Nervous Ticks and Clicks in the Concert Hall: Romanticization of Error in Audio Reproduction Theory
by Eastman Presser
"The artist can correct the sense ratios before the blow of new technology has numbed conscious procedures… it is [in experimental art] that the artist can show us how to 'ride with the punch' instead of 'taking it on the chin.' It can only be repeated that human history is a record of 'taking it on the chin.' "
"…we might say that Noise is the sound of technology's spasms as it attempts to escape itself"
Noise can be defined in three ways. Aurally (scientifically), Socially (or psychologically), and in terms of information theory or communication. Noise from a strictly scientific perspective is any aperiodic sound wave; This is any sound that does not have a specific formant, a fundamental frequency. Noise viewed through a social or psychological lens could be defined as any sound that is displeasing to our ear, be it loud music, industrial sounds, or the voices of other humans. Noise in terms of information theory is anything that occurs in the medium being used to transmit a message that obscures the message, be it beeps on the phone, extra characters in any form of text messaging, or static heard through the radio.
Noise (by both the aural and social definition) was first introduced into music by Luigi Russolo with his futurist manifesto "The Art of Noises" in 1913. Russolo called for the inclusion of noise into music, claiming that since the introduction of industrialism, "Noise is familiar to us. Noise has the power to bring us back to life." Russolo created his very own noise-making machines, and gave a series of concerts consisting of ensembles made up solely of these inventions, dubbed “Intonarumori.” They were akin to phonographs; they were made of a circular mechanism that had a very large horn attached to it.
Russolo’s manifesto remained relatively untouched in terms of critique, being held as an essential development in the fields of experimental and electronic music. While Russolo could be credited as the first musician to use technology meant for reproduction of sound for production of sound, some artists take issue with his ideals. In the very recent essay “Let’s Have it Done with the Notion of ‘Noise’ ”, Michel Chion criticizes Russolo, positing that “Instead of opening the noise cage, Russolo enters it, shuts the door on himself, and claims that here lies paradise and that all is fine and dandy amid the noises, thereby confirming the idea of an absolute distinction-an essential distinction-between musical sounds and noises” (Chion 244). By pushing such an idealistic view of the inclusion of Noise into music, namely that Noises are the only sounds needed in order to create music, Russolo reinforces the idea that he was attempting to rebel against; he affirms that there are, in fact, musical and non-musical sounds, Noise and ‘non-Noise.’
In his 1999 book Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture, Philip Auslander attepts to illustrate the futility of drawing ontological differences between live and mediated experiences. Part of his argument rests on the fact that disappearance, that ephemeral quality often attributed solely to live performance, is not in fact absent from mediated products. Auslander cites the degradation of magnetic tape, in both VHS and audio recordings, in order to posit that “The tape that I initially placed in my VCR or audio player started disappearing the moment I began watching it or listening to it. Disappearance, existence only in the present moment, is not, then, an ontological quality of live performance that distinguishes it from modes of technical reproduction” (Auslander 45). Clearly, this argument does not hold the same for digital media, and relies on a great exaggeration of the medium, insofar as the first time and the second time one listens to a tape are in reality not markedly different. However, In a 2009 post on the “erstwords” blog, Michael Pisaro poses a slightly different argument in favor of the ephemerality of recordings. Pisaro explains that a recording is an artifact indifferent towards what one does with it, and therefore one can utilize a recording in whatever way one chooses. “The recording can be viewed as open, something like an instrument—a particular instrument that makes a limited set of sounds that can nonetheless have a variable relationship in the environment in which they are played” (Pisaro). This argument holds up perfectly in digital media, and does not exaggerate the medium in any way.
In 1995, Yasunao Tone, a very active member of the Fluxus movement and an improviser since the late 50s, released "Solo for Wounded CD" (Tzadik, 1995), a recording made by taking a CD of one of his earlier works, "Musica Iconologos", made entirely from computer-generated digital audio based solely in data taken from scans of images of Chinese characters, and "cracking" the CD by applying pieces of scotch tape with tiny pinholes in them to the recorded side. This recording is hailed as "legendary" by music critics, and often characterized by the seeming random bits of information that are spit out by the player. The skipping of the CD stays constant throughout the entire 40 minute recording, and the extent to which the disk is altered, as well as the resulting sound, varies very little, and as one online blogger put it (in the entry that comes up second under a google search for “yasunao tone solo wounded cd”), “if you’ve heard thirty seconds you’ve heard the whole album” (Tropolist). While I would not have my argument about this recording rest on the shoulders of a single entry from “wefuckinglovemusic.blogspot.com”, I do believe that a great deal of the writing on this piece in particular fetishizes digital error, and it would seem, as Theodore Adorno wrote about records in 1938, “that the music is listened to… replaces the content itself” (Adorno 309). A more recent account of this argument is seen in Evan Eisenberg’s work The Recording Angel; “When a ten-dollar bill leaves my right hand and a bagged record enters my left, it is the climax… later I will play the record, but that will be redundant. My money has already heard it” (Eisenberg 24). While this might have to be altered in the age of torrenting and illegal downloads, (i.e. “when I click ‘download’… I will listen to the mp3… my IP address has heard it), it still stands; music is still fetishized today, and as I’ve shown in the past three examples, Error in media-conscious (or –“cracking”) work is often idealized and romanticized in terms of its aesthetic value.
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This complex dialogue between experimental artists who push media beyond their intended consumer use and critics who idealize the manipulation that takes place is the context in which my performance piece “For Doron Galili” finds itself. The piece is composed for an ensemble consisting of one human performer, a turntable, a CD recorder, a blank CD, a Vinyl Record, and a Marker. The “score” for the piece consists of four instructions. The performer records a section of a vinyl record onto the blank CD using the CD recorder. The performer places the CD, recorded side up, on the turntable. While the disc is spinning on the turntable, the performer uses the marker to draw a spiral on the recorded side of the CD, imitating the grooves of the LP that was just recorded. The tone arm of the turntable is then lowered onto the CD, and not only are the ink spirals and plastic surface of the CD read and heard by the listener, but through both the marker and the needle, errors are written into the CD and the disc is corrupted to an extent. The final action of the piece is for the performer to place the disc back in the CD recorder and play it.
By clearly revealing the source material (the vinyl LP is heard as it is recorded into the CD recorder), the “crack” practice, and the resulting “glitch” all in one performance, the procedure and the product become much more transparent, and there is little room for idealism or romanticization of the glitch. Whatever errors are imbued on the disc by the marker and the needle are heard in the last section of the performance, and if the cd is corrupted beyond playability, the performance either ends or starts over from the beginning. By taking a recording of the vinyl LP, itself “covered with curves, a delicately scribbled, utterly illegible writing, which here and there forms more plastic figures for reasons that remain obscure to the layman upon listening” (Adorno), and making a spiral, a writing on it, with a marker, the curves heard upon listening to the CD a second time are no longer obscure, no longer shrouded in the myth of the composer/performer meticulously altering CDs in their basement. In addition, by writing scratches into the CD with the tone arm of the turntable, the turntable is being turned “from an instrument of production into a productive one, generating acoustic phenomena without any previous acoustic existence” as Moholy-Nagy suggested it be in 1923.
In public performances of this piece (which, alas, has yet to occur), I hope to be able to amplify not only the sound of the marker and the needle as they corrupt the recorded disc, but also the sound made by the inner mechanisms of the CD player as it tries to read the corrupted disc, and even project the image of the CD spinning on the turntable as the spiral is drawn on it. An issue I take with much of the work discussed earlier, by artists, critics, and theorists, is that the consumer-grade media technology is pushed so far beyond its intended realm of operation, with such an opaque process, that the media surrender their original character. While I do believe that “crack practice” of pushing consumer-intended media beyond their intended use is a large part of developing a relationship with media, and stepping beyond the fetishization of the music object that Adorno and others have been quoted above on, I believe that cracked media performance could benefit from more transparent performances, and less idealistic writings. This is exactly what I’m striving for in my work; to let the CD remain a CD player, and the turntable a turntable, while still pushing them to become interactive members of performances.
McLuhan, Marshall, and Lewis H. Lapham. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1994. 65-66. Print.
Hainge, George. “Come on Feel the Noise: Technology and its Dysfunctions in the Music of Sensation,” To the Quick 5 (2002), http://to-the-quick.binghamton.edu/pdf/tothequick5.pdf
Kelly, Caleb. Cracked Media. Cambridge, Mass: MIT, 2009. Print.
Russolo, Luigi. The Art of Noises. New York: Pendragon, 1986. Print.
Chion, Michel, and James A. Steintrager. "Let's Have It Done with the Notion of Noise."Difference 22.2-3 (2011): 240-48. Web.
Auslander, Philip. Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture. London: Routledge, 1999. Print.
Pisaro, Michael. "Wandelweiser." Erstwords. Blogspot, 23 Sept. 2009. Web. 21 Dec. 2012.
Tropolist. "Yasunao Tone - Solo For Wounded CD." WE FUCKING LOVE MUSIC. Blogspot, 24 Feb. 2010. Web. 21 Dec. 2012.
Eisenberg, Evan. The Recording Angel: Music, Records and Culture from Aristotle to Zappa. New Haven: Yale UP, 2005. Print.
Adorno, Theodore. "On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening."GS 14 (1938): 14-50. Print.
Kittler, Friedrich A., Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, and Michael Wutz. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1999. Print.