Book Review: Sonic Writing


    We don’t necessarily stop often to pop out our portable earbuds in the middle of wandering through the animal shelter while listening to an Abletonized mashup of Thai pop, Ghanian funeral music, and Tony Conrad that a friend of a friend in Aarhus (or was it Aachen?) left in our Dropbox folder during the night to contemplate the ways that how we listen to, create, and acquire music have changed. After all, it’s the future, innit? We're soaking in it.
    When we do find ourselves thinking about the things with think with or the technologies that mediate those things to us, it’s tempting to assume that we’re inhabiting a future in which everything is new; we’re at play making work that has no antecedents (at least none apart from our friends) performed on devices on which we are the sole virtuoso (by virtue of being the person who created the instrument). It's an understandable place to find oneself; our tools aren't just helping us make stuff - they're redefining musical practices and blurring all kinds of roles. What's a composer? What constitutes a "composition?" Does live coding have more in common with a Raga than it does with a particularly beginner-friendly software tutorial? Even if we're comfortable with seeing the instruments of the past as solutions for particular approaches to transducing small-motor activity for the purpose of producing sound, it's going to be complicated to think about those same questions as applied to new instruments? Sonic Writing looks at those ideas head-on in ways that make it less complicated to conceptualize what we're up to even as we're doing it.
    If those ideas are things you wrestle with from time to time, I've got a book for you.
    Thor Magnusson's Sonic Writing: Technologies of Material, Symbolic, and Signal Inscriptions is one of those rare reads that manages to connect, to clarify, and to serve as a great starting point for conceptualizing what we're up to even as we're doing it.
    There are books - some of them very good books - on new digital instruments and technologies or sound design and the practice of working with electronic music. What Thor's up to is something which is different and thought-provoking - he's interested in looking at some of the ways in which technology has always conditioned our musical expression, even as it modifies and redefines it. He does so by analyzing and thinking aloud about how our current situation in the world of digital instruments relates to three of those "traditional" areas in which we'd nearly all agree that things are very much in flux: the domains of notation, recording, and the very idea of an instrument itself.
    Note: Although Thor's approach is an elegant cocktail of philosophy, history, and critical theory, he's not playing the detached observer here. If you're unaware of his own work in the Live Coding world, I'd recommend a look at his work on the Threnoscope, which is about as good an example of how artistic practice, instrumental design, compositional rigor, and aesthetic form all mix together in a roiling stew that's really tough to pull apart into the traditional "pieces parts."

    The Threnoscope - A demo session

    The book is laced with fascinating and interesting examples of ways in which our current conundrums and redefinitions of practice find echoes in our past - Guido d'Arezzo's invention of solfege, the Melograph, and the more traditional musicological field of Organology (instrument definition), which has wrestled mightily with moving into the world of electronic instruments. Out of these insightful stories, he proposes a model in which he uses the idea of inscription as a way to combine concepts of interfaces, controllers, recording, musical instruments as objects or processes and notation. He's not out to argue that there's nothing new under the sun, but rather to suggest that there's much to be gained to be thinking about how our current technology conditions our musical expression and how it may give rise to The New.
    The combination of his eye for detail with respect to the notions of that original trio of ways to define the ways we work combined with a widescreen view of history and unexpected views of our shared past isn't just interesting reading - The book has left me with a new collection of critical tools for thinking thinking through the challenges of my own current musical landscape, and also new ways to think about the affordances provided to me by the musical tools I use.
    I was also gratified to see this book appear at a time when all kinds of established practices in terms of economic models, access, pedagogy, and working practices are also in transition. Are these changes creating a new era in which individual experimentation, a steady stream of new and novel tools and approaches override questions of tradition or - more problematically - sustainability. The author ends the book by seriously engaging with concerns about longevity and emergent critical understanding, and outlines ways for us all - performers, composers, listeners, and the social and economic infrastructure that supports this all - to define new approaches and ways of thinking (you can read a sample chapter on some of these ideas here).
    I can think of no better way to leave this review than to show you an interesting graphic score that neatly encapsulates many of the ideas that Thor's text wrestles with - a graphic score by Ryan Ross Smith which is reproduced on the book's cover. Well, not reproduced exactly. Here's the real score....

    Study 57 by Ryan Ross Smith

    Please watch the score and ask yourself a few questions . What would the instrument you created to interpret it look like? How would it sound? How do you read the score? How would you interpret it in actual performance? And - perhaps more interestingly for the historically inclined - how is this different from a score by Earle Brown or Cornelius Cardew? Thor's book will help you think through this in new ways.

    • May 28 2019 | 10:12 pm
      Ordered. Clearly a must-have. Thanks, Greg!
    • May 29 2019 | 4:58 pm
      Is this book that can be read on a Kindle or is it full of imagery that is best appreciated with a physical copy?
    • May 29 2019 | 5:09 pm
      That's a good question, actually. There are images, but I'm not sure that there are enough to automatically say that going for a non-physical book isn't a good idea. I started the book as a non-physical copy, and realized pretty early on that I wanted a physical copy for my bookshelf (another kind of endorsement for those of you who are mixed real/virtual book dorks)....
    • May 29 2019 | 5:14 pm
      I'm a "real" book person by default, so I went with a physical copy. Your mileage may vary. Mysteries and SciFi? Kindle. Everything else I think I may refer to again? Physical. This may make me a bad person.
    • May 29 2019 | 5:32 pm
      Greg, you're amazing, always look forward to your book reviews! Thanks for the reco/considerations from the both of you. I'm just at a place in my life where I want less physical things unless they're absolute must-have's, talk to me a couple years ago and I would've already bought the hardcover.
    • May 29 2019 | 5:37 pm
      I've got the Real Book and am thoroughly enjoying it. There are a few graphs/pics that definitely benefit from real-world status, but I have gotten used to one feature I really like on Kindles and tablets: the ability to change the font size. The book is published with what looks like a 10-pt font, and I'M OLD AND DECREPIT AND DON'T SEE SO GUD NO MORE! (yeah, yeah, use your reading glasses brad)
    • May 29 2019 | 5:37 pm
      I guess that Max is more likely to go virtual than I am, generally speaking.
    • May 29 2019 | 5:43 pm
      In an embarrassing number of instances: both!