Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Gould and the Electronic Future

I've been sitting on this post for a little while. I submitted it for publication on another site over 6 months ago and nothing came of it. I decided that it's too lengthy to just let it sit so I've modified it for accessibility (ie. cut the academic speak) and posted it here as food for thought. It's also timely, as the CBC, in their recent complete Gould DVD box set, released a programme called Voyager (link to site) in which Gould discusses his ideas of technology, The Idea of North, and other such 'new media' endeavors. By all means comment, debate, and discuss.

“Not every period has at its disposal the means to express everything that is contained in it; much remains inarticulate and underdeveloped.” - Carl Dahlhaus

It is a cliché to proclaim Glenn Gould was “ahead of his time” in his writings on the burgeoning electronic culture. He was very much of his time. What separates Gould from his contemporaries was his uncanny foresight; He did not indulge in fantastical future scenarios based largely in his imagination so much as outline plausible paths for technological development based on then current technology. Gould’s concept of an electronic future resonates with our current culture of Do-it-Yourself, democratic music production (witness Garageband with every new Macintosh computer).

Gould’s early essays on electronic media grew out of his full-time relationship with the recording studio and his self-professed love affair with the microphone; He was actively involved in commercial recording for nearly fifteen years when he published his article, “Strauss and the Electronic Future” (1964). He was emboldened by the possibilities of the recent developments in recording technology during the 1950s and early 1960s from cutting acetate discs to magnetic tape in mono sound and later in full, glorious stereo. In the Strauss article, Gould argued that technological advances would yield a more participatory form of music production where the work’s interpretation would rest in the hands of the consumer, the liberated “New Listener.” He or she would have the power to make artistic decisions once reserved for a composer or performer, a common theme in several future essays.

I don't mean to suggest that all these developments are the result of Gould's ponderings or that anyone in particular was influenced by his writing. The essays point to a definite democratization of music making, a DIY ethos of cultural production, seizing control from the corporate recording companies to create a personalized product that reflects the listener's unique interests.

The ‘Listener Kit’

Gould’s early experiments in ‘knob twiddling’ lead him to the ‘Listener Kit’ concept. The kit as he envisioned includes multiple recordings of one work from which the listener would piece together their ideal interpretation of the work. For example, a listener purchases a kit of Beethoven’s ‘Waldstein Sonata’ and decides that they enjoy Arthur Schnable’s interpretation of the exposition and recapitulation, but prefer Anton Kuerti’s development and coda sections. The consumer, using a home editing kit, pieces together a recording that suits their taste. Gould asserts, “‘do-it-yourself’ tape editing is the prerogative of every reasonably conscientious consumer of recorded music.” It is an optimistic prediction but there is at least one serious consideration for the kit concept’s home editing device: It is difficult to imagine a company encouraging consumers to wield a razor blade to construct their ideal recording. Music making becomes an insurance issue.

Old Ideas, Remixed

The solutions to these obstacles revealed themselves slowly in the decades following Gould's first writing.Technological innovation brought the kit concept closer to reality. The solutions were developed and exploited largely in the world of popular music–arguably not Gould’s ideal proving ground. The great wave of experimentation in popular music between the mid-1960s and 1990s exploited new technologies to produce strange and wonderful new sounds amongst them, multitrack tape recording, living stereo, electronic effects to manipulate recorded sound, and later digital recording for better audio fidelity and ease of manipulation. Simultaneously, as microchips encouraged miniaturization, the cost of equipment production fell and this translated into lower-cost musical equipment accessible to the average music listener. Goodbye unwieldy tape and razor blades.

The computer screen, mouse, and software ‘tools’ using the tape metaphor made music much easier than working with physical tape. The plethora of options for the New Listener is overwhelming. A quick perusal of any bookstore music section reveals several instructional tomes on music remixing and how best to use programmes like Garageband. The prolifery of DJs and producers writing these books, using their own style and technique as a basis for instruction, are a veritable industry unto themselves. These books form a  series of curricula in musical composition whereby the student learns how to make their ideal composition or interpretation of a composition.

Most recently, the mashup–a new song made by layering segments of other pre-existing popular music songs–has entered the popular consciousness. Jordan Roseman’s book, The Audio Mashup Construction Kit is a how-to guide to making mashups and, more importantly, is a guide to using the modern digital equivalent of a Gouldian Listener Kit. What makes the mashup so compelling in a study of the kit concept is that it addresses all of Gould’s criteria:

•The songs are sold by the companies in segments (a cappellas and instrumentals);
•The consumer, the New Listener, can easily piece together the segments using their home editing kit;
•The segments need not be used end-to-end, but overlapped to great interpretive effect;
•The ideal interpretation is achievable through careful manipulation of the segments using an equalizer and other digital effects.

There is plenty of popular music to demonstrate the kit concept, but how might it work in Gould’s realm of art music? Imagine your favourite symphonic work, and then picture your ‘dream team’ orchestra; combine Leopold Stokowski’s lush strings from the Philadelphia Orchestra, George Szell’s brass from the Cleveland Symphony, and Herbert von Karajan’s woodwinds from the Berlin Philharmonic. Arguably, this level of control and freedom to mix and match represents the Listener Kit ideal.

Reflection on the past and future possibilities

Somewhat, like Walt Disney's 'Tomorrowland,' though arguably more restrained, Gould imagined a future of listener involvement in the creative process. Predictions based on currently available technology is prudent for the conservative theorist lest one appear foolhardy in hindsight (moon colonies by the year 2000 not withstanding). The pace of technological development and the possibilities for music production therein were out of Gould's line of sight; however, the spirit of a democratic electronic future was laid bare and guided much of Gould's work later in life. In the mid-1970s with his own multitrack tape recorders, Gould produced an album for pianist Antonin Kubalek and boasted to the performer that he made over 100 tape edits for a particular work. Whether grounded in hyperbole or not, the technological capabilities were sufficiently flexible for Gould to tackle his DIY project.

I can't make any predictions for the future. The vogue in audio production now is still on miniaturization. Hardware manufacturers are finding ways to incorporate the iPad and iPhone into the music production workflow, no doubt they have the computing horsepower to withstand multitrack recording at CD quality, but to what end will people struggle with small touch screens to do their work? It appears we've entered a phase of technological development whose raison d'etre falls into the realm of "because we can" more than to address deficits in a previous generation of hardware or software.

Of course, my interactions with the techological side of music production is limited to research for essays like this. As a cello performance student I was only occasionally hired for studio work; as a composer I never worried about the nitty gritty of recording tech; and as a speculative musicologist, I only ever watch recordists rush through their workflow as if by second nature, the mouse, DAW, and screen as extensions of their own body. My business is to analyse the past and present, but wish ever so hard that we still had Gould to hint at tantalising nuggets of a digital or quantum future.

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