The First Echo: Editorial

Introduction by Nicolas Collins and Jonathan Impett
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Albers Rare Echo1962

The idea for this journal emerged from the work of a research group at the Orpheus Institute, Ghent - Music, Thought and Technology:

The aim of MTT is to better articulate emerging practices and understandings of music. To re-ontologise musical artefacts and practices - future, present and past - through the prism of technology. To acknowledge that ideas from technology constitute the common repertoire of concepts for our time. And to investigate this potential through processes of creation.

The fundamental relationships between these three areas are well established from various perspectives, but it seems timely to bring this nexus into clearer and more explicit focus. How we make, use or imagine things and how we think – about things, and thence in general – are inextricably connected. At our own technologically self-aware moment in particular, acknowledgement of this is crucial to the critical reflection of individuals, to the possibility of common critical discourse and to the critical potential of art.

A brief combinatorial exercise triangulates the field. Many prospective readers and contributors may be associated with music technology as a specific field of research and creation - whether in its off-the-shelf manifestations (which wear their sophistication lightly) or in its most extended, experimental forms and modes of use. As the defining mode of production and dissemination of our time, it is not surprising that this is a most intense area of current research. Computation is material-agnostic; it is also time-agnostic. Boundaries between composition and performance become more broadly negotiable, creator and user co-exist on a continuum, and the materials of past, ‘real-time’ present and simulated or projected future are not different in kind. ECHO welcomes examples of creative, musicological, theoretical and technological vision, and encourages their communication through media, data representation and code.

At the same time, awareness of the materiality and physicality of music has expanded enormously – in its performance and reception, of course, but also in its imagining, planning and dissemination. Experiments in new interfaces for music, studies of embodiment, performance and instrumentality, and research in music psychology crucially inform each other. Historically informed performance has taught us that what were once seen as the ‘texts’ of music require understanding and experience of the technologies and associated paradigms they assume. From Palestrina’s use of the wax tablet to interface design and choices of music-related data representation, it is clear that practical modes of inscription condition modes of thought. The effects of seeing recording not as simulacrum but as inscription are countless: on performance, on listening, on creation, on individual and cultural memory, on the distribution of music, on sonic and ecological awareness, on digital processing and as the ground for present and future AI.

Music is information-flow, therefore. Standing at a unique place between sensation and reflection, it is at once intensely embodied, fundamentally material and inescapably virtual – utterly time-dependent and irresistibly abstract. So much is music-philosophical commonplace. New and particular to our current situation is that the long cultural experience of music might afford lessons for our hybrid physical/virtual state, and experiments with its future might constitute a laboratory for our possible relationships with the environment, artefacts, experiences and potential of the informational world.

From Aristoxenus to Zarlino, theories of music are rooted in the technologies of its instruments. Latter accounts refer rather to those of its capture and measurement, from Mersenne through Helmholtz to the spectralist composers. Music is an excellent example of how technologies condition how we perceive and work with materials and concepts. This notion is current in a wide range of thought: in the proliferation of work in the history of technology, in science and technology studies and in research in material culture. It is also evident in the difficulty of pinning down exactly what we mean by ‘technology’ – despite the term’s ubiquity – when the term incorporates ideas from fire or flint to science fiction, including language itself.

What is common is a sense that better understanding our current and future relationships with technology is crucial to human wellbeing. The challenges we face include stasis in the face of apparent techno-speed and informational density, and individualisation, fragmentation and identity politics. We must therefore be alert to new resonances, commonalities not dependent on style, genre or practice. These emerging resonances will be increasingly native to our common informational environment. Taxonomies were necessary in a time of limited information, of low bandwidth; our challenge is precisely the opposite. Rather than proposing new categories, therefore, ECHO exists to reflect a space of continuous dynamic reconfiguration - of practices, artefacts, modes of understanding, roles and perceptions of music. With the question of categories comes that of expertise. The patterns of distribution of technical expertise must also be different and various, reflecting the changing relationships between the vision of individuals, the initiatives of emergent groups and the kind of technical development that is the result of large-scale distributed, concerted effort.

The nymph Echo could only repeat what she heard, but feedback is exactly how new constructs emerge. It’s an essential mechanism of creation; it’s at the heart of the experiencing-imagining-creating loop, or the metaphor-technology double bind. The ethos of artistic research (and its many cognates) is a natural starting point in this respect. Creative work itself remains at the centre, allowing other fields of knowledge, enquiry and experiment reconfigure dynamically around the practices of music and sound art. In our informational age, creation becomes the natural mode of knowledge production.

The initial issues of ECHO will take as their themes technological concepts that have wide currency in contemporary discourse: network, feedback, simulation. It is fitting that the first issue should address the topic of the digital archive. How do we imagine into the future while simultaneously addressing the exponentially accumulating traces of the past? Pace Benjamin, there’s nothing to tell us that Klee’s angel doesn’t also have eyes in the back of her head.


20 November 2020
Review status
Editorial review

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