Sounding Vs. Sampling

Contracted Notes on the Conceptualization of Music Technology

published in New Music Articles No.6, Melbourne 1988
John Cage preparing a piano; Conlon Nancarrow preparing a player piano

The history of music technology in this century is generally presented as a series of interfaces between man and machine, coloured by man's endeavours and the wonders of machines. Rooted in the programmes, forecasts and desires of the industrial revolution (and therefore slightly suspect in a post industrial epoch) the predominance of the man/machine interface indicates ways in which music technology is still conceptualised. It is not surprising, then, that the more developed and sophisticated music technology becomes, the more generalised and schematised that interface, resulting in pseudo neutralised terms like 'user' and 'hardware'. But while there has been an undeniable increase in music technology applications over the past decade (especially with the merger of professional and domestic usage) which to an extent accounts for this symptomatic streamlining of the man/machine interface, it would be unwise to view historical antecedents and formations of music technology as somehow 'inevitably' leading us up to the digital revolution. There are other possible ways of viewing the history of music technology. This short article suggests some, by focusing on how the concept of a man/machine interface has informed many major developments (technical and theoretical) in music technology.

Accepting that the very concept of such an interface is historically and culturally determined (transplanting Renaissance man into the machine age to foster a romance with technology) and therefore subject to change through time, there is no reason why one can't now invent different projections and readings for 'man' and 'machine' in regards to the subject of music technology: if one can view 'man' as the active producer of sound, and 'machine' as anything that can be sounded, it then becomes difficult to imagine how an interface between man and machine could not eventuate in the event of a sounding. Consider these two examples: (i) man deliberately controlling his breath rate to produce a tempo and rhythm to be experienced as such (man becomes machine) and (ii) man manipulating dead matter (hollow log, stretched hide, etc.) to make objects for the production of sound (machine needs man). One wonders if man's musical existence could at all be separated from his technological (physical/mechanical) relation to the (internal/external) world.

These two examples (many more could be projected) are presented to suggest that the man/machine interface is not a construct but a given - a paradigm that doesn't need to be demonstrated because there is little chance of escaping it. This means that a history of music technology which establishes and promotes a framework of man/machine interfaces (pinpointed chronically and mapped out chronologically) is an inept model for articulating the man/machine 'abstract' - that is, the ways in which man generates and articulates a musical existence by producing and working with technologies. The implication here - a feasible one, too - is that every instance of man's musical existence is in fact a juncture of the musical and the technological; an event predicated on the situation of actively 'sounding' something.

The man/machine interface would be better conceptualised as a matrix: a self interlacing and self superimposing configuration of interactions, dialogues, dialectics, usages, manipulations, abuses and exploitations. Here the man/machine interface is broken down and detailed as a fractal network constructed by and between (in no order) man, machine, human, device, composer, technology, moron, instrument, artist, material, musician, sound, creator, tool, etc. etc. etc. The angle of connection (as an incident) is more important then the interface itself. Furthermore, this network is not constructed: it eventuates, as lines drawn out and across every juncture of the musical and the technological. These junctures could be termed 'ordinances': events upon those projected and directed lines which shape this network's expansive and pervasive matricular form.

If there is a 'logic' to this spread of matrices it is to found in the ceaseless collapse between man and machine, wherein each musical/technological event creates its own ordinance in the matrix, virtually independent of man's endeavours and the wonder of machines. A 'network of matrices' is thus conceptually more attuned to the continual flow of occurrences ('soundings'), for each ordinance is not simply a musical/technological juncture, but more precisely an instance of this collapse. To boot, each event of 'actively sounding something' fails to distinguish between the two most conventional visions of the man/machine interface - invention and application. To invent is to apply, and to apply is to invent, especially in regards to man's perception of himself as a machine and the machine as a displaced self. This accounts for the formation of projected and directed lines in the matricular network - maintained, customised and reassembled as they are by each and every application/invention of music technology.

A key figure in this blurring between application and invention is John Cage's prepared piano. It is simultaneously a renovation of the object and a reinvention of the instrument. But still, one is left to ask: prepared for what? Countering the sonic tactility of this instrument, the sounding of the prepared piano smacks of the wonder of transformation, where each tink and clunk declares its refined 'nonpianoness'. Historically important as it is, this invention/application is typically ignorant of the predestined collapse of such human interfaces and modernist tamperings. If one considers the strategy of deadening the strings, constricting their pitch and recontrolling their hammers, one is actually brought back to the original design principles of the piano - indeed, of all musical instruments made of dead matter and sounded through acts of violence (pressure, force, friction) by man. Cage can yen his way until the globe becomes flat, but he is no less necrophiliac than the deadest of European culture and its morbid 'mastering of nature'. He simply prepared - or mummified - the piano differently from its original process, throwing nuts and bolts into the works like an anarchist tampering with the machine to signify the noise of pitch. Such are its most interesting points.

The prepared piano perversely prepares us for nothing - especially if one accepts that musical/technological distinctions and frameworks based on man/machine interfaces and constructs were and are illusions in the first place. The prepared piano is essentially a declaration of transformation: a modernist gesture of sounding which calls attention to the act more than its sound. In a sense, an 'empty' gesture, but an emptiness that is in the nature of the flow within the network of matrices of music technology developments which empty man and machine of each other. The integral impulse behind such developments is not only the desire for invention (of the new) but a mania for supersession (by the new). Obsolescence is not planned as much as it is readily accepted. Each 'invention' (presented as a development) is thus ultimately an empty gesture, but nonetheless capable of generating lines of direction and projection for the supersessional flow. This is all relative to the matricular network wherein everything is to be continually adapted and replaced - an activity perfectly suited to the modernist brief of building upon the past.

While the prepared piano adapted an object (the piano) and replaced its sound (with 'non pianoness') its status as gesture constitutes an attempted blockage in the flow of invention and supersession - to halt things in order to call attention to the act. Of course no such blockage occurred: the prepared piano did not become an instrument of its own making. One may well ask today (rephrasing Barthes' Musica Practica) "Who plays the prepared piano today?" The 'reason' for its existence is primarily artistic/philosophical and not necessarily utilitarian. Yet as an artistic endeavour the prepared piano paradoxically rides the conveyor belt of artistic needs: Cage 'needing' to break down musical barriers in order to explore sonic possibilities; Varese 'needing' the tape recorder 20 years before it was invented; Schoenberg 'needing' a means for the emancipation of dissonance; Partch 'needing' new instruments for his musical sound; etc. Popular yet suspicious claims. Artists simply feel the need to create, to invent, to produce - some might even call it a neurotic condition. Their drives are manifested in their objects and compositions, marking them as true inheritors of the 'empty' impulse to invent and supersede, to continually maintain, customise and reassemble. Synchronous with the creative impulse in 20th Century art, true obsolescence in music technology is to be found in the re-exploration and reinvention of areas which already are adequately serviced by an existing stage or phase of development. Still, empty eventfulness of the non invention and re design of instruments and machines is central to the man/machine matrix, where man feels a need to invent, create or produce something when there is no extant use for it. The 'need' is created in the event of its creation.

I am not denigrating the artistic value of the creative impulse. I am questioning the use value of technological invention by attempting to demonstrate its links with the core vacuousness of creative activity. There is nothing perverse about this if one believes that art and technology are the two most amoral practices of the 20th Century (as vociferously proposed by the dadaists at the start of the century). To discuss these practices under moral terms thus to me seems imperceptive or dismissive of the subsequent delusory spread of these practices' purported ethics and ideals which - under their banner of creation and invention - are solipsistic at heart. If one reconceptualises the man/machine interface - in a more amoral and less humanist tone, and with more flow and less structure - one could better realise alternative performances and functions of music technology: the collapse between man and machine the lack of distinction between invention and application; the inevitability of warranted and unwarranted supercession; the neurotic impulse to adapt and replace; and the act and event of non invention.

From here we move on to what is perhaps the key contemporary issue in music technology, especially in a socio cultural context: sampling. While various binaries and dichotomies nave set sampling up in terms of simulation versus representation, such a critical method ignores the greater historical lineage of music technology (which I have attempted to introduce as matricular in form). If 'sounding' is the situation of actively producing sound, I fail to see how sampling as a mode of production can be severed from other means of man manipulating materials to produce sound. I can (barely) comprehend a certain folky melancholy, or even a dogmatic ideological stance, both of which express concern over the 'direction' in which sampling is headed, but such concerns put preformed fears of the state and condition of sampling before considered observations on its performance and function. In reference to the afore mentioned conceptualisation of the man/machine interface, I wish to suggest that this 'issue' of sampling versus sounding is another collapse; another ordinance, another collision point to be found in the man/machine matrix. But for it to be accepted as such we need to trace some of those bad binaries (whose progressivist/positivist lineage is beyond the scope of this article) that posit digital electronics as some sort of new and fearful dimension in music technology.

We start then with analogue electronics (often termed 'reductive' in nature) where filtering is the key operation. To filter is not simply to reduce: it involves selecting, shading, shaping a sound. In effect it is a form of 'culturing' a sound; of transforming frequency to pitch and back again through voltage control; of demonstrating the degree of manipulation that determines the act of sounding. The Moog synthesizer - as the most famous instance in the domestication or 'musicalisation' of electronic synthesis - based its design/invention and adaptation/replacement on transforming the keyboard. Here filtering was put to the prime service of generating a change in tone corresponding to a rise in frequency (such as when shorter lengths or greater tension in string vibration and wind passage flow cause a sharper tonal definition). Seemingly 'naturalistic' in its drive to replicate a pre existing set of acoustic musical technologies, this mode of filtering also draws attention to itself, to its feat in controlling sound in the act of sounding. This is the prepared piano revisited - this time removing the nuts and bolts, the tinks and clunks in an attempt to naturalise the electronic, to effect not the noise of pitch but the sounding of pitch.

Most importantly, this desire or tendency to filter is determined by a particular conceptualisation of the keyboard as an operating base or general headquarters for an envisaged man/machine interface - indeed, the keyboard is a construct of such an abstract. The concept here is of a keyboard as a flow chart, facilitating a series or sequence of pitches; a (pre)arranged and controlled flow (left to right; low to high) of the key elements in musical composition. Essentially, the relative change in tone through filtering is to reaffirm the original design of the keyboard as a device that maps out pitch, because the keyboard now maps out tonal change as well. The incorporation of a keyboard into sampling components evidences a very different notion of the keyboard. In sampling keyboards there is no flow or sequence, but rather a continuum of breakages where each key is an entity - an isolated trigger - which only happens to be relative to notions of pitch. Each key or note on the sampler keyboard is not only total as an event (the capture, snare or snatch of a sounding) but also in material, substance and form. Quite simply, this means that as you move up and down the keyboard, the sample (or 'sonic entity') is accordingly altered in pitch, duration and timbre - replicating the contrasts effected by magnetic tape speed changes. Each different key struck thus makes one aware that one is experiencing a transformation of an 'original' sound. Yet another visitation by the prepared piano and its mode of transforming a pre existing sound identity. Ironically, it is the state of too much filtering or tonal change which renders the sample keyboard artificial.

The point here is that while Cage's prepared piano signaled the end of the keyboard academy and the start of the experimental apparatus, the re-employment of the keyboard in analogue and digital sound generation has largely determined both the dead ends and new horizons to be reached in this realm of music technology, especially in regards to the merger of professional and domestic usage. To fully appreciate this one only has to consider (in logical order): (a) the reaction of musicians against using a computer keyboard in digital synthesis and musical composition; (b) the number of parameters in analogue and digital synthesis geared around keyboard manipulation, interaction and performance (sensitivity, dynamics, tonal contrast, etc.); and (c) the rampant/prolific reconstitution of sampled sounds into musical soundings, where a 'pattern' played on the keyboard transforms the isolated sample into a melody. Cage was one of the first to seriously (albeit rhetorically) question ''Who plays the piano today?" Well, today a legitimate answer confronts us: anyone and everyone.

In sampling applications the collapse of the man/machine interface is further marked by an open disregard for who is capable of what, giving us a socio cultural breakdown between composer and listener as opposed to the polemical/rhetorical claims of experimental music. This is to be found in the dissolution of the roles of producer and consumer, for with sampling, to produce is to consume and to consume is to produce all at the push of a button, the trigger of a key. While some bemoan this to be some sort of frightful last straw (based on musical ethics), the point is that the production/consumption dissolution is far from being a recent phenomenon.

One could easily view the diatonic scale architecturally spread across the keyboard as set of dos and don'ts (sharps, flats, naturals) as the presentation of a predetermined frequency range of spectral excerpts, designed for consumption more than production. To his credit, Cage's prepared piano was intent on experiencing a fuller spectrum than the keyboard's excerpts allowed. In this sense, Schoenberg's emancipation of dissonance via the keyboard is but a conceptual victory, leaving others like Partch, Ligeti, Bartok and Penderecki to reinstate frequency and flow into the architectonics of musical composition (by sliding, blurring and dissolving pitch rather than constructing it). To put it another way: Cage tried to position himself between the strings of the piano frame; Schoenberg tried to move unconsciously between the lines and spaces of the music stave; and Penderecki et al tried to disappear into the cracks between the keys on the keyboard. In this light, 20th Century music is as much about the keyboard as it is about tonality, harmony, sound and acoustics. Not surprisingly, the keyboard is prominent in music technology: whereas both acoustic and electronic keyboards control frequency as pitch, the sample keyboard controls sound as pitch. And just as sampling is in a sense the cooption and corruption of musique concrete's material manipulation, it is likely that all keyboard music no matter how avant garde or experimental in some way requires the constriction and control of sound (through filtering, selection and excerpting), and that the keyboard (as abstract and construct) is largely responsible for such a condition.

Finally, the sample keyboard signals the return of sounding through dead matter. It is a 'return' because analogue electronic synthesis marked the first crucial shift from sounding the sonic potential in dead matter to the sonic application of live energy the sound of electricity. Based on voltage control, it transforms live energy into material for musical/sonic manipulation. Analogue synthesis is thus mostly 'eventful' in that one is continually controlling energy in order to shape a sound, as opposed to acoustic sound production which is determined by the employment of an instrument which is already a crafted and completed object designed for the production of sound. The application in the former is live; in the latter it is given; electronic sound is generated while acoustic sound is produced. Digital synthesis - with its modulation of frequency (FM) - then marks the first shift away from the totality and unification of mediated/unmediated energy, dealing with a multiplicity of and interaction between energies (the principle of 'additive' synthesis). Sampling devices and systems effectively confuse these issues of energy control, because energy is subsumed into the servicing of record/sample functions. While the sounding of a sample is dependent on an internal (microchip) control of energy, the sound of sampling signifies the absence or phantom presence of energy; of either an acoustic occurrence, a material transformation or a musical event. Samples sound recorded; in their simulation of the real they only confirm their artificiality and prove their illusion.

The 'dead matter' this time is thus not the physical state of the instrument, but the nature of the material, substance and form of the sample. Here, issues of simulation and representation are overridden by notions of animation and reanimation. The point though is the return to and of dead matter, for just as the act of acoustically sounding something 'animates' dead matter (causing particle resonance and effecting wave displacement to produce vibration as sound) the sample 'reanimates' such an occurrence by absenting matter in the very act of sounding (disintegrating the difference between sounding and sampling). While sampling causes confusion due to its hyperreal effect which is amazingly not dependent on real material and matter, sounding and sampling are remarkably similar to one another, for in the end, both necessitate an act of sounding. This is the nature of their collapse into one another. Both means of sound production testify not to the death of silence (a physiological impossibility) but to silence's inability to sound us - its inability to make us conscious of sonic potential without being put in the situation of actively sounding something, wherein our musical existence is determined by our technological (physical/mechanical) relation to the (internal/external) world.

Text © Philip Brophy. Images © respective copyright holders.