Introduction to a Theory of Musical Technology Before Music

by SAKONDA Nobuyasu (musician)


Born in Kobe in 1961. By concentrating on the realtime communication between personal computers and the surrounding environment, Sakonda explores the musical possibilities that emerge. He is the co-author of the book Magical MAX Tour (D-Art Publishers), and has released a CD called MAX Variety Show (Kaeru Cafe).

The not particularly accomplished study I'm about to embark on deals with the theme of the relation between music and technology. Music, while transcending cultural differences, is linked closely with technique in any historical period. Yet in this age when in a variety of areas composing, performing, and listening with computers seems to be becoming an inevitability, a special relationship between music and technology that is completely different from any in the past seems to have emerged. Musicians, critics, and listeners all respond too eagerly, and anticipate unconditionally the promise they sense in the word technology. Over and above the intentions of contemporary art, this always seems to be the first card that must be played, and also always seems to be the final indulgence. To strike a new vein of artistic expression, musicians constantly strive to at the very least never fall behind technological advances. In this way, people compete to find something, and words like "transitional" and "experimental" come to be used as a way of deferring judgment about music that is still in the process of being mined for something of value. Throughout the history of music, this overly sensitive attitude toward technology has remained prevalent as if it was natural, but when viewed in an objective light it must be said that this is a special state of affairs. Therefore, I would like to deal not with non-historical aspects of music and technology that we expect to be essential, but rather aspects that clearly belong to "today." And by this the music and technology that exists in the specific socio-cultural context of the present, and my attempts to make music through the use of computers.

In the past in my writings and lectures about MAX I heralded this technology with a knowing look on my face saying, "Composition with programming language allows you to become free of a variety of existing concepts, and express your ideas directly." As you'll notice, there are a number of dangerous verbal landmines buried in this sentence: "free," "your ideas," "express." It looks as though I've absentmindedly stepped on one of them. But it was thanks to this that I had an internal hemorrhage last summer, and was obliged to have my brain worked on with the latest medical technology. Unhealthy ideas concerning technology and music have been deposited in my head since then, and I have come to a complete standstill. To start moving again, it is necessary to bring these unhealthy thoughts to an end. As a result, I've written this essay to function as a kind of personal (rather masochistic) interrogation that takes place in a back room at the stationhouse in which the detective and the suspect are both me.

First of all, let's briefly outline the problem. The questions that I am asking in this essay are ones that have never before been stated clearly in the music world. Whether one is aware of it or not, by using a computer in music or even by intending to use a computer, we are no doubt playing with fire. I would like to investigate exactly what this might be. We have already come to the vague realization that technology is something more than an instrumental method. It can't be said that the computer has the same relation to a musician as a brush does to a painter. Despite this, in the places where music is made, as in every other area of life, technology is only the subject of discussion in regard to the instrumental possibilities that have been newly established by it. What supports our faith in technology are the positions that technology, music and we ourselves occupy in today's society; the arbitration between technological notions and the artistic act is a theme we do not question. For me, this is not at all a problem to be speculated on for the sake of amusement, but a practical concern that will determine the direction my music takes in the future.

In order to deal with this, let me briefly get away from music, and begin by addressing the extremely plain and tangential question of what exactly these things we call technology and the computer in the socio-cultural context of today are. Although there is a torrent of technology that has been unleashed, the fact is it has been left untouched without a true understanding of its nature. It only takes a cursory look to figure out that this is a foolhardy battle against an opponent that is simply a massive monster in the history of thought. Thus, I would ask that my readers keep a sadistic eye on me to see whether or not I reach some rational conclusion or practical policy by the end of this essay.



By taking a casual glance from the handicraft techniques of the Western Middle Ages to the information technology of today, this historical development of technologies seems to be as neccesary as a domino effect and as accidental as the phenomenon of turbulent flow. One way you might look at it is that the technical achievement of a previous age leads to the objective determination of the technical achievement of the next age, and it is also possible to see the constant development of technique through a multitude of accidental events that occur in unforeseen and complex ways. (It is possible to describe the historical development of techniques only with exclusive terminology that is particular to the field, making it a kind of heretical genealogy of genius inventors.) But to put it in the crudest terms, human beings don't merely follow the logic of technique, there is a silent "choice" made whenever technique has to progress in a certain direction. These aren't choices made by the geniuses who have by chance been born, they are cultural choices--the "collective choices with a particular direction" by choosing roads from a variety of possibilities, which will eventually lead to today's technology.



Rationality - Science - Technology

WEBER saw this sense of direction as "the development of rationalization in all areas of Western society," and summarized the motivation for this by saying that it stemmed from a religious ethic; in particular, the Protestant rationality of the Middle Ages combined with the spirit of abstinence. Put simply, "To achieve the goal that God desires of us, human beings should choose methods that produce the best results and remain unclouded by evil thoughts and conventions, paying especially close attention to actions that serve the truth." Of course, "the demanding goal that God desires of us" was later secularized to become "the saving of wealth," "control of production," and "governmental control."

Be that as it may, where might one look for positive proof to find out if one technique is rational and another irrational? At this point, an interactive relationship between scientific thought and technique begins to emerge. It is often said that modern Western thought grew out of DESCARTES and GALILEO, due to the fact that they developed clear formulas for modern reason and a mechanical view of nature. Nature functions according to a set of universal laws as if it were a kind of automated machine, and human beings have the ability to understand these laws according to the power of reason.
Mechanical logic and mathematical logic became parts of one whole, and they allowed us to objectively understand nature by deduction with these laws, and at the same time, allowed us to use nature by applying them. The accumulation of knowledge concerning individual, practical and empirical techniques were generalized into principles that were based on universal laws and were applied to other fields of endeavor. These principles then became "science," and these techniques became "technology." Scientific knowledge was reflected in technology, and the findings of technology made new scientific pursuits possible. This interactive relationship first emerged from the foundation of common intellectual methods. And after this relationship was established, the explosive development of technology that followed the Industrial Revolution began.

The Neutrality of Technology

While the objective understanding of science spread throughout the world, technology could not help but barrel down the road of decontextualization making use of all the possibilities presented by science. That is, the notion that a rationality of means leads to specific ends led to the formalization and permeation of rationality as a search for the limits of an efficiency of means regardless of the ends. The technique as means was given special preference as a "neutral" existence without ends or without valuing the ends.
This means, for example, that while on the one hand the computer is the most efficient means of control for the powers that be, it has also become a weapon of democratic change for anti-establishment and minority figures. In this way, a firm belief in the neutrality of instrumental technology has come to seem like common sense to us.

The Modern Self and the World

Next, let's turn our eyes toward human beings. Man , the Self, having made his way to pure reason, stands somewhat apart from the World. From this position, he has come to see the World as essentially an object to be controlled technically. In the broadest terms, the autonomous individual employs neutral technology to manage the objective World, which is determined by universal laws. This then is a diagram of the self facing off against the world. In effect, reason, which was purely a kind of intellectual method for Descartes, was transferred to a socio-cultural context and transformed into the foundations of our culture, exerting a crucial influence on metaphysical questions such as "What is man?," and "What is the World?".

Technological Rationality and Post-Modern Society

According to MARCUSE, as the basis for advanced capitalism, technology has become the universal form of every kind of material production, and has come to define the shape of entire cultures as well as entire histories and entire worlds. The upshot being that the way in which contemporary people relate to the world has become a continuous overture to technical means. In this sense, the world itself has taken the form of a bundle of big technical questions, and the only legitimate norm that can be reasonable is no longer based on religious logic or law. It is nothing more than "technological rationality."

Take computer manuals for example. These thick printed texts without any type of decoration are composed of commands and prohibitions to the user--"things you must do," and "things you must never do." When you think about it, the content is extremely restrictive and constraining. No matter how friendly the words seem, the statements are written in the form of scripture or law. Of course, no truths or weighty philosophy exists within, and neither can the portrait of any supreme ruler be found. And the only punishment for breaking the law is not being able to use the computer--no one is going to be burned at the stake. Nevertheless, it is important to realize that so many people "voluntarily" submit to these demands. Politicians, capitalists, and people of every stripe with deep-set suspicions about the establishment, all follow without question the behavioral patterns and restrictions that arise from technology.

As a rule, for someone to submit voluntarily to some kind of norm, it is necessary for them to share socially the feeling that they have chosen "freely" without the use of force, and to have a legitimate reason for doing so. For the very simple reason that they are part of the way in which the product was produced, the commands and prohibitions in the manual are given legitimacy. There are two beliefs which support this legitimacy: "This is as far as technology has come at this point in time," and "If I don't like something, I can change to something else later, or just get rid of the thing." The legitimacy of the proposition is constantly renewed by saving all reflective and critical thoughts for the future in this way, and therefore, allowing the restrictions and constraints to stick like a shadow. Norms that are based on technological rationality are in principle always perfectly flawless. There is no reason why those in power overlook these norms, the strongest in human history. Thus, in fact contemporary power is continually de-politicizing and de-ideologizing itself and acting as a form of "mere" technical management. Paradoxically, has accepting technological rationality and internalizing it led to our restriction and constraint, or on the contrary, has this instead allowed us to feel even more free? According to FOUCAULT's reading of the situation, "subjection" is "subjectification." The era of political struggles concerning the ownership of technology has ended. The era when technology symbolized a visible medium of the class system has ended too. CHAPLIN uneasily entrusting his body to a gigantic cog, and sweat-drenched workers feeding coal to a hungry steam engine in the bottom of the Titanic are both images of the past. This is an era in which technology, in the form of a commodity, can be sold to tens of thousands of people. The more technology sells, the more human beings can behave as if they are potentially omnipotent gods of the world. Today, Cartesian modern reason is being proclaimed invalid by metaphysics, but it survives not as an ideal philosophy but as a gorgeously wrapped Christmas present.

The sketch I have hurriedly attempted depicts the existence of contemporary technology as no longer being outside human society and culture (it is, therefore, universal and neutral), but instead shows that it has become a cultural phenomenon developed within a specific socio-cultural context that is in fact an actual historical process. And what's more, at present, this phenomenon has permeated every sector of life on a global scale, and threatens to become a synonym for the world or environment as understood by society and the individual. The places we use to question music themselves indeed belong to this cultural interior.
(To be continued)

I welcome all opinions and criticism at: sako@marin.or.jp)

 



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