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date: 31 May 2020

(p. 449) Sonic Environments and Musical Experience

Our first two chapters of Part Six move the sonic environment of music into the app—the software portal into the virtual. Used in conjunction with mobile media technologies such as smartphones and tablets, for some it allows access to the virtual album and a more immediate experience of favorite artists. For others it accesses a therapeutic and hyperreal immersive experience, a simulation and resemblance of physical reality through technological means. “From Environmental Sound to Virtual Environment Enhancing: Consuming Ambiance as Listening Practice” explores Ambiance, a soundscape app that, as Thomas Brett reveals, has utility as a “noise-masker, sleep-inducer, virtual travel destination, and relaxation and meditation aid” (Chapter 24). His discussion is contextualized by a one-hundred-year tradition of environmental sound listening practices, ranging from Erik Satie’s musique d’ameublement, Pierre Schaeffer’s musique concrète, John Cage’s 4’33, and Brian Eno’s ambient music to the documentary research of R. Murray Schafer’s World Soundscape Project and Irving Teibel’s Environments recordings. Brett’s four ethnographic case studies connect to this history and explore the functionality of the Ambiance app, providing insights on how users of the app integrate it into their everyday listening practices to “relax, focus, daydream, (p. 450) and fall asleep” (ibid.). Despite sound preferences being shaped by individual personal needs, every listener uses “Ambiance to create immersive, ambient soundtracks that make use of both nature and human-made soundscapes” (ibid.). The case studies “suggest that listening to soundscapes is no longer the specialist’s niche of the field recordist or the environmental sound composer. Indeed, with apps like Ambiance, soundscapes have become an accessible means of personal environment enhancing” (ibid.). As Brett concludes, the listener uses Ambiance as “a way to cultivate mindfulness and experience a virtual, technological nature” (ibid.).

Whereas Brett’s discussion of ambiance apps hints at the utopian, Jeremy Wade Morris reveals a more dystopian involvement, namely, how the Internet’s nondiscriminatory reach has lent itself to commercial manipulations and capitalist practices. As his research demonstrates, the market for popular recorded music is “indelibly linked to its technologies of production, distribution and consumption” (Chapter 25) and although musicians and labels have been slower than other sectors to jump into application production for mobile devices, major artists such Björk and Lady Gaga have recently released expensive and expansive app-based virtual albums. As Morris observes in his chapter “App Music,” countless emerging artists and tech companies are exploring new ways to combine music and software, suggesting “apps as an increasingly viable avenue for packaging and delivery of the popular music commodity” (ibid.). Not least, the idea of partitioning the same commodity into multiple revenue streams and so multiplying the opportunities for purchases and upgrades has become an attractive proposition for the commercial sector of the music industry, which raises questions as to “how virtuality is mobilized in the service of marketing and adding value to the music product” (ibid.). As Morris concludes, “It is clear that app albums use the notion of the virtual to offer a range of interactivities for exploring an album, but it is also clear that virtuality is consistently and iteratively put in service of further splintering the music commodity into multiple component parts” (ibid.). App albums thus present both possibilities and problems as they mediate our aesthetic and affective relationships with cultural goods like music. Their artistic potential is exciting, but they are nonetheless limited by the constraints of their format and platform. As Morris points out, “The lack of integration and connection to the other musical commodities in a user’s library ultimately limits the use-ability of app-based albums” (ibid.). Hence, although “app albums might enhance a focus on the album as an entire artistic work, it stands as an impractical way of handling, sorting, and consuming the digital music commodity” (ibid.). Questions are also raised as to whether app albums encourage new kinds of meanings and whether these differ, if at all, from our previous experiences with the music commodity, not least when it is being exploited for its capitalist potential. It is an issue that is of central significance to Juho Kaitajärvi-Tiekso’s investigation, in Chapter 26, into Finnish micro-independent labels, which subscribe to an uncompromising aesthetic and are critical of hegemonic music industries, valuing autonomy at the expense of commercial success.

(p. 451) As Kaitajärvi-Tiekso explains, micro labels “have a complex relationship with virtual music culture, which—although useful—undermines their economic infrastructure and challenges their subversive position in the field of cultural production” (Chapter 26). As such, there is an ideological challenge, and his discussion of Ektro Records provides an investigative case study of “a label trying to achieve a balance between virtual online and physical offline music cultures” (ibid.). “Alternative Virtuality: Independent Micro Labels Facing the Ideological Challenge of Virtual Music Culture—The Case of Finnish Ektro Records” explores the tension between physical recordings as “concrete, collectible works of art,” and digital music as “disposable and superficial” (ibid.). As he notes, Ektro differs from other active independent Finnish micro labels in its production ideology, which includes a specific artistic manifesto with its catalog, and an informed and radical critique of the culture industry by its founder, Jussi Lehtisalo. As such, Ektro relates to a longstanding countercultural ideology, thus providing an essential cultural continuum from the Finnish Underground of the 1960s, championing artistic autonomy and giving “a voice to those to whom it has traditionally been denied by the gatekeepers, or the record industry” (ibid.). Micro labels’ desire for autonomy is an important consideration in distribution of recordings, and even though Ektro are using the Internet, their online shop “not only sells its own productions but also functions as a ‘distro’ (ibid.) or small-scale order distribution company. “Electronic fanzines, mailing lists, blogs, discussion forums, and social media like Facebook … have also generated global fan networks” (ibid.), but as Kaitajärvi-Tiekso explains, whereas the “distribution of—and therefore access to—micro label releases has expanded, the profits used to fund them have declined proportionally” (ibid.). The streaming service Spotify, for example, in spite of its huge popularity in Finland since 2008, has not been economically productive for micro labels. As Lehtisalo argues, “legal digital distribution [is] a mere tool to make money” (cited in ibid.), with the result that “unauthorized downloading of music is actually better for micro labels than the present situation, where the profit appears to go mainly to the digital businesses, which are involved neither in producing the records nor in creating the music and thus run no risk” (Chapter 26). As such, Ektro distributes digitally to Spotify and iTunes, but “the focus of the label remains on collectible physical releases” and the free virtual distribution of recordings, where “the risks involved are also part of the excitement of releasing records” (ibid.).

As Kaitajärvi-Tiekso observes, in the contemporary world “the problem is not the virtual space but how it is territorialized, or colonized” (ibid.). This concern is also relevant to Michael Audette-Longo’s investigation into “CBC Radio 3, an online radio station that specializes in the broadcast and promotion of independent [indie] Canadian music” (Chapter 27). More specifically, “Everybody Knows There Is Here: Surveying the Indexi-local in CBC Radio 3” explores how CBC uses local regions, institutions, and geographical locations to organize the website’s “database (p. 452) logic” and how this, in turn, produces a narrative structure for CBC Radio 3’s indie music programming by creating a semblance of localized contact and immediacy (the virtual image of the indexi-local).

How CBC’s production of remediation interweaves with the service’s textual representation of Canada’s myriad local music scenes, and the website’s representation of CBC Radio 3 as “the home of independent Canadian music” (ibid.), thus raises questions as to whether its operational mandate meshes with a more general treatment of indie music as a localized subcultural experience that facilitates contact and connection. The importance of place and local scenes as sites of empowerment for indie music’s struggle against the recording industry’s corporatism provides an insight into its history, where localized modes of production place a specific emphasis on aesthetic quality and the authenticity of localized musical experience. This is reflected in how “the circulation of local regions in Radio 3 through DJ banter, news stories, blog posts, and artist information locates the content and station as local and Canadian through the recurring stress on the diverse regions and cities associated with Canadian indie music” (ibid.). As Audette-Longo observes, “Two iterations of local regions have been identified: One produces the ‘feel’ of the local through a recurrent textual emphasis on local regions, and the other involves the circulation of local regions as metadata organizing the circulation of data hosted by CBC Music” (ibid.). “Abridging the sorts of interactions with the service’s database logic with theories of virtuality indicates that individual understandings of Canadian indie music emerges, in part, by interacting with the digital music service. The service, in turn, draws on the existent knowledge and musical practices of musicians and listeners alike to facilitate its functionality” (ibid.). At the same time, Indie’s “continued circulation within CBC Music suggests … the broader and continued allure (and malleability) of a subculture in which not only ‘our band could be your life,’ but also ‘our metadata could be your scene’ ” (ibid.).

Our final chapter of Part Six, “Mind Usurps Program: Virtuality and the ‘New Machine Aesthetic’ of Electronic Dance Music,” also discusses the evolving relationship between human (organic) and machine (computer), a central issue in the discourse surrounding virtuality and music. As Benjamin Halligan explains, “With respect to popular music … it was as if the tension between the idea of ‘electronic’ and ‘music’ dissipated once ‘music’ is qualified as essentially ‘not really music’ or ‘nonmusic’ by dint of that pejorative term ‘virtual’ ” (Chapter 28).

His premise is developed through an analysis of electronic dance music (EDM), at the point of acid house, whereby “disco typically allowed the electronic to be a soundbed and beat for the human element of the music” (ibid.). As he explains, “What was human arose from singing and playing instruments, with the resultant music then ‘treated’ and altered by the machine rather than, as would now become the case via incorporation of the synthesizer into the computer (a move anticipated by machines such as the Synclavier), the computer alone generating the music. EDM foregrounds (p. 453) the machine, which then constitutes the mise-en-scène of the sound, with a space allowed for the human element” (ibid.). It is a thought that opens further the idea of virtuality and how we experience the sonic environment of music: “The introduction of the idea of virtuality allows EDM ‘before’ (principally disco, but also Motorik and synthesizer pioneers of the 1970s such as Moroder, Wendy Carlos, and Jean-Michel Jarre—analog EDM)1 to be considered in modernist terms, the integration of man and industrial machine, with the latter at the service of the former. EDM ‘proper’—that is, digital—is then postmodern, the integration of machine with machine, as a closed loop.” As such, “The idea of virtuality—in its earliest understandings, in the sense of ‘virtually human’ or ‘not quite human’—shifts the parameters of the debate on computer-generated music” (ibid.). The virtualness of digital EDM is, as Halligan observes, “ ‘post-human’ music that explores its own possibilities rather than offering a mimicking of received forms of music. … The DJ … confronts panels of switches and faders, and interacts with laptops and memory sticks, as he sequences and splices extant music.” As such, the “bank of machines is a way of accessing, and so calling into existence, another realm of information—and one that becomes self-sustaining and infinitely mutable. The sense that data and information are already ‘out there’ in the ether, and can be accessed and channeled via the computer, makes for a sense of virtuality that is spiritlike: unknowable, invisible, ever-present” (ibid.). As Halligan observes, “whether this state of affairs is depoliticizing and stupefying or liberating and empowering remains … a matter of debate. … The common ground, however, is clear: empowerment through art as a didactic and liberating engagement with the proletariat” (ibid.). EDM, it is argued, “seems to contain an imagining of its own constituency. That is, the EDM track projects the idea of its own enlightened listener, while the enlightened listener can seek to fulfill that role” (ibid.).