Switch ContentsQuestions Concerning Music Technology

by Agostino Di Scipio

9. Technological indeterminism and subversive rationalization

In approaches reflecting a heretical notion, the artist's technology is seen as an opportunity to challenge the established, known modalities of personal or shared creative processes. Therefore, it is also a way to challenge the aesthetic reaches substantiated by the audible results achieved. Only in such case, I think, Heidegger's metaphor would be correct: For an artist to speak her/his material is primarily to put it into question, and that is only possible if one keeps a critical, dynamical, explorative perspective on the tÈchne by which s/he acts upon her/his material. That is not what Heidegger meant with his metaphor, though.

Ultimately a heretical notion of technology can be viewed as an instance of what has been defined subversive rationalization [Feenberg, 1995]. This "requires technological advances that can be made only in opposition to the dominant hegemony [...], an alternative to [...] the ongoing celebration of technocracy triumphant" [ibid., p.20] - and an alternative to a conservative, anti-technological view as well. In a sense to be discussed, I claim that all that electronic arts are about is just giving context and support to this critical and constructive, inventive attitude towards electronic technology in the social context.

The field of electroacoustic and computer music provides many examples of such an attitude. The German composer Gottfried Micheal Koenig (now in his 70s) is a case in point: It has been rightly noted that he can be seen at the same time as a representant of critical theory (the Frankfurt school) and a researcher applying scientific reasoning to music composition [Metzger, 1995]. More examples, also among the younger generations, can come to mind, regardless of particular aesthetic positions. Still, we can hardly say that such attitude is common among today professional electroacoustic composers. The problem is in part in the definition of professional composing (that I suspect is hardly separable from technological determinism), but it also relates to issues in technology design, as I shall argue in the next section.

The more popular example of technological indeterminism, today, is the Internet: its meaning and social scope - largely unforeseen at its outset - have been determined by the people who freely accessed it and worked with it, before industry and politics realized its potential. However, a similarly striking example has been before the musicians' (and music-theorists') eyes for decades now: In the 1940s and 1950s Elektronische musik and musique concrËte were born by an unprecedented re-interpretation of technical instruments which were solely meant for scientific measurements and control. In that case, means of reproduction, control and storage were bent to a form of creative production - of poiesis - which was completely alien to their original technical code.

Another example is that of Edison's phonograph (patented in 1877), a device meant to serve much different purposes than storing music (it was primarily meant for keeping governative records, and documentation of official speeches). Its enormous impact on music contrasts with the poor impact of early electro-mechanical devices purposefully designed to be utilized by musicians - e.g. Ondes Martenot, Trautonium, etc... The technical principle of the phonograph became a new medium for artistic expression which in the end transformed music entirely, while many devices launched as new musical instruments have become, at their best, additional colors in the palette of traditional musical timbres.

These examples, like many in other areas of human activity, contradict and invalidate the assumptions of technological determinism. They show that technology does not develop as an autonomous, extra-social process but rather as a process dependent on the active partecipation of people who confront with, enrich and challenge the hegemonic code and the knowledge embodied in the design of technical tools.