Repetition and Digital Music

In borrowing from the macro-level discussions of art and history within “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” and from the words of Drew Hemment in “Affect and Individualism in Popular Electronic Music” the aura of presence in sound production quickened its decay with the rise of the phonograph. In this sense, one might envision a highly territorialized understanding of music prior to the capacity to record sound onto a phonograph. With the rise of the recording technologies through the digitalization of sound, “popular music” would shoot in a variety of directions and thus one might imagine the multiplicities of sound as traversing the history of presence that once hoped to concretize sound in space by maintaining a “cult of order” or an authentic being in space/time. In this sense, the rise of recording in popular music has reflected a process ontology.

While there is a wide variety of historic nuances and innovative processes that take electronic music from phonograph recording through the variety of milieus of digital production- this brief discussion will focus on some of the symptoms of deterritorialization within electronic music (especially digital-electronic-music). Here, the primary difference between electronic music and digital would be the processes of recording and producing. Digital music does not require the presence of a physical instrument (guitar, violin, gong, drum, keyboard), but rather the capability to read a file and translate that file into sound using monitors (oral space, but not spatially bias), while electronic music produces sounds using instruments (hand, vocal) that are often consistent with classical string and percussion instruments (though, one ought not to go as far to claim that this is in any way a dichotomy). With the rise of digital technology, a computer can capture the sounds produced by a synthesizer (or other instruments), and then translate that file (midi file) into recoded sound. With this in mind, it is easy to imagine that digital music affects the dispersal of sound (recorded or digitally created), and moves that sound into a variety of directions. Song, in the digital age is destabilized in the very idea of it being dislocated from a center. The grounded space of sound (the auratic sense of sound as presense), is undercut by the idea that multiple people can interact with the same song spanning great geographic distances (temporally different as well, unlike the rise of radio broadcast).

Even further though, one symptom of contemporary electronic music is the capacity to experience sound in the process of its creation (imagine turning on a repetitive beat somewhere in the middle”), where the beat unfolds not from a territory, but from a seed. The growth of song in the digital age can be categorized by its “collage” with other tracks with similar tempo(hip-hop), and/or related/connected using similar Beats Per Minute (minimal tech house music/Detroit techno: 120-150bpm), or even by melding other consistencies or jolting a montage of incongruities (mashup). With the rise of a form of electronic music that utilizes repetitive patterns, the linear message of time (a song with a rise and fall; telos) is subverted for a location of connection where the beat affects the continuity of proceeding sound.

In the development of minimal electronic music, Drew Hemment’s discussion of repetition is quite relevant, “The carnality of rhythm creates a pulsing surface of intensity, a flow of desire not directed towards a climax or resolution” (Hemment; 87). In this sense, one can understand repetition as not just plainly a condition of a “post-modern” or “post-structrualist” era, but rather a continual re-addressing of undead conditions of development. One might experience “song” never from beginning to end, but in the middle of a process. The unfolding of a pattern, or the connection with other songs (via beat matching), is moved forward with the capacity to re-mix (multiplicity—rhizome), or dub a track in a connected but different form. The following links are two variations of beat matching, a skill that inspired early science fiction scores, and lead to the cyclical beat creations of the underground Detroit electronic music scene.

Here we see Delia Derbyshire who created scores for Doctor Who. She uses Reel to Reel Beat Matching, you can also see her counting beats, a very manual way to produce rhythm in electronic music. Delia provided early inspiration for psychedelic techno music. Recording was crucial to her process of producing music that would be scored mass produced images (hence, the development of film as the decay of the aura of presence is related to the rise of electronic music):

Richie Hawtin, a pioneer of Electronic Music:

*I would like to also mention that while this is a very Eurocentric discussion, many of the themes here relate greatly to the oral traditions of cultures that rely on drum and ceremony.

~Jay Bowe

3 Responses to “Repetition and Digital Music”

  1. Thanks for describing the current practices in electronic and digital recording and producing– it’s an area difficult to keep up with unless you’re in that milieu.

    While not concerned specifically with issues of repetition in electronic music, I found a section from Stanley Cavell’s Must We Mean What We Say? to have some resonance with our recent discussions on music composition.

    In the chapter titled “Music Discomposed,” Cavell is critical (but not dismissive) of modernist composers such as Krenek and Cage, who used elements of ‘total organization’, chance and improvisation in creating minimalist pieces that challenged notions of what music could or should be.

    According to Cavell, Krenek sought to free musicians from their traditional-music baggage by composing in “serial statements” — parameters for rhythms, dynamics, pitches, etc — which would then be executed as though fulfilling a computer program, with nonpremeditated/unexpected results. Cage similarly sought to replace traditional notions of composition by ceding the composer’s control of the material entirely and opening the player up to choices between directions the music could take.

    [I’m sure I’m badly paraphrasing Cavell’s summary of Cage/Krenek (and I don’t know their work at all myself), so please feel free to correct…]

    But in general it seems Cavell’s intention is not to deny the importance of these composers’ experiments, but to question whether these experiments could in fact be called “composition” or, inevitably, music. (“Whether what such procedures produce is music or not, they certainly produced philosophy.”) And this theme drives Cavell to his conclusion that the compositions would not exist were it not for the theory driving them, and therefore could they exist as something other than music — “paratheater” perhaps?

    By extension, could one say most dance/minimal/house music is “devised” using similar deterministic calculations and programmatic sampling? If so what are the implications for music in general, and composition in particular? How do we define those going forward? It’s a relevant concern given that Deleuze claimed (another paraphrase from memory) “there is no art without composition.”

    The Cavell article is from another class, but I think you can view it on Blackboard. (check out pages 9-10 of the PDF)

    If anyone wants to check it out but can’t access the PDF, email me and I’ll send you a copy.


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