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This chapter investigates digital technologies that variously assist, enable or simulate musical praxis. The first section sets up an opposition between the idea of the digital tool that augments human agency, and the machinic automatism predicated on the idea that reality is fundamentally number (dataism) and ticks along without the need for human consciousness. This gives rise to the idea that mechanical automatism is also intrinsic to human agency, a strand of posthuman thought on which the rest of the chapter turns. Accordingly, the second section shows how posing algorithmic composition as an expression of the posthuman is problematic. The final section focuses on the synthetic voices of digital assistants from online service providers that generate empathy at the price of a surrogate ‘conscience’. Accommodating this within a humanistic model is possible, but a closing case study of Tod Machover’s futurist opera, Death and the Powers (2010), raises the prospect of what might be called a ‘dark ontology’ of the digital.
It is hard to think of another field of cultural practice that has been as comprehensively turned upside down by the digital revolution as music. Digital instruments, recording technologies and signal processing techniques have transformed the making of music, while digital dissemination of music – through the Internet and earbuds – has transformed the way people consume it. Live music thrives and mostly relies on digital technology, but alongside it music has become integrated into the patterns of social networking and urban mobility that increasingly structure people’s lives. The digital revolution has destabilised the traditional music business, with successive technologies reconstructing it in different forms, and at present even its short-term future is unclear. (Just as this book is going to press, Apple has announced the discontinuation of iTunes, the most commercially successful response to Napster.) Meanwhile digitalisation has changed what sort of thing music is, creating a multiplicity of genres, some of which exist only online – indeed, downloads and streaming have problematised the extent to which music can reasonably be thought of as a ‘thing’ at all. Technology that is rapidly pervading the globe is re-engineering relationships between geographically removed traditions (including by removing geography from the equation). Some see this near meltdown of so many aspects of traditional musical culture as a harbinger of fundamental social change to come.
The impact of digital technologies on music has been overwhelming: since the commercialisation of these technologies in the early 1980s, both the practice of music and thinking about it have changed almost beyond all recognition. From the rise of digital music making to digital dissemination, these changes have attracted considerable academic attention across disciplines,within, but also beyond, established areas of academic musical research. Through chapters by scholars at the forefront of research and shorter 'personal takes' from knowledgeable practitioners in the field, this Companion brings the relationship between digital technology and musical culture alive by considering both theory and practice. It provides a comprehensive and balanced introduction to the place of music within digital culture as a whole, with recurring themes and topics that include music and the Internet, social networking and participatory culture, music recommendation systems, virtuality, posthumanism, surveillance, copyright, and new business models for music production.
On the threshold of our modernity, on 29 March 1901, Lionel Mapleson made two artful cylinder phonautogramsof the air. It was no ordinary air. His wax tracings captured for posterity the legendary vocal tones of the fifty-year-old Jean de Reszke and the chorus of the old Metropolitan Opera House in Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin. The atmosphere was thick with anticipation for this final gala performance of the first twentieth-century season, an event that had been offered as an extra night to subscribers, and the last time that Reszke would appear in New York in a complete opera. The newspapers reported a crush as never before in the lobby and outside on the street for ‘the strongest cast which can be brought together’, including Jean’s younger brother Édouard, David Bispham, Adolph Mühlmann, soprano Milka Ternina and Bohemian–German contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink.
For a long time, Hector Berlioz was thought to hold a singular, even an isolated position in music history. Among the first to offer a new perspective was Pierre Boulez, who suggested that Berlioz’s position in music history could be explained by ‘the fact that a large part of his œuvre has remained in the realm of the imaginary’. With this remark, Boulez alluded to the Grand traité d’instrumentation et d’orchestration modernes (1844/55), and more specifically to the chapter on the orchestra that closes the treatise. Speculations on the sound of an orchestra that would unite ‘all the forces that are present in Paris and create an ensemble of 816 musicians’ were, for Boulez, typical of Berlioz: ‘mixing realism and imagination without opposing one to the other, producing the double aspect of an undeniable inventive “madness” – a fairly unreal dream minutely accounted for’.
It is a tale told by countless operas: young love, thwarted by an old man’s financially motivated marriage plans, triumphs in the end thanks to a deception that tricks the old man into blessing the young lovers’ union. Always a doddering fool, the old man is often also an enthusiast for knowledge. Such is the case, for instance, in Carlo Goldoni’s comic opera libretto Il mondo della luna (1750), in which Buonafede’s interest in the moon opens him to an elaborate hoax that has him believe he and his daughters have left Earth for the lunar world; and also in the Singspiel Die Luftbälle, oder der Liebhaber à la Montgolfier (1788), wherein the apothecary Wurm trades Sophie, the ward he intended to marry himself, for a technological innovation that will make him a pioneering aeronaut.
In her 1984 ‘Cyborg Manifesto’, Donna Haraway declared: ‘the relation between organism and machine has been a border war’ in Western science and politics – which for her primarily amounted to a racist, male-dominated capitalism, as embodied by the notion of technological progress. Her manifesto identified that ‘The stakes in the border war have been the territories of production, reproduction and imagination’, each of these zones representing its own contentious interface between organism and machine within American post-industrial society: the encroachment of robots in industrial production; the use of test tubes for reproducing the body; the ascendancy of sci-fi imagination in literature and film. And in each case the battles weren’t being won by humans. Haraway was instead confident of a machine victory, pushing her towards a notorious conclusion: we are cyborgs.
A well-known depiction of collective listening on the operatic stage occurs in Act I of Wagner’s Lohengrin(1850): the Herald asks the assembled Brabantians whether there is a champion among them to defend Elsa against the accusation by her former suitor, Friedrich, that she murdered her younger brother Gottfried, the Duke of Brabant. These are uncomfortable moments for Elsa. There is an eerie silence after the first question (‘he is surely a long way off and could not hear’), and there appears – for a time at least – to be no reply to the second question either (Example 6.1). Wagner’s stage directions describe these as a ‘long silence’ and a ‘long, awkward silence’ respectively, implying that the growing tension of the second silence – with added tritone in the bass tuba – is akin to that moment after an awkward exchange in public, where the tumbleweed rolls, the wind blows.