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Pop Music - Technology and Creativity

Author: Timothy Warner
Publisher: Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Publishing Ltd, 2003
Review Published: July 2004

 REVIEW 1: David Beer

As Timothy Warner identifies in Pop Music - Technology and Creativity, the impact of music technology is a much-understudied area. Over recent years some attempts have been made to fill this void (see Pinch & Trocco, 2002, Taylor, 2001, and Goodwin, 2000) yet further attention is still required. In this particular text Warner attempts to fill this gap by concentrating on the relationship between technology and creativity.

Much of the existing literature on pop music tends to concentrate on the cultural consumption of music (youth movements, sub-cultures, club-cultures, etc) rather than its production and reproduction. This means that the profound impact that technology and technological transformation has had upon music, and the everyday experience of music at the point of construction and appropriation, has been largely overlooked. Warner attempts to overcome this problem by focusing his attention upon the music producer -- and more specifically upon the work of Trevor Horn -- in order to achieve the objective of his text. The resulting central argument of the text is that ". . . pop music is inextricably bound to developments in audio technology and the working practices that ensue" (xi). Warner identifies the pop music producer as the link between the technology and the music and, therefore, he concentrates on specific examples where this relationship is most pronounced.

In order to develop his central argument, Warner separates the text into two parts. Part One defines the objects of study, clarifies some of the key technologies, and gives a context and rationale for the text. Part Two is split into seven chapters, and each chapter represents an examination of a specific recording with which Trevor Horn was associated. The analyses in Part Two are used to give examples of the impact of the technology in practice; they identify the ways in which the technology enables, shapes, and transforms the material cultural form of the pop record.

Warner selects pop music producer Trevor Horn for a number of reasons. These include Horn's openness to technological transformations, the high level of creativity in his work, the blurring between producer and musician within the recordings, and because the period 1979-1985 included the shift from analogue to digital technologies within Trevor Horn's recording studio. These well-balanced and clear arguments compensate adequately for the singular focus of the study.

From the outset the text struggles, with good reason, to differentiate between pop music and other genres of music. It attempts to define pop music in relation to what it is not. It does this by writing of pop as a kind of opposite to rock music. The inevitable fluidity of these genres means that the definitions used from the outset are problematic. This is particularly true in the contemporary musical environment where the boundaries between pop and rock are rapidly blurring. This can be seen in the relative success of pop-orientated rock bands in recent top 40 singles charts. The line between pop and rock is unclear and illusory.

A further problem arises from the definitions given by Warner in the opening chapter. The differentiation between pop music and popular music is unclear. The reader is left unsure as to the distinctions between these two categories of music. It fails to answer the question of whether rock music (separated from pop in this text) is part of the popular music genre. This is a problem. However, Warner partially addresses this by offering rigid indicators of what he considers pop to be. The problems of genre and categorization are inevitably problematic and ongoing in the field of music studies.

Warner attempts to construct a collage of pop music that encourages the reader to understand technological transformation in the studio as an ongoing pathway. The writer tries to attract attention to the particular elements or capabilities of analogue technologies that are lost when digital technologies replace them. However, the text does not explore or examine the nostalgic persuasions of the music producer. This is partially down to the text's concentration on Horn, who, from the information in the book, tends to keep moving-on to the next technology at the expense of the previous models. This implies that all producers work in this way. The use of technology in the recording studio is more complex and multi-dimensional than this suggests. Analogue and digital technologies tend to overlap and mix in the recording space. In the praxis of recording, the individual capabilities, limitations, and constraints of the technologies are appropriated to capture particular moments in particular ways (this is not always a reflexive process). Further insights into the intricacies of
praxis can only be gained by close up, microscopic observations and descriptions of the construction of pop music in action. This needs further attention in order for the complexities of the configuration of analogue and digital technologies in the recording studio to be fully understood.

The seven examples that Warner focuses on in the book are analyzed in a variety of ways. The main focus of the analysis is sound, and the ways in which the sounds have been produced as a result of the technologies used by Trevor Horn (and his team) in the production processes and practices. To complement this, Warner combines a conceptual-aesthetic analysis of the sounds with an aesthetic analysis of the product. Within this analysis, the record sleeve, lyrics, artwork, and image are individually deconstructed in order to give a holistic account of the complete package. This is a deliberate reflection of the production practices of Trevor Horn. The importance of the complete package, which is identified in the book as being of importance to Horn, is adopted and utilized in the author's analysis of the music producer. This represents a reflexive direction of study that intimates numerous directions for the future analysis of the practices involved in the production of pop music recordings.

When reading the text one major issue arises with regard to accessibility. The problems concerning the representation of the un-representable become apparent in the form of the reliance upon jargon. The descriptions of particular sounds or moments within the music tend toward language that may not be accessible to readers who are unfamiliar with specific forms of musical jargon. This is not a criticism of this particular text; it is more an acknowledgment of the problems of translation that occur when music is translated into discourse: The problem of representing the un-representable. This is not so much a problem as an opportunity to highlight the inability of language to represent cultural forms, performances, or objects. It also illuminates the un-bridgeable opening between the object (music) and the representation (language) that exists on a more general level.

Overall, the text offers a strong historical context that maps out the shift from analogue to digital technologies in the recording studio. This transformation is profound and the essence of its implications is carefully detailed. Specific technologies within these transformations are accurately detailed as are some of the specific changes in sound that these technologies introduced. The absence of the inclusion of links to wider cultural phenomena means that this historical account is based purely within the sphere of music technology. This is only problematic in the sense that the historical elements are detached and, therefore, no links can be made within the analysis to significant events or technological portents that occur as a result of these wider cultural phenomena. This has further implications in that the material cultural forms (the pop records) that are included in the accounts cannot be successfully realigned with wider cultural appropriations. This is particular significant when the profound cultural impact of these recordings is considered. As a result, the linking of technological development to wider culture, and the transformation of wider culture that occurs as a (in)direct result of the recordings, are missing from Warner's account.

The argument that "pop music is inextricably linked to technology" (11) is of a high level of importance in this field of study. For Warner, this inextricable link exists because pop music "is realized with technology . . . and perceived through technology" (11). This, of course, is a compelling argument. Technology enables popular music production and consumption, and, therefore, technology is central to its appropriation and understanding.

The repeated inclusion of the theme of constraint is a particularly interesting element of Warner's text. The idea of constraint, it seems to me, should be central in studies of technological appropriation. Warner subtly includes this within this study, but does not draw adequate attention to its presence. There are sections of the text where Warner reverts to a more free-floating understanding of creativity (21). This is problematic. Warner is suggesting here that contemporary technologies liberate creativity from constraint. It seems more plausible to understand these creative boundaries as being stretched by technology rather than removed by it. However, the inclusion of constraint within Warner's analysis is possibly the major triumph of this exciting and illuminating text. Here Warner has successfully opened a door for future analytical studies on the impact of technology upon music.

Goodwin, A. (2000). Sample and Hold. Pop Music in the Digital Age of Reproduction. In Frith, S & Goodwin, A (eds), On Record. London: Routledge. Pp. 258-274

Pinch, T & Trocco, F. (2002). Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Taylor, T. D. (2001). Strange Sounds: Music, Technology & Culture. London: Routledge.

David Beer:
David Beer is currently a Ph.D. student in Sociology at the University of York. His research focuses on the impact of digital technologies upon popular music and popular music culture. The critique of existing techno-cultural theories (of popular music) is a guiding theme of this work.  <david.beer@britishlibrary.net>

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