Paul D. Greene and Thomas Porcello (eds)
Wired for Sound: Engineering and Technologies in Sonic Cultures

(Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2005, 288 pp)

Hardback: ISBN 0-8195-6516-4
Paperback: ISBN 0-8195-6517-2
Review by Alf Björnberg

The last decade has seen an upsurge in scholarship on music technology. This seems to be due largely to the radical developments within music production and music consumption brought about by digitization, but also to an increasing historical awareness of the paramount significance of technology for global musical developments ever since the turn of the 20th century. This ‘turn to technology’ appears especially pertinent to popular music studies, as most comprehensive definitions of ‘popular music’ include some reference to (recording) technology. However, technological mediation has deeply affected all musical genres, Western art music – not touched upon in the volume to be reviewed here – as well as ‘traditional’ musics in Western and non-Western societies – a central concern of the present volume. Wired for sound aims at a global perspective in mapping out the practices of using music technology, often in the context of the creation of locally specific ‘world musics’, where the latter term may be taken to designate hybrid musical forms combining elements from Western popular music with local ‘traditional’ musics and intended for distribution outside a local context (this category, however, seems to be rendered increasingly problematic in the course of these processes themselves).

A predominant approach, pervading practically all of the essays in the volume (with some notable exceptions, of which more below), is ethnographic inquiry, involving the study of concrete practices of performers, engineers and producers in the processes of creating recorded music, but also the practices of listeners making use of these recordings. ‘Engineering’ can thus, in accordance with ordinary common parlance, designate the strictly technological manipulation of recorded sound. However, the perspective consistently applied throughout these essays is based on a wider definition of the term ‘engineering’ as designating ‘the practice – by individuals, groups, institutions, corporations, or governments – of using sound technologies to engineer meanings, functions, and social strategies in musical cultures and in the world at large for strategic cultural, aesthetic, political, and economic ends’ (Greene: ‘Introduction’, p. 4). One of the main points made in the essays is thus that decisions made recording musical-technical details in the recording studio may have repercussions on several wider levels in the societies in which these musical recordings are made and used.

One of the central themes of the volume concerns the use of Western technology in non-Western cultural contexts both for the production of ‘world music’ and for the creation of specifically local musics, not intended for circulation outside a local context. In several of the essays (by Meintjes, Moehn, Neuenfeldt, Porcello, and Diamond), it is shown how the creation of apparently unmediated ‘authentic’ or ‘indigenous’ music often involves sophisticated processes of technological manipulation. Other essays (by Wallach, Greene, and Grandin) demonstrate how Western music technology as such can be associated with strong cultural meanings, but also the often subtle changes affecting the meaning attached to Western popular styles when entering into new technologically produced hybrid musical forms in a non-Western context. A characteristic of many of these hybrid forms is that music technology tendentially effects a blurring of the distinction between the production and the consumption of music. Practices of remixing and combining pre-existing music to produce new music thus appear to become increasingly more common in a global perspective, and in Porcello’s afterword it is claimed that ‘remixing – reworking, permutation – has become one of the prime forms that agency takes in relation to technology and music’ (p. 275).

One further highly significant aspect of Wired for sound is the way in which the essays more or less explicitly address the view that technology constitutes a ‘problematical’ factor for musicians, listeners and music scholars. As pointed out in the afterword, this view has important roots in the ‘mass-culture critique’ of the Frankfurt school, and it still plays a dominant role within mainstream musicology as well as in ethnomusicology. However, in a situation where the bulk of all music production and music consumption in a global perspective inevitably involves the use of contemporary music technology, such a view appears unproductive, to say the least. It thus seems highly appropriate when these essays call into question long-standing assumptions concerning the links between the forces of musical production and the social relations of this production, such as the often unreflected conflation of recording technology with a ‘music industry’ and with processes of commodification and commercialisation – most explicitly in Ingemar Grandin’s essay on role of popular music and radio in the development of a Nepalese ‘superculture’.

One of the methodologically exceptional essays referred to above presents Cornelia Fales’ discussion, based on results from cognitive psychology, of general aspects of the perception of timbre and the consequences within this area of music-technological developments in the form of electronically produced timbres. The essay stands out as somewhat theoretically speculative albeit highly thought-provoking, and the impression that it might have gained from being supported by more extensive exemplification is reinforced by a comparison with the essay co-written by Harris and Fales on acoustic correlates to the experience of ‘heaviness’ in heavy metal music. Another methodological exception is Timothy D. Taylor’s account of early US radio. Here, the ethnographical approach appears a bit more problematical, as the essay is based exclusively on written source material; nevertheless, it provides an important and complementary historical perspective on the gradually evolving phenomenology of technologically mediated music as shaped in a specific social, cultural and economic context.

Considering the strong gender coding of music technology, as well as of technology in general, the relationships between music technology and gender would seem to constitute an important area for ethnographic inquiry. However, only one of the authors (Diamond) focuses on this theme, although it is touched upon in some of the other essays. This field thus would seem to be an important area for future research into the cultural significance of music technology.

In conclusion, Wired for sound stands out as a ground-breaking collection of essays in a area central to contemporary popular music scholarship. In my view, this volume constitutes highly recommended reading for scholars from all the various disciplines forming the multidisciplinary field of popular music studies.

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