Absolute Music, Mechanical Reproduction
by Arved Ashby

Reviewed by John Granzow


Published by University of California Press, 2010   |   336 pages

Mercury made the proverbial hatter mad. The philosopher who aims to pin down music might suffer the same fate—like quicksilver it seems to slip one’s grasp. Best give away what, in any case, will fly. The composer does so with her notation; a score that in turn might give way to divergent performances. And if one of these is called definitive, it is not any less transient by virtue of that attribution. If, finally, music rests in the auditory memory of the listener, it is more a hostel than a home, with recent hearings mixing with old ear worms, and thoughts wandering to all the competing demands on time. Where, then, in these tenuously associated domains is music? And then, of course, there is the issue of recording.

Absolute Music, Mechanical Reproduction is a book about how recording technology changes the way we hear and think about Western European Absolute music. Ashby provides a succinct overview of the idea of Absolute music, with its origins in the writings of E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776 – 1822, a rough contemporary of Beethoven), Ludwig Tieck, Arthur Schopenhauer and Richard Wagner. This music was thought to consist of instrumental compositions that did not contain extramusical representations, such as text, theatrical context, or programmatic narratives. The notion of Absolute music has always produced much controversy, making any simple definition difficult. For example, Richard Wagner, the one who critically coined the term “Absolute Music”, suggested it would include an Aria that soars over its words. He also claimed that it would not include strictly instrumental music that remained evocative of dance. Ashby is less interested in investigating the validity of such a category (indeed that work was already started by Wagner) and more interested in how such ideas of musical abstraction persist, inform (and are informed by) recording practices.

According to Ashby, the idea that recording is one of these extramusical activities, simply appended to absolute music and without any influence on it, rather than a process that alters the very nature of musical aesthetics, is a blind-spot in cultural criticism. In part, this oversight is due to the way the practice of recording becomes embedded in musicological values that are genre dependent: for popular music it is well established that the Mp3 and its ubiquitous player, the ipod, provoked a kind of musical revolution; yet when considering canons of instrumental art music, digital formats are more often dismissed as merely delivery revolutions or pedagogical tools. Such a dismissal does not easily survive a close reading of Ashby’s book. The vernacular reading of music through recording, so prominent in pop, has also influenced the likes of Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler.

It might seem bold to tackle the implications of the ipod only ten years after its launch. Consider Walter Raleigh’s warning that he who follows truth too close on the heels is likely to have his teeth kicked out. Yet technological revolutions seem to recede so quickly now, one is concerned less with an edentulous author and more with missing something altogether. In this regard Ashby is in tireless pursuit.

This pursuit includes a rigorous account of what has come before on this topic. The title already alludes to a central influence, Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. Benjamin writes of the age of mechanical reproduction as dissolving the features of art that were integral to its previous cultural ”aura” and authority (“presence” in space (as in sculpture on a pedestal), function in ritual, uniqueness etc.) In music, the the network distributed Mp3 results in the culmination of this technological liquidation. Beyond applying some of Benjamin’s insights to the recent digital revolution of the Mp3 and the iPod, Ashby also shares with his predecessor a critical disposition that remains open to progressive outcomes of technology.

Given this openness, it is not surprising that Ashby also explores the ideas of Glenn Gould who famously gave up performance to focus on tape manipulation / editing, splicing together separate takes in order to assemble the perfect performance. Gould’s techniques in the recording studio did not only extend the realm of performance, but seemed also to implicate him in the authorship of the works he chose to record (i.e, the Gouldberg Variations). The studio becomes a confluence where clear divisions between composition and performance are blurred; performance enlists a kind of authorship and composers now readily use recorded sketches that can be moved around like the cuttings of a collage. Finally Gould envisioned this distribution of creativity extending to the listener who might make aesthetic decisions with the parameters of playback.

Recording practices might, as Gould would hope, make the creative process more distributed. Yet recorded music has also entrenched certain traditional distinctions that seem to work in the opposing direction. Ashby notes, for example, that the notion of the absolute text is alive and well in the vigorous debates over which recorded version is the definitive one. Thus he also recognizes that recording can have the effect of fixing authorship and text as well as standardizing performance trends (i.e, the conformity of vibrato style, or the playing of Bach without the pedal). Recording is apparently absorbed into music practices with very divergent outcomes. Ashby chooses to navigate this complexity by establishing dialectics; in this case, the contrast between idealism and pragmatism. What is not to be found here are oversimplified descriptions of new modes simply supplanting old ones.

Another useful dialectic established early in the book is the one between innovation and necessity. McLuhan’s notion that technology “acts” in its mediation of social configurations is contrasted here with Jonathan Sterne’s claim that technology is better understood as an outcome to the social sphere from which it emerges, and on which its recognition depends. Unconstrained by any chronology of ideas, Ashby finds a synthesis in the works of Martin Heidegger. Heidegger’s concept of technology as “bringing forth” a world that we must partake of – in other words, of making up in large measure the stuff of the world of human perception, and thus of human being as such – is shown to address both social forces as well as unpredictable outcomes of technological presence. In general Ashby gravitates to thinkers who see factors as having multidirectional influences, rather than the singular nexus of this due to that.

Ashby’s predilection for vast dialectics is juxtaposed with complex digressions of arcane minutiae. Like a philosopher of science, he looks for clues in the details of historical controversies that inevitably arise when new empirical instruments arrive on the scene. We encounter here Colin Eatock’s rejection of Zemph studio’s use of recordings to drive the Yamaha Disklavier, or, more generally, the aversion of Aden Evans to the political implications of digital discreteness, regardless of what is heard; in the hands of Ashby, these protests become fascinating windows into what is at stake for different participants at different times.

As you may have gleaned, this book is not for the reader who likes to follow a single thread. Content that one might expect relegated to the notes is often developed at length, and intertextual digressions are pursued wholeheartedly. At times, it reads like a book of lists of books that one should read, with quotations that seem lengthy in proportion to their corresponding purpose. The cost of his Ashby’s panoramic thinking, and his embrace of complexity, is to feel at times lost in a thicket of references. As far as thickets go, the curious foliage is well worth the disorientation.

Ashby even begins his book with a choice quotation: Brian Massumi on the analogy of skipping around a record to suggest ways of reading Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus. Ashby deftly turns this around to imply that these texts, and the analogy of skipping around a record, are equally salient analogies to the way we listen to recorded works in general. These connections, and many others, are drawn to show vectors of influence that run between practices of reproduction in the musical domain and the more ubiquitous notions of literacy, reading, work, authorship and text. From the notion of an authoritative text rooted in biblical hermeneutics to the etymology of the word ‘stylus’ as a writing implement, the reader is confronted with juxtapositions that surprise and provoke. This book is well worth reading, front to back, or on shuffle.

John Granzow is a musician, instrument builder, puppet maker, and student. He conducts cognitive research investigating action perception links in auditory perception. He is presently a PhD candidate at the Centre for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics at Stanford University.

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