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Wired for Sound: Engineering and Technologies In Sonic Cultures

by Paul D. Greene and Thomas Porcello, Editors
Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT, 2005
304 pp., illus. 20 b/w. Trade, $65.95; paper, $24.95
ISBN: 0-8195-6516-4; ISBN: 0-8195-6517-2.

Reviewed by Stefaan Van Ryssen
Hogeschool Gent


Over the past decade, a number of studies by sociomusicologists, ethnographers and anthropologists have shown that the most important single instrument in popular music has become the mixing console and its technical extensions: synthesizer, drumbox, amps, recording platforms, etc. Producers and engineers have gradually taken more control over the final result that actually reaches the audiences of bands and singers through airplay, audio CD, cassette and the Internet. Even at concerts, the ‘sound’ is seldom heard unmediated or entirely ‘acoustical’. The obvious question when we think about this evolution is: How and in what measure are——even sometimes unnamed——technicians and engineers influencing the creative process itself? Or, to what degree have they supplanted the musicians in the artistic creation? Has the producer become composer also?

In this collection of essays, these questions are taken even a step further. The editors and authors simply take the important and sometimes dominant role of the masters of the mixing console as a given and are looking at the societal effects of this shift in relations in the recording studios. How do the choices of engineers and technicians create new musical and social meanings for the various audiences?

There is no single, simple answer to this question, and it is only one of the many merits of this collection that none of the authors tries to jump to general conclusions from the analysis of one or a few cases. And fascinating case studies they are. I discovered the somewhat strange reception of heavy metal addition in Nepali pop music by the urban middle and upper classes of Kathmandu——they appear to take them as eminently suitable for a good love song (article by Paul Greene). I enjoyed the analysis of the complex technological issues involved in samba rede, the samba contest at Rio Carnival, and its effects on the production of CDs and cassettes with samba music (essay by Frederick J. Moehn). The technical and spectroscopic analysis of heavy metal music——some of my youth and some more recent——brought me new insights in the meaning of ‘timbre’ and the shifting reception by the listeners (Cornelia Fales and Harris Berger). Jeremy Wallach made me listen (again) to Indonesian pop and made me think again about the meaning of ‘authentic’ in Indigenous or Aboriginal music. And so did Beverley Diamond with her description of some practices in the studios where Native Americans record their songs.

It doesn’t happen often that I find myself breathlessly reading a series of ethnomusicological essays, and I assume the editors had a hand in refraining the authors from too much speculation and (postmodern) phraseology. So: three amps for the editors: May their voice be heard more often and more loudly——with the appropriate accompaniment and reverb, of course. And be sure to stay close to your favourite search engine so you can find and download, legally or otherwise, some of the music discussed in the essays. You will be listening with new ears.




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