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Cybersounds: Essays on Virtual Music Culture

Editor: Michael D. Ayers
Publisher: New York: Peter Lang, 2006
Review Published: March 2008

 REVIEW 1: Lori Landay
 REVIEW 2: Shintaro Miyazaki
 REVIEW 3: Marc W.D. Tyrrell
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Michael D. Ayers

Cybersounds: Essays on Virtual Music Culture, edited by Michael D. Ayers, aims to build a foundation for research about how cyberspace transformed and is transforming the ways in which we listen to and make music. The book deals especially with the mp3 format and how it changed social, artistic, and cultural issues around certain music cultures.

The principal merit of this book is synthesized in the title itself: instead of delivering one perspective of one sound, Cybersounds offers pluralist accounts of "cybersound." Indeed, the volume is comprised of a mosaic of approaches and attitudes regarding virtual music seen from different perspectives. In all, the book researches various forms of cybersound from mp3, Napster, musical subcultures, sampling, online activism, copyright, the iPod, and more.

For example, Markus Giesler's chapter investigates soundfile sharing from a consumer culture theoretical perspective. The chapter analyzes important breaches in the context of music consumption and points out the rhizomatic structure of peer-to-peer networking. In some ways, the chapter even reveals the anti-disciplinary quality of Napster, but unfortunately Giesler does not go further from this point to question the consequences for the music production and creativity of cybersound production.

Co-editor Ayers' chapter, however, approaches the topic from the perspective of cyberactivism. Ayers examines the rising of so-called mash-up music like in the case of Dangermouse, who produced a mash-up of the Beatles' White Album and Jay-Z's The Black Album and called it The Grey Album. In turn, the mash-up was disseminated widely by bedroom and net activists and, in so doing, subverted the music industry.

John Ryan and Michael Hughes' chapter, "Fate of Creativity in the Age of Self-Production," goes even further. For Ryan and Hughes, the key notion is that today’s system of music production and consumption is bifurcated into self-production on one side and the traditional way of being promoted by a complex system of manager, producer, and recording masters on the other side. The authors write: "The freedom allowed by self-production siphons off the most creative artists into a system of production that generates products that are unlikely to reach a mass audience. [...] At the same time, less-creative artists, who are willing to submit to manipulation by the music industry, are left to produce a large body of popular music even more vacuous than has been the case in the past" (251).

Because it deals with questions concerning the nature of musical creativity, this notion of bifurcated production is one of the most interesting elements in this anthology. Indeed, this is also an argument made by Jonathan Sterne, author of The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction and one of the most famous scholars in the context of music, sound, and technology. In the Afterword, Sterne writes: "Cybersounds is at its most urgent and innovative when the authors ask us to consider questions about the changing nature of creativity (whether corporate or individual), the status of collaboration in music production and listening, and the relationship between amateurism and professionalism" (256).

However, from a European or German media theoretical view (for example, building on the work of Friedrich Kittler or Georg Christoph Tholen), which derives from a mixture of Heidegger's philosophy of technology, Lacan's analysis of cybernetics, and McLuhan, there is a common strategy and method of all scholars: culture studies. This means that contributions to Cybersounds are mostly written in the paradigm of culture. Culture studies scholars sometimes forget that most of our culture is mediated -- set by media technologies. Before asking questions about social, ethic, or economic issues of our networked music culture, one should analyze the epistemological basics and technological principles of these digital technologies in connection to the most important thing: music and sound.

Cybersounds could be, therefore, called more of an anthology of media culture and contemporary ethnological studies. What is missing is a profound analysis of the important media technology-induced changes in the contemporary music culture. Some questions that we could ask include: Is file-sharing and the internet as a huge database or archive the real nature of our new networked music culture? How does cybersound sound? What is the result in terms of quality of the entanglement of music production technology, computers, and worldwide networks? Apart from these issues the anthology covers important cultural changes, shifts, and breaches in the realm of internet, digital technologies, and music.

Nevertheless one contribution is different: Trace Reddell’s "The Social Pulse of Telharmonics." Reddell describes artistic practitioners, including himself, who are exploring the possibilities of networked sound. He distinguishes between a) access, b) remixing, and c) transmission or real-time interaction:
"First, individual performers access a networked database of sound sources and media objects as a way of chronicling associative links among items stored in the material archive. Second, solitary performers collaborate across networks, processing and remixing one another's streaming audio files or sharing virtual instrument interfaces through the Internet. And third, multiple sets of performers and webcasters interact with each other's transmissions, coordinated in a live, globally synchronized event" (209).
In my opinion, what should be called networked music and "cybersounds" is covered by these three modes, which are also historically connected.

As Sterne remarks in the Afterword, the internet is a special case of social relations and is also a media form historically connected to other media. The "Essays on Virtual Music Culture" often do not seem to deal with the fact that virtual music culture has important connections to radio music culture or tv music culture, to name just two. Sampling and remixing are techniques that do not exist solely within the digital; sometimes they are analog. Mash-up music existed long before the advent of the CD-player and it was called plunderphonics. Indeed, Pierre Schaeffer made samples and remixed them as early as in the late 1940s (Culter, 2000; Holmes, 2002/1985).

Just as there is a distinction between net.art and art in the net within media art theory, there should be a distinction between music or sound whose existence is strongly connected to the internet on the one hand and music or sound that is merely stored in the net on the other hand. Thus, the so-called net and cyberspace is, unlike the book, more than just a medium for storage. It is a medium in constant flow, where storage is merely a function of transmission. Over all, Cybersounds is a very smooth and easy starting point for further researches. The aim to build a foundational corpus of a new paradigm is quite successful, but many of the contributors need to re-think what McLuhan meant with "the medium is the message." What is the message of cyberspace for sound made and listened through and with the internet?

Cutler, Chris. (2000). "Plunderphonics." In Simon Emmerson (Ed.), Music, Electronic Media and Culture, (pp. 87-114). Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.

Holmes, Thom. (2002/1985). Electronic and Experimental Music - Pioneers in Technology and Composition. New York & London: Routledge.

Shintaro Miyazaki:
Shintaro Miyazaki, born 1980, is a Ph.D. candidate at the "Seminar für Medienwissenschaft" of the Humboldt University Berlin (working with Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Ernst). He is also a laptop musician, member of "laptoporchester berlin," and founder of Avatar Orchestra Metaverse, a virtual orchestra with over ten members from all over the world. His dissertation work focuses on media epistemological and archeological issues of computer music.  <miyazaki.shintaro@gmail.com>

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