The Invisible Man and Discreet Recording Processes in World Music Production – an honest day’s work?
by Paul Borg
Music Technology Department,
London College of Music (University of West London)
Historically it has been relatively easy to detect the presence and influence of mediating technologies in recorded ethnographic studies and commercial world music production. Whether it is the environmental context and limited dynamic range of an archived field recording or the Western production values of a studio-based world music project, sonic signatures and cultural conventions are explicit within the artifact. The role of producer, however, is becoming increasingly editorial as practitioners enjoy freedom of movement at sample-level amidst the binary code of random access recordings. Operating in a stealth-like fashion they manipulate inconsistencies within a musician’s performance, adjusting tuning and timing discrepancies to meet their own sonic aesthetic while leaving no apparent evidence of their work or creative hand.
This short paper reflects upon some well-established tensions within cross-cultural music production and considers the role of mediating technologies.
Performing music is an intuitive, physical and cognitive process. It is the personification and embodiment of a variety of specific cultural and physical influences through a situated activity (Iyer 1998). Increasingly, music is not only conceived or realised through an understanding and controlling of acoustic sound waves, but by the measurement and manipulation of encoded electrical charges via digital audio workstations (Greene 2005). Indeed, music software environments have even been described as “dissecting tables of sound” where the user works with elements of creative endeavour provided by artists and performers in a real-time situation (Jordan and Miller 2008, pp. 97-108). The opportunities afforded by sampling technologies to meticulously edit a live music performance, regardless of style and genre, allow the producer of recorded music to serve up an increasingly refined artifact, which will inevitably influence, and to some extent, determine listener expectations. But how appropriate is it to follow such clinical production methods when attempting to mediate music born of a less technologically driven culture? Especially when those technologies and production processes have followed an entirely separate cultural evolution from that of the recording subject itself.
Historically, it has been relatively easy to detect the presence and influence of mediating technologies in recorded ethnographic studies and commercial world music production. Whether it is the environmental context and limited dynamic range of an archived field recording or the Western production values of a studio-based world music project, sonic signatures and cultural conventions are explicit within the artifact.
The role of producer however, is becoming increasingly editorial as practitioners enjoy freedom of movement at sample-level amidst the binary code of random access recordings - the invisible-man is a reality in record production1. Operating in a stealth-like fashion he manipulates inconsistencies within a musician’s performance, such as tuning and timing discrepancies, to his own sonic agenda while leaving no apparent trace of his creative hand. But is this really an honest form of cross-cultural mediation?
The Fiction that is Recorded Music
The reproduction of recorded music, like all forms of media, requires the audience to enter into a degree of suspended disbelief. After all, we hear music, but where are the musicians? This was a challenging concept for audiences during the early days of sound recording, which ultimately redefined the way we consume and engage with musical works. Sound recording and reproduction puts distance between the performer and the audience (Chanan, 1995), and efforts to close this distance by improving resolution and fidelity are at the centre of music technology development (Upham, 2013). The moment a musical work is recorded it becomes detached from the original performance, and this once-transient event is then fixed in time as a material object, which no longer belongs to any specific environment or space, but anywhere with a loud-speaker array (Chanan, 1995). Murray Schafer’s (1969) dramatic use of the term schizophonia infamously acknowledged this split between the original, and the reproduction with a dark vision of almost gothic proportion during the 1960s 2.
Michael Chanan refers to “The machine that turned the intangible sound of music into a material object…” (1995, p. 6). With the inevitable progress of time however, the material object very quickly enters into the realms of historical curios providing a physical archive of social, cultural, and for some, emotional association. The recorded artifact is therefore subject to the historical context of a static object. In this sense, there is perhaps always an element of documentation among the production values of a record-producer. And although the act of documenting might seek to preserve and record, it is a process that relies upon mediating technologies and selection processes that will, ultimately, require a degree of interpretation. We must therefore consider that such efforts can never be perfect. As Evan Eisenberg bluntly states in his classic writing on music technology and culture The Recording Angel: “A defect of preservation is a defect of reification…” (2005, p. 11). Referring to the limitations of music notation, Eisenberg goes on to explain that music notation is a purely representative medium because music itself is in fact sound. Recorded sound, however, is also subject to the limitations of representation, and as with all historical record there is likely to be an element of fiction among the factual.
The Cultural Broker
Australian music producer and academic Karl Neuenfeldt (2005, pp. 84-102) refers to world music producers as both “cultural producers” and “technological intermediaries” and suggests that as “culture brokers” they must find practical solutions to balance both commercial and aesthetic interests - that is, to develop strategies that allow for a production sound acceptable to contemporary Western standards, while respecting the artistic, and cultural integrity of what we might refer to as indigenous music. Paradoxically, it is often the need to meet Western listeners’ demands for an authentic listening experience that results in the production of an artifact that is compromised by the likely cultural reception of that very audience. A world music audience within this context might be thought of as patrons of the traditional, the authentic, and the distinctly non-Western – a demographic that existed long before commercial Western forces rallied in an effort to brand what Laurent Aubert (2007) refers to as the music of the other (see also Cottrell, 2010:14_6).
World Music in its most commercial form celebrates hybridisation and is constantly seeking convergence and commonality, often at the expense of local musical tradition. Indeed, Aubert (2007) cites the uneasy coexistence of traditional world music alongside modern world music; the former committed to the integrity of culturally fragile communities, the latter open to fusion and integration at whatever cost. But whether it is a studio based cultural convolution derided as commercial ethno-pop, or a field recording that endeavors to preserve indigenous cultures, there is an inherent tension around the way in which Western culture mediates non-Western music. Questions of cultural ownership have long existed in world music since the early ethnographic encounters of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Referring to a power struggle between the haves and the have-nots Philip Bohlman (2002) suggests that technology is a key player in the appropriation of indigenous music for the unscrupulous consumption of the West - an extension of post-colonial cultural hegemony made sonorous (2002, pp. 193 – 196).
It is, however, perhaps unfair to suggest that all world music producers are complicit accessories before, or indeed after the fact – a misrepresentation that, as Bohlman (2002) suggests, rather overlooks the more positive aspects of musical mediation across cultures, such as bi-lateral education, representation and empathy.
Movers and Shakers
Musicians internalise rhythmic timing through the act of performing a musical rendition - mediating a very subjective, or internal, beat through a mastery of their instrument and appreciation/comprehension of the external. Sounding the internal in this sense is to realise an external musical encounter - such as reading a score or listening to and participating with other musicians - with a good degree of subjective interpretation. Charlie Keil’s (1994) Participatory Discrepancies (PDs) offer a useful articulation for these micro temporal deviations from the assumed norm as a way of understanding and explaining feel, groove and even tonal ambiguity (see also Danielsen 2010, and Iyer 1998). Kiel’s work, along with Steven Feld (1994), Christopher Small (1998) and others define music as a social action around processes and textures - grooves and sounds if you like, as opposed to a well-tempered clavier. And to have any social worth, music, according to Keil: “must be out of time and out of tune” (1994, p. 96). Such a notion of discrepancies and divergence does rather rely on there being a strict musical norm to deviate from in the first place (Zagorski-Thomas 2007). Keil’s norm is the syntactic structure of civilised Western music composition - a rationalist approach to music that leaves little to the imagination.
It seems that mediation then, is perhaps what’s at issue here. The notion of participatory consciousness as a social happening implies that to engage with music in a lexical sense is to somehow lose touch with the natural world.
So is this what the discerning world music lover and custodian of the culturally fragile seeks when browsing through the multitude of traditional indigenous recordings available through specialist music websites? - A lived reality and communal activity that traverses social and cultural barriers, rather than some imagined emotional intensity reproduced on a set of transportable loud speakers. If so, then disappointment awaits as they are likely to be drawn into the analytical, rather than the experiential. Perhaps they might be better served purchasing a ticket to some far corner of the earth to ensure a more authentic and truly engaging social experience. After all, Schafer’s concept of schizophonia (1969) might implicate them, unintentionally of course, in the repatriation of some endangered musical culture should they attempt to purchase a recording.
The Paradox of the Self-Effacing Producer
A great deal of value and intention is placed upon the authenticity of voices within traditional ethnographic recordings. There is a nervousness that surrounds the role of studio technologies and the potential to fabricate and mislead the discerning listener (Greene and Porcello 2005). Indeed, Michael Jarrett’s (2012) ethnography of jazz and country music producers strongly suggests a distinct sense of apparent integrity among his interview subjects. Jarrett describes the majority those interviewed as being self-effacing with a shared belief that the best type of production is unintrusive and imperceptible – there to facilitate some kind of mystical realisation beyond the influence of the inevitable mediating technologies. And as Neuenfeldt points out: “This, of course, is paradoxical, given the considerable technological mediation inherent in multitrack recording” (2005, p. 91). To make effective use of the recording medium the producer will inevitably deploy electronic and digital processes to control and manage dynamic transients and frequency characteristics during the recording mechanism - a process of acoustic transduction that will leave an indelible sonic stamp upon the resulting artefact. Examples such as these imply a general assumption of recording technologies as linear platforms that allow for limited representation within an explicit recording and reproduction format. A record producer, in the broadest sense, is of course now more likely to engage in prolonged periods of null-extension in front of a graphical user interface. This sort of creative context defines the product and its aesthetic (Jordan and Miller 2008), although not necessarily in explicit form – more a case of now you see me, now you don’t.
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1.The term The Invisible Man refers to the late 19th century fiction by HG Wells (1897), and its use here does not infer or assume that music production is an exclusively male vocation.
2.Canadian academic Raymond Murray Schafer used the term Scizophonia in the late 1960s to describe the separation of recorded sound from its original source sound.