone in the room. As mentioned earlier, it can even be played by two people. In contrast, the iPod is typically closed. The headphones are tightly integrated with your ears. The music masks the sounds of your environment but isn’t accessible to others around you. Headphone splitters or certain stereos allow multiple people to listen to the same iPod, of course—but usually with some loss of portability or bodily integration.

Compared again to the piano, the iPod (and other media for recorded music) foster a passive mode of listening. You don’t need to produce a single note, nor do you even need to practice. Your body can practically disengage. But successfully operating an iPod does require certain skills that we can easily take for granted—besides using the click wheel while driving. iPods and iTunes, on a more interesting level, guide the ways that we collect and categorize music. Playlists constitute a personal soundtrack that can shape the mood, even the feeling, of exercising, commuting, or anything that we find ourselves doing with our earplugs attached. This ultimately contributes to a certain sense of identity, or what sociologist Tia DeNora is getting at when she refers to “music as a technology of the self”.

iPods may not develop the motor memory involved with playing scales, but they can still change the way your body feels in the world. In a way, I may be making a somewhat perverse argument that the iPod is really a new musical instrument because it opens up musical possibilities and interacts with the body much the way bone flutes and pianos did. But I don’t want to mistakenly suggest that the bone flute, the piano, and the iPod represent either mutually exclusive moments or a continuous evolution. After all, these three technologies, these ways of knowing and touching music, coexist today. I have both a piano and an iPod. Even if I don’t play the bone flute, some people do. Funnily enough, the easiest way to hear this prehistoric sound is to look it up online. This kind of technological coexistence, of course, isn’t unique to music. I could have written this article with a pen, a typewriter, or a computer.

The future will doubtless bring other musical technologies, with new possibilities and new limitations—as well as unexpected uses for existing devices. The idea of iPod as instrument might not seem so strange in a few years. It would not be the first technology to blur the line between producing and reproducing music—just look at turntablism or even laptop music. The experiments, actually, have already begun. Ben Smith, a fiddler and composer of electroacoustic music, has started performing on a specially programmed iPod Touch. By tapping, tilting, and shaking it, he controls various sonic parameters, transforming the live input of his fellow musicians. (In a recent performance, Synchronic Shades, Smith’s collaborator was saxophonist/composer Shawn Allison, who has posted a recording on his website.) While this kind of interactive processing has been around for some time, it has usually involved someone sitting at a computer. Smith’s set-up, on the other hand, permits greater mobility. It turns the technician into another instrumentalist, making music through “performative gestures”. As the audience watches Smith touch the device and move it in real space, they listen to him physically manipulating sound through the iPod. And while at first glance, this might seem peculiar to us, perhaps the caveman’s initial experiments with skeletal leftovers once seemed so, too.

From Paleolithic flutes, to pianos, to iPods, the central point remains: just as the mind isn’t free from the body, music isn’t free from its material base. And, with the exception of certain vocal music, this base involves a resonant interface of tool and user, instrument and musician, machine and organism, technology and technique. In other words, the iPod listener, the pianist, even the prehistoric flutist, are all a similar kind of cyborg.

Jonathan De Souza grew up in Ontario, Canada, where he learned to play violin, viola, guitar, piano, mandolin, saxophone, concertina… He’s currently doing a PhD in music theory and history at the University of Chicago. Besides instruments and embodiment, Jonathan works on post-WWII experimental music and movie musicals about cowboys (though not at the same time). He also plays jazz, folk, and (sometimes) classical music around the Chicago area.

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