Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Noise Sound Music

I just finished reading a fascinating book; Victorian Soundscapes by Prof. John M Picker. It provids a critical account of the aural world of mostly London between 1834 and 1901. In effect the movement from what is often termed a Victorian ontology to Modernity.
In reading Picker's text one is struck by the territorialisation of the urban space through hierarchical control (or lack thereof) in regards to sound production. The chapter devoted to the struggle around the contentious presence of street musicians, as conducted by such luminaries of the time as Babbage, Dickens, Carlyle, and E.M Barry, brings home their desire for rather terrifying control based on their perceived right of property. Nationalism is articulated against this foreign menace of 'organ grinders' and the dangers their sonic intrusions imply to the brave new middle class 'brain workers' of imperial England.
The inclusion of new sound technologies (telegraph, telephone, phonograph, gramophone) as literary tropes, either as themselves or as implied through metaphor and spatial configurations, is for me a very relevant aspect of the text. The early manufacture and mass sales of the wax cylinder phonographs allowed for home recordings by technologically aware and cashed up Victorians. 'Phonograph parties' were held whereby a group would eat dinner, get drunk and then record their own voices. Many of the early recordings made by Thomas Edison's representative in Europe, Colonel George Gouraud, were made with the premise of preserving the voice after death in mind. Therefore the aged and famous were prime candidates for recording as a means of marketing such a concept. The poet Robert Browning, 8 months before he died, attempted to recite some verse after dinner with Gouraud and full of wine but he failed to remember much of "How They Brought Good News from Ghent to Aix". Once the large companies such as Edison Bell began mass production of machines the interactive wax cylinders were phased out and the listen-only gramophone became the industry standard. Record production became a major source of profits for the companies and sheet music which had been the top 40 chart of the 1800's gradually shrank away.
Many of the power relations surrounding the 'interactive' wax rolls being replaced in the market by the 'assertive' disks of gramophones reminded me of the past 15 years of digital technologies, particularly in relation to P2P content sharing of music files and derivations of works, such as the famous Negativland U2 case. Picker analogises it as the movement from the 'aura' associated with the self as artist or the products of that self in Romantic or high Victorian contexts, to the 'echo' of a modernist reproduction of art as simulacra (vis a vi Walter Benjamin). Picker presents this as visually encapsulated by the His Master Voice image. Originally the gramophone shown above was painted by the artist Francis Barraud as a phonograph but he changed in order to sell it to the London Gramophone Company in 1899. The image of the entranced dog ("Nipper") staring at the source of reality reproduction in a homage to our powers of technological mimicry has become a part of our cultural mind. However as Picker points out, the dog is not the one barking, instead it is trapped in a moment between the represented and the remembered (his master was Barraud's brother who died), unsure of what to do. Barraud himself spent the last decades of his life turning out hand done reproductions of 'His Master Voice', inhabiting the the nether zone between the pre-modernist and modernist conceptions of art.
As a final rant to this rave I would like to offer up a piece of my own aural vandalism/music/sound art...Depending where your aesthetics lie. This is Own Earn (5MB)a piece that will be included on my next CD, coming out on MusicYourMindWillLoveYou recordings soon........

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