Growing cybernetic ears: transduction and performativity in the analogue and digital what have you

Watson, Joe (2020) Growing cybernetic ears: transduction and performativity in the analogue and digital what have you. Doctoral thesis (PhD), University of Sussex.

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At a time when digital technologies have become ubiquitous in music making, and where the majority of research into music technology happens at the computational ‘cutting edge’, this practice-based PhD explores analogue technologies deemed, in the main, obsolete, anachronistic, or as quaint nostalgic throwbacks, and asks how a combination of technological, historical and practice-based research, focused through commitment to artistic outputs in the domain of music technology, might shed new light on the terms analogue and digital, and on the nature of the analogue-digital relationship.

Underlying much contemporary enthusiasm for ‘the digital’ are progress narratives that rely on both a succession logic (old analogue technology gets replaced by new digital technology) and an assumption of isomorphism (the digital technology does all the same things as the replaced technology, though often with ‘enhanced’ affordances). This thesis questions such assumptions along historical, philosophical and practice-based trajectories.

Key to these research trajectories is the trans-discipline cybernetics, in particular the second-order cybernetics of Gordon Pask, whose self-designation ‘philosophical mechanic’ indicates the importance he placed on a cyclical, mutually accommodating thinking-designing-making. Pask presented a powerful practical methodology for the examination and creation of dynamical systems in flux, systems that evolve as a result of participant interaction, systems that can be seen to manifest self-organisation. Second-order cybernetics puts the emphasis on processes in interaction rather than positing pre-existing objects (including concepts) in a world ‘out there’. Cybernetics helps us to explore systems whose complexity and interdependence precludes the separation out into constituent parts, systems where control is shared across multiple mutually interacting dimensions, and where the observer is a committed participant whose actions, interests and biases cannot be divorced from the interactions therein.

Two other key concepts are: (1) transduction, which relates energy, information, patterns of growth, or other dynamical processes across media or between domains; (2) performativity, an interventional act that brings forth a world. Transduction is essential to an understanding of recording studio processes and practices: the microphone, signal processing and recording itself all rely on transduction. When viewed from a performative perspective, actions such as recording are found to be carried out very differently when the final stage of transduction is discrete (the case with the now ubiquitous digital audio workstation) or continuous (such as recording to tape). This difference is primarily due to the hyper-plasticity of digital audio, a taking of sound ‘out of time’. Rather than seeing this as an evolution of ‘precursor’ analogue technologies, as most accounts have it, this thesis takes the perspective that this is a difference in kind, rather than one of degree, and explores that difference with a particular focus on emergent and intertwined cultural, embodied and technological systems, rather than on end products.

The second half of the thesis presents the compositional practice, ranging from experimental work on tape music composition and installation, through a series of modular synthesis live performances, to tape-based recording of pop music. The physical, gestural engagement with the resistant materiality of these technologies emphasises a very different cognitive engagement with processes of composition and production to that which happens with supposed ‘successor’ digital technologies; assumptions of isomorphism, buttressed by skeuomorphic emulation, tend to occlude this cognitive distinction.

This thesis is offered as an act of cybernetic musicking – resolutely practical in orientation, with a wide-ranging, trans-disciplinary theoretical framework, and with the emphasis not on things but on ongoing processes in complex interaction with a world in constant becoming.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Schools and Departments: School of Media, Arts and Humanities > Music
Subjects: M Music. Literature on music. Musical instruction and study > M Music > M0005 Instrumental music > M1470 Aleatory music. Electronic music. Mixed media
M Music. Literature on music. Musical instruction and study > ML Literature on music > ML0159 History and criticism > ML0430 Composition and performance
Depositing User: Library Cataloguing
Date Deposited: 11 Jun 2020 12:50
Last Modified: 16 Mar 2022 15:48

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