LMJ20 CD Companion Introduction

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Sounds Like Now: Improvisation + Technology

One of my former teachers was fond of assigning a set of philosophical texts and then opening discussion of them by asking: "What is the question?" The implication was that the texts had no conclusive answers, but instead represented how a set of authors grappled with a common theme at a particular historical moment. Framed this way, the grappling was unresolved and fun to witness---how would it turn out? In this spirit, my objective for curating the LMJ20 CD, Sounds Like Now: Improvisation + Technology, was to gather examples from musicians and sound artists who, in various ways, are grappling with "the question" of improvisation and technology.

Although it unfolds in the present, this question or relation of improvisation and technology is not a uniquely contemporary one, and certainly not confined to narrow definitions of technologies as electronic or digital. Improvised music emerges from interactions among musicians and instruments, listeners and sound systems, sounds and spaces [1]; as such, it is always-already technological. Ingrid Monson developed the concept of intermusicality to refer to the inventive ways that jazz musicians use musical quotations or historical allusions to communicate meanings among each other and knowledgeable listeners [2]. Histories of musical instruments and audio technologies, which often manifest in sonic aesthetics, are embedded within these audible citations. Technical language and informal "talk" of technology also form part of the social aspects of improvising in live performance and studio contexts [3].

A cluster of themes at the intersections of technology, spontaneity and decision-making in contemporary improvised music attune my ear as I listen to this CD. Digital tools, extending the logics of many mechanical and analog instruments before them, facilitate increasingly detailed explorations of certain musical elements such as timbre and microtonality. Electronic and digital instruments also have a distinctive temporal organization; those who improvise with electronics must negotiate what Kaffe Matthews has called "this business about a delay"---that gap, however fleeting, between the "real-time" responsiveness of a machine and the temporality of embodied gestures [4]. As tape recorders influenced an earlier generation of improvisers by enabling repeated listening sessions, contemporary improvisers are undoubtedly influenced by listening habits specific to digital media and cultures, even if their craft is expressed through an acoustic instrument [5]. Moreover, recording retains a vexed relation to improvisation; as one contributor to this compilation reminded me, editing the recording to its required length for the CD compromised some of its improvisational strengths.

In the context of a proliferation of increasingly affordable and ubiquitous software and compression methods, which raise the possibility that ever more sounds will share a homogenizing digital veneer, contributors to this CD embrace a wide range of field recordings, acoustic, electroacoustic, electromagnetic, analog and digital sound sources in their practice. Several also work at the intersections of improvisation and technology as a means of expressing cultural location or ethnic tradition. Some of the artists on this CD may identify as improvisers, some may claim improvisation as one creative practice among many, and others---as Derek Bailey noted some 30 years ago---may be inclined to "refer to what they do as just 'playing'" [6]. Their play, and their grappling, is our gain.

Tara Rodgers
LMJ20 CD Curator
Department of Women's Studies
University of Maryland
2101 Woods Hall
College Park, MD 20742
E-mail: tara@safety-valve.org

Tara Rodgers is a composer and feminist technology scholar. She performed jazz piano for several years in New York City, has released numerous recordings of electronic and electroacoustic music (as Analog Tara) and exhibited sound installation art at venues including Eyebeam (NYC) and the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (Toronto). Her collection of interviews, Pink Noises: Women on Electronic Music and Sound, was released by Duke University Press in 2010. She is currently writing a history of synthesized sound that examines representations of identity and difference in audio-technical language. She is based at the University of Maryland, College Park, where she teaches in the Women's Studies department and works with the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH). See www.pinknoises.com.

References and Notes

1. Georgina Born, "On Musical Mediation: Ontology, Technology and Creativity," Twentieth-Century Music 2, No. 1 (2005) p. 7.

2. Ingrid Monson, Saying Something: Jazz Improvisation and Interaction (Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1996) pp. 97--98.

3. See Monson [2] pp. 73--96, on the intersections of music, language and African-American cultural practices among jazz improvisers. On the roles of gender, age, race, ethnicity and other aspects of identity and social difference in studio dynamics, see Louise Meintjes, Sound of Africa! Making Music Zulu in a South African Studio (Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press, 2003); Beverley Diamond, "Media as Social Action: Native American Musicians in the Recording Studio," in Paul D. Greene and Thomas Porcello, eds., Wired for Sound: Engineering and Technologies in Sonic Cultures (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 2004) pp. 103--137. On speech-about-sound in the studio, see Thomas Porcello, "Speaking of Sound: Language and the Professionalization of Sound-Recording Engineers," Social Studies of Science 34, No. 5, 733--758 (October 2004).

4. Tara Rodgers, Pink Noises: Women on Electronic Music and Sound (Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press, 2010) p. 40.

5. For example, as my own listening habits have become increasingly Internet-based, I am exposed to a greater variety of music but less likely to listen to any one thing for very long. I'm willing to speculate that this recalibrates my experience of duration as a listener and music-maker. When I do listen to sounds or musical excerpts of longer duration, they seem more jarring (even a pleasant relief) as I've become accustomed to flitting quickly from one short excerpt to the next.

6. Derek Bailey, Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music (Ashbourne, Derbyshire, U.K.: Moorland, 1980) p. 5.

LMJ 20 Table of Contents

Updated 17 November 2010