Retroactive Listening: Perspectives on Music & Technology

Edited by Louis J. Battaglia and Produced by Sarah Zupko

So here you are. It’s 2010 and, as you read this, your assiduously info-scanning eyes are quite possibly ablaze with the reflection of an electronic screen from one of your portable electronic devices, which simultaneously pumps the soothing sounds of your choice into your sponge-like ears. Your multi-tasking, multi-existing presence — no longer dependent upon an actual presence — is all made possible by your ability to plug into an invisible ether-like network that the Ancient Greeks might have mistaken for their cosmos.

Modern-day thinkers have provided us with other equally grandiose names for it, like the technium or the singularity.

Regardless of which conceptual tag you choose to link examples of modern technology to the broader technological womb we all are cooing within, there is little doubt that this whirring, crackling, pulsating, electric womb that now encompasses our collective being has changed absolutely everything.

Take those soothing sounds emanating from your portable electronic device, for instance. Music, the thing Nietzsche wrote, “life would be an error” without, is now for many the audio scenery found floating along their daily commute across the information superhighway. As a thing in itself, music has become so tightly integrated into the restless technological undertow of today that it is getting harder and harder to distinguish between the two. While it is music’s symbiotic — some might say synonymous — relationship with technology that makes it a perfect microcosm to illustrate technology’s broader impact on our lives, the “Retroactive Listening: Perspectives on Music and Technology” series is instead concerned with a set of different, but equally pressing questions. Questions, inspired by Nietzsche’s 19th century words, that seek to uncover technology’s impact on the music in our 21st century lives.

For instance, what exactly is the nature of the role that technology has played in changing the music we create and consume? In a modern context, has technology been a liberating force, unshackling the constraints that limited our access to other people’s music and our ability to produce our own, not to mention getting it “out there”? Has technology stimulated a tidal wave of creativity or has it simply flooded the market with subpar music? Was our first instinct correct, to wave from the safety of our shore-like P2P networks to the once titanic music industry as it drowned in the technological sea change? Or is the technological revolution proving to be a whirlpool-like force that is somehow slowly sucking music of its most precious, most fleeting value?

Is this why droves of people are tripping over one another at flea markets and garage sales to (re)build their library-like vinyl collections?

The “Retroactive Listening” series is our attempt here at PopMatters to resolves these questions, or at least provide a forum in which the concerned parties can take stock on the matter. The group of writers and thinkers presented in this series are from a broad spectrum of backgrounds, each with a different point of view on the matter and each with a distinct entry point into the debate over how technology has influenced music and our lives. While the views ultimately expressed in this series may not always reflect the opinions of the PopMatters staff, we are impressed with the writers who stepped forward to tackle these daunting, hard-to-answer-questions.

Some of their pieces follow social trends, like Emily Becker’s “MP3s, the Death of the Record Store, and the Birth of the Closet Hipster”, which tracks how independent record store-centered, High Fidelity-style music snobbery gradually diffused itself out across the internet and into some unexpected places. Joseph Fisher’s piece, “iPod and Alienation: Loneliness Is a Cool iPod; Happiness Is a Warm Album Cover” also focuses on the social impact of the MP3, but in a more personal light that expresses the writer’s own doubts about the utopian — as opposed to critical — consensus that currently surrounds our file-sharing crazed culture. Kirby Fields echoes this concern in his “File Sharing” piece by pointing out that there is a difference between sharing files and sharing music.

History provided the inspiration for several other pieces, including Jonathan De Souza’s, “Bone Flutes, Pianos, and iPods: Notes on Technology, Music, and Embodiment”, which extends the examination of music and technology’s tangled relationship back 35,000 years. Fast forwarding tens of millennia, Jay Somerset’s “AM Gold ’82” found the single year of 1982 as a definitive instance when technology initiated a monumental shift in music history, while Laura Schnitker’s “Indie in the Age of the Internet” charts the paradoxical rise of independent music and offers insight into its changing place in today’s world.

Other pieces hone in on the technologies that make music, as opposed to those which distribute it. David M. Kammerer’s “‘Rockit’ Science: Eighties Instrumental Pop in the Brave New [Digital] World” and Tara Rodgers’s “Listening to the RCA Electronic Music Synthesizer as New Technology, 1955” both focus on specific music-making technology in a particular time and place and how that technology opened the door to new musical styles and entirely new dimensions in sound.

A handful of writer’s make the compelling case that “Retroactive Listening” isn’t really about music and/or technology, but instead its about us, and how the technology/music dialectic has changed us. Eric Casero’s “Mental Machine Music: The Musical Mind in the Digital Age” argues that real cognitive changes have taken place inside our minds since the analog age gave way to the digital age. Karen Snell’s “The Ever-Changing ‘Technical Aesthetic’ and its Influence on Music Teaching and Learning” offers parallel observations based on her time spent conducting pedagogical case studies in the music classroom.

Our hope when we conceived this series was to collect solid pieces that critically addressed the pros and cons of technology’s impact on music’s consumption, production, and distribution. To do this, we sought out a diverse array of perspectives in order to cover the full range of this issue. We didn’t care if writer’s chose to look at MIDI and MP3s or bone flutes and boomboxes; we wanted to hear from everybody about everything.

What we have for you here, then, is a series of smart, focused essays on the critical moments within musical history, those moments in time when the acts of listening, performing, and experiencing music became something new entirely. While the pieces don’t form a unified chorus regarding the positive versus negative impact of technology on music, the writer’s all from the onset shared a Nietzscheian appreciation for music and, in the end, come to at least one similar conclusion. Technology has not only continually transformed the structure of the physical world, it has also radically altered the shape and sound of our audible world, which has lead to incredible, and sometimes questionable, modifications in our lives. An idealistic critic might call this modification progress; an evolutionary biologist might call it mutation. We hope this series will provide you with the necessary tools to construct your own conclusion.

Louis J. Battaglia