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date: 26 May 2020

(p. 11) The Pre-digital Virtual

Research into the shifting relationships between what is real, what is virtual, what is virtually real, and the here-and-now world of the actually real reveals that the digital virtuality of the global Internet is only the latest incarnation of the virtual (Shields 2003). As such, “The Pre-Digital Virtual” takes a broader historical perspective, one that anticipates the continuing fascination with illusion, fantasy worlds, and musical performances that bridge both lived and imagined experiences in Parts Two and Three of our handbook. Christian Lloyd’s chapter, “In Seventeenth Heaven: Virtual Listening and Its Discontents,” opens with one such example: the impact of the Heaven Seventeen on generations of readers and musicians who “virtually perform the fictional band’s music.” As he notes, Anthony Burgess (2012), the author of A Clockwork Orange (originally published in 1962), supplied no details about the music; yet his “principle of omission … has generated a huge proliferation of performed and recorded musical supplements to the fictional band,” so providing an initial insight into how the fictional enters the virtual and, in the case of Sheffield synth band Heaven 17, how this then sediments into the real. As he explains, the aim of his chapter is to investigate “the paradoxes and ironies” associated with “what it means ‘to listen’ in our age of virtual music,” and his research involves “two kinetic models for virtual listening, with an emphasis on listeners’ reception in play with musicians’ production: (1) a collapse of the virtual-other binary, with the terms and their referents in supplementary relation; and (2) a series of dialogic interactions between the virtual and its other.” These are explored through pre-digital instances of virtual listening, and virtual music that inspires significant material forms. His examples include the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” Rubber Soul (1965) and the mutation of the Beatles’ (p. 12) work by Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse, in the 2004 mashup of The White Album with Jay Z’s The Black Album. Aural greed, the anonymity of downloading, illegal file sharing, the damage this causes to bands, and the stand taken by musicians are also explored in what Lloyd identifies as the passive-aggressive tactics embodied in The Fiery Furnace’s Silent Music (2009). Other examples include Beck Hanson’s 2012 album Song Reader and Bill Drummond’s The 17 project. From the perversions of silence, Lloyd turns to strategies of noise, and the “loudness wars” of the late 1990s and 2000s, where hypercompression provided a means of catching the audience’s ears with the sheer volume of sound. It seems this was due to the “impatience in ‘shallow’ listeners who have grown up within the era of vast digital availability via web torrents and digital radio,” with the implication that the web “is literally rewiring our brains, inducing only superficial understanding” (Carr 2010, back cover), although recent research now brings this assumption into question.

Although we might well agree with Lloyd’s premise that, given the sheer amount of music now available digitally, listening to it “carefully enough to be accurately absorbed [into] our busy, mobile culture” is a thing of the past, fans of the Beatles would certainly prove an exception. As Philip Auslander and Ian Inglis write, their albums and singles not only remain “the definitive soundtrack of the [1960s] decade” but also top contemporary popularity charts. Yet there is also a more shadowy side to the famous four, one where “Nothing Is Real.” Auslander and Inglis take the reader into the previously unwritten history of “The Beatles as Virtual Performers,” one that ostensibly originated in 2009 when the video game The Beatles: Rock Band allowed players to engage with the “virtual Beatles” and “participate in instrumental and vocal performances of more than forty Beatles tracks.” Yet, as Auslander and Inglis suggest, their careers as “virtual performers began many years before their rebirth in the world of digital animation,” and that “closer inspection of the Beatles’ activities through the 1960s reveals that there were numerous occasions on which the group participated in musical scenarios that were, in fact, effective simulations of the conventional performer-audience encounter.” This is evidenced in the thirty-nine half-hour episodes of The Beatles, an animated cartoon series where “stories are loosely inspired by, and performed to, a specific Beatles track,” along with a “singalong” segment where “the TV audience is encouraged to join in—to sing with the Beatles,” who engage in banter with their fans through a simulated, if one-sided conversation, thus blurring actuality and artifice. This was followed by the full-length animated movie Yellow Submarine (dir. George Dunning), where the imprisoned Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band are the Beatles’ Edwardian alter egos, known to the audience from the cover of their 1967 album, so providing a further example of the real—the material—the animated/virtual. An exploration of the Beatles’ film career reveals that “their audiences [were given] opportunities to accompany the Beatles rather than simply watch them: first, as fellow passengers on a surreal coach journey” in Magical Mystery Tour (1967) and “second, as invited guests in the intimate confines of the recording studio” in Let It Be (1970). This also included the (p. 13) famous “impromptu” concert held atop the roof of Apple’s Savile Row headquarters, the band’s final live performance, but as Auslander and Inglis observe, “their intended (and principal) audience was not the crowd of unseen passers-by on the pavements of Savile Row, but those who would experience their performance later on the movie screen, as a performance by the virtual Beatles.” As they conclude, “Although the terminology of the ‘virtual performer’ had not yet entered the musical vocabulary of the 1960s, how the Beatles sought to manipulate their status as performers was an effective prototype of strategies adopted by many others during and after the digital revolution.”

Sheila Whiteley also returns to the pre-digital world in her analysis of the animated cartoon Johann Mouse (MGM 1953) and the “virtual” world of Johann Strauss II’s Vienna. Given his status as the waltz king, it is not surprising that the music drives the dynamics of the animation, while the simulations of Tom, as Strauss’s cat, and Jerry, as the dancing mouse, reveal their status as prototypes of digitally animated cartoon characters. Her initial analysis of the cartoon is informed by Walt Disney’s “Twelve Principles of Animation”1 and is followed by a discussion of the music of Johann Strauss II and the premise that even though it is obvious that Tom (as a cartoon character) cannot (in reality) play the piano, his performance on screen is an indication that he is playing diegetically, that is, from a sound source within the narrative world that he and Johann Mouse inhabit. The synchronizing of the virtual performance with the ghosted playing of the Viennese concert pianist Jakob Gimpel is thus crucial to the believability of Tom’s bravura performances and to how the stylistic idiosyncrasies of the music are matched by his mimetic musical piano playing. Whiteley then moves to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where Tom and Johann perform at the emperor’s palace. The sense that a musical experience is taking place is related to the characterization of Tom and Johann and how they interact with the cultural signifiers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, not least in their formal introduction to the Emperor and his court against the opening bars of Strauss’s Kaiser-Waltzer. This, in turn, is given a docu-dramatic focus by the heavily accented storytelling of Hans Conried, an American comedian and voice actor whose father was a Jewish immigrant from Vienna. The music, the characterization, and the storyline thus structure the listening and viewing experience and together with the animated sequences create an imaginary/virtual world, which in turn taps into popular memory through the narrator’s “It was the same old story” as Tom gives into his relentless pursuit of Johann. As Whiteley concludes, our experience of the cartoon is syncretic: the rhythm of the music and the characters’ animated responses structure our listening and viewing experience, so creating virtuality through their own imaginary world. Together with the editing and camera work, they create the necessary direct and mutually causal relationship between the text, its animation, and the implied viewer: the “as if” of virtual performance and its affective response.

(p. 14) As Shara Rambarran’s discussion of Gorillaz (Chapter 9 of this volume) demonstrates, in today’s world “everything is a virtual copy of itself” (Roger Morton, quoted in Gorillaz: Rise of the Ogre 2006). Rowan Oliver’s chapter in this volume, “Bring That Beat Back: Sampling as Virtual Collaboration,” provides a further example in his exploration of how the creative interplay between the producer who samples and the instrumentalist whose performance is sampled can be read as a process of virtual collaboration. As he acknowledges, this may well stretch our understanding of the virtual, but Oliver’s focus on musicking as a collaborative activity for musicians working across temporal, geographical, and stylistic boundaries does suggest a precedence for the digital collaboration explored in Parts Four and Five of the Handbook. His premise is explored with reference to hip hop’s sampled drum loops—or breakbeats—proposing that groove is the mechanism through which such musicking can take place. Summarizing groove, he suggests that it is “generally assumed to relate to rhythm and, more specifically, microtiming… . Given that these gestures can only be classified as rhythmically ‘nuanced’ when heard in relation to another temporal structure—most often defined as pulse, meter, or some metronomically precise ideal”—a broad consensus emerges that groove in music relies on the interconnected ideas of participation and embodiment, ideas initially seeming to be at odds with the disembodiment that is inherent in the process of sampling. Building on Schutz (1964, 174–175), however, Oliver proposes that sampling can be interpreted as collaborative, particularly if it is seen as “an extension of the call-and-response tradition” (citing McLeod and DiCola 2011, 49): that “when a groove is sampled, its gaps act as virtual nodes via which collaboration can occur across time, thereby allowing the hip-hop producer to provide a contemporary response to the call of the original breakbeat.” This notion is exemplified in the techniques introduced by producers such as Marley Marl and his peers, whose roots lay in the established practice of DJ culture, and is corroborated by several anecdotal sources acknowledging that “hip hop producers feel, in some way, as though they are collaborating creatively with the instrumentalists whose performances they sample.” Oliver’s premise of “creative collaboration” is explored with reference to the journey of development and metamorphosis taken through several hip hop tracks by the drum break from the introduction of “Impeach the President” by the Honeydrippers (1973). As he concludes, by “exploring the virtual aspects of both the solo groove of breakbeats and the disembodying process of sampling … a multilayered sense by which virtuality is inherent in this practice emerges.”

As contributors to our Handbook have noted, part of the reason for the virtual-ness of newer media comes from how they build on and extend previous media. We would extend this observation by including “the history of ideas”—philosophies that underpin the virtual and their historical significance—as Paul Carr’s discursive introduction to his chapter, “An Analysis of Virtuality in the Creation and Reception of the Music of Frank Zappa” demonstrates. Music as (p. 15) “representational” has long been a feature of musicological debate, and Carr takes on this issue by offering the reader an insight into the role of language in analyzing musical virtuality. Drawing on Bertrand Russell’s discussion “what means and what is meant” (Russell 2008 [1923], 84), Carr identifies vagueness—“a characteristic of [an artifact’s] relation to that which is known, not a characteristic of the occurrence in itself [Carr’s emphasis]” (85) as an important distinction, one that he elaborates on further, specifically when discussing his interpretation of Zappa’s music. As he observes, Leo Treitler’s assertion that “words are asked to identify not music’s properties or the experience of those properties but abstractions that music signifies [Carr’s emphasis]” (Treitler 1997, 30) is also considered important, “as this effectively often locates discussion about music further into a mediated logocentric virtual world.”

Carr’s analysis of the music and reception of Zappa’s music opens with the premise that he “overtly and purposively employed techniques to philosophically position his creative output in a virtual, often teleological dimension,” that “his philosophies resonate with specific concepts of virtuality.” The reader is asked to note that “Zappa regarded all of his individual compositions and recordings as part of a unified whole, which was negotiated principally via three self-titled philosophies: the big note, project-object, and xenochrony,” so situating “his entire catalogue as a single entity—one that was determined by him and open to change.” As Carr observes, his paradigms provided a rationale for his regular reuse of existing material and rearrangements of compositions, so contributing to the construction of what Paul Sanden (2012) describes as Virtual Liveness—where “the limits of human performance are clearly surpassed” by mediation (46). Zappa’s 1991 release The Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life “serves as an indicative example of virtual live performance—with the album being presented as a unified concert performance, but in reality being compiled from numerous locations from the 1988 tour cut and pasted together … with guitar solos imported xenochronically: often from not only incongruous times, but also compositions.” The album also evidences Carr’s identification of “the philosophical theory of perdurantism, whereby the meaning of specific songs can be considered the sum of multiple distinct temporal instances.” As such, Zappa’s “merging time, space, and place, ultimately [represents] a reality that is beyond what we normally perceive”: a concept that he termed a “virtual frame.”


(1.) Authored in the 1900s, Disney’s twelve principles are outlined in detail in Ollie Johnson and Frank Thomas (1981). They were applied to many of the earliest animated feature films, such as Snow White (1937), Pinocchio and Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941), and Bambi (1942).

Burgess, Anthony. 2012. A Clockwork Orange: The Restored Edition. Ed. with an introduction and notes by Andrew Biswell. London: Heinemann.Find this resource:

Carr, Nicholas. 2010. The Shallows. London: Atlantic Books.Find this resource:

Johnson, Ollie, and Frank Thomas. 1981. The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation. New York: Abbeville Press.Find this resource:

McLeod, Kembrew, and Peter DiCola. 2011. Creative License: The Law and Culture of Digital Sampling. Durham: Duke University Press.Find this resource:

Browne, Cass. 2006. Gorillaz: The Rise of the Ogre. New York: Riverhead Books.Find this resource:

Russell, Bertrand. [1923] 2008. “Vagueness.” Australasian Journal of Psychology and Philosophy 1 (2): 84–92.Find this resource:

Sanden, Paul. 2012. “Virtual Liveness and Sounding Cyborgs: John Oswald’s ‘Vane’.’’ Popular Music 3 (1): 45–68.Find this resource:

Shields, Rob. 2003. The Virtual. London and New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Treitler, Leo. 1997. “Language and the Interpretation of Music.” In Music and Meaning, ed. Jenefer Robinson, 23–56. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.Find this resource:


(1.) Authored in the 1900s, Disney’s twelve principles are outlined in detail in Ollie Johnson and Frank Thomas (1981). They were applied to many of the earliest animated feature films, such as Snow White (1937), Pinocchio and Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941), and Bambi (1942).