From Helmholtz to Hard drives: A Conference Report

And finally, here is my report for the Cambridge conference.

I would like to dearly thank the Greek State Scholarships Foundation, St. Peter’s College and the Faculty of Music at Oxford for supporting my participation at this conference without which I would not be able to attend it.

Day conference

From Helmholtz to Hard Drives: Music’s Material Legacy and Digital Future

Held at Faculty of Music, University of Cambridge, 15 May 2010

A report

By Marilou Polymeropoulou (participant

; Music, St. Peter’s College, Oxford; Greek State Scholarships Foundation scholar)

Seven scholars whose disciplines combine musicology and sociology, engaged in a day conference on the topic of “Music’s Material Legacy and Digital Future”. They were joined by a small invited audience of students from several Universities around the UK. The participants presented papers taken from past or current work on music as media and to reflect on them in relation to the sound media aesthetics from historical, aesthetic-technological, sociological and compositional perspectives. Each participant presented a thirty-minute paper followed by discussion. The day finished with a concert of digital music presenting oeuvres by scholars/composers Nick Collins and Julio d’Escriván.

Few remarks on music materiality

The relationship of music and technology has always been a quite interesting topic to explore given their mutual evolution and influence. With the invention of electricity we gained the ability to record and mechanically reproduce music works, a feature that has thoughtfully provoked social theorists such as Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno. The ongoing changes in everyday practices led to the reformulation of the social, the importance of which has been neglected by many recent scholars (Born 2010). Bruno Latour on his behalf developed his Actor-Network-Theory (ANT) to provide a system of analysis of the social practices, aiming to shift the interest on the relationship between technology and the social.

Hermann Helmholtz published his book On the Sensations of Tone (original title: “Die Lehre von den Tonempfindungen als physiologische Grundlage für die Theorie der Musik” translating as “On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music”) in 1863. His work has influenced 20th century musicologists as it attempts to explain the origins of musical harmony and dissonance based upon theories from the fields of physics, physiology and psychology. Helmholtz was one of the first theorists who spoke about the material aspect of music, that is particles of sound in form of airwaves.

The materiality of sound can be examined through two optics: a) the ontological, where tangible objects are needed to perceive any sound (e.g. music technology and instruments) and b) the phenomenological, the intangible importance of sound (e.g. sonic particles, performance, digital representation). The aim of this theory is to understand music socially and culturally, but most importantly empirically. Experience is a key concept for contemporary musicology, which is becoming for interdisciplinary than ever, incorporating elements from ethnomusicology, sociology, anthropology, cultural studies, computer studies and philosophy.

Conference Summary

The half-hour presentations were divided in two morning and two afternoon sessions, which were followed by an evening concert. The first speaker, David Trippett (Cambridge University) unveiled the historical line of electronic music. In his “Electrifying Thoughts” he tracked the impact of electricity on humanity: the death of Faethon by a thunderbolt, the birth of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and the electronic data that meets the flesh in the work of William Gibson are few examples derived from literature. Trippett also analyses music critic Eduard Hanslick’s neurophysiological aesthetics and the power of music (“Music invades us”) and connected it with the cybercultural theories which reveal the materialisation of music in virtual reality. The speaker eventually summed up few differences between analog/human and digital/post-human.

Following a similar historical pattern Nick Prior (Edinburg University) referred to the “Digital Formations in Music: People, Devices, Styles and Practices”. With a solid music sociological background, Prior acknowledged the challenges and dilemmas of digital pop music in relation to technological determinism, the re-configuration of the research field and the hype of digital revolution. By presenting a social history of music technology he underlined the solitary character of contemporary music-making (e.g. Laptop musican, DJ) and raised the question of the future of musical creativity.

The second morning session begun with Nicholas Cook’s (Cambridge University) presentation on “Multimedia mentality/virtual community/intellectual property”. Cook presented several case studies of musical mashups brought together by the band Eclectic Method. “Mashups” are new music compositions created by blending two or more songs, often by using the vocal line of one over the instrumental track of another. Commenting on the new narratives of visual music but also copyright issues, Cook argued about the semantics of music and stressed the limitations of social theories of music.

Nick Collins (Sussex University) presented his paper “There’s more where that came from: the fecundity of futures in electronic music” as an artist rather than a scholar. His talk addressed to contemporary new media phenomena such as the Michigan mobile phone ensemble, and pointed at the consumption of computer and electronic music, as well as the effect of music ‘technocracy’ on creativity. He concluded by proposing future ways of music-making related to Artificial Intelligence.

The first afternoon session started with Maureen Thomas’ (Cambridge University) layout of the project “Chance and Choice – ‘Earnest Play’ in Music and Moving-Image Media’. By linking the anthropological theory of bricolage with computer culture, she examined the female presence in cyberculture. Thomas furthermore analysed her ‘serious’ game, RuneCast (2007), “another example of contemporary practice, exploring the Viking mythworld from a female perspective” (Thomas 2009:261). Her aim was to present the female writing in a digital space where video and music are key features that stimulate the gamer’s imagination and help them construct a subjective interpretation of archetypal stories and songs (ibid 262) and thus, transforming a new concept of storytelling.

Georgina Born (Cambridge University) brought up the importance of the social in the interdisciplinary study of music and media. In her oral essay entitled “Music, Media and the Social: On the Public-isation and Privatisation of Music” she reviewed the work of music sociologists such as Sterne, Théberge, Latour and Lastra on the subject of musical experience in private (e.g. iPod, Walkman) and public spaces (e.g. broadcasting, concerts). Born explored the binary private/social in music on account of capitalism, the media and intermedia, subjectification and the social itself. In her presentation, she focussed on the historicising approach of the digital era and its materiality.

The last guest speaker Alexander Rehding (Harvard University) wrapped up the day conference discussions with his talk “Of Sirens Old and New”. In a similar manner as the first speaker, he made an extensive introduction on aural culture and its powerful relationship to humankind, stressing the idea of personal head space but also analysing the different uses of sound patterns and their transformation to rhythm (e.g. Stockhausen’s ‘Kontakte’, 1956).

Concert review

The day conference finished with a concert of electronic music brought to the audience by two composers/scholars, Nick Collins, one of the guest speakers, and Julio d’Escriván. Their performance entitled “Works for machines and people” included a selection of the artists’ latest compositions for acoustic instruments and electronics as well as live coding. The concert also featured musicians Gareth Stuart on clarinet and Iñigo Ibaibarriaga on saxophone.

D’Escriván performed five music pieces starting with “Ensayo Sobre la Torpeza” (“Stupidity Test”) in live coding inspired by the sounds of a car wreck. In his “Garabesque Machine” he manipulated sounds of the clarinet which was bypassed through his laptop. The artist’s urban desire led him to the composition of “Ensayo sobre la Bicicleta” (“Bicycle Test”) in which he combined in live coding bicycle sounds. “Fusil” (“Gun”) consists of a patchwork of sound samples of other musical oeuvres performed by baritone sax and electronics. In the last piece entitled “Espectral” (“Spectral”) d’Escriván constructs another yet urban soundscape with the aid of baritone sax, Bb clarinet and electronics.

The composers shared the stage following a one-to-one performance pattern. In his music slots, Nick Collins unveiled four of his own musical works. In “noPia oConcert” for piano and electronics, Collins attempted to combine the acoustic instrument with analog modelling synthesis and live processing effects. His second piece “Detuner” sounds exactly as the title: a pattern of pitch alternations. Throughout “Chip chip”, which was performed live for the first time, Collins built up a constructive discourse between the piano and retro electronic circuit sounds. “Full slate” was more of a concept performance, where the programmer/composer worked backwards on a page of coding.

The concert ended with a joint improvisational composition, “Substituet” for baritone sax, Bb clarinet and electronics, in which each instrument in the duet controlled sounds sourced from the other. The two composers also processed the instruments’ sounds with live effects.


It has been quite intriguing to experience a day conference which attempted to bring together researchers from the fields of electronic music technology and culture. Nick Prior connected cybercultural philosophy and the digital age to the actual situation in contemporary popular music – a quite difficult task to achieve, given the fact that cybercultural theory tends to be highly philosophical rather than ontological. Similarly, Nicholas Cook underlined the lack in the field of musical semantics in relation to intellectual property rights. Nick Collins with his unusual presentation full of neologisms managed to capture the audience even though there were many questions left unspoken in the end. Maureen Thomas revealed the digital storytelling and the importance of new media in this respect. And Georgina Born presented the wide range of literature on the sociology of music but also referred to musicological issues caused by consumer music technologies.

However, the first and the final presentations failed to support the background of the conference. Not only they were quite similar, but often they seemed out of place (e.g. in Trippett’s introduction there was a constant shift from literature to religion to science to aesthetics which was more confusing than helpful for a spoken paper). Another matter difficult to confront especially in oral presentations is plagiarism. Rehding started his lecture by using the example of Odysseus and the Sirens, where his headspace differed from the argonauts’ as he was the only one that listened to their song (the Argonauts had plug their ears with beeswax), without making a reference neither to the original quote of Adorno and Horkheimer nor Bull’s rephrasing.

My attention was draught to a notable topic that should be further scholarly examined: the new concepts of musical performance and improvisation with electronics. Artists adopt a popular culture outlook to their live concerts, where performance is the central point and music creation comes second. In addition to this, improvisational techniques are more and more used in electronic music in order to create the surprise effect and as a result.

In all, the study of musicology is more and more enriched by other disciplines. For this reason, it would be quite significant to organise a larger scale conference on digital musical cultures  to avoid the constraint of scholars from the same institution (in our case, Cambridge University) but also to create a less biased collection of papers. Moreover, it would be helpful to have the proceedings of the conference due to the complex character of the addressed issues.

Related Publications

Adorno, Theodor (1949) Philosophy of Modern Music.

Benjamin, Walter (1935) ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. Available online, last visited 15/8/2010

Born, Georgina (2010) ‘Bringing the Social Back In: On the Publicisation and Privatisation of Music’ conference paper

Bull, Michael and Back, Les (2003) The Auditory Culture Reader. UK: Berg Publishers

Cook, Nicholas (1998) Analysing Musical Multimedia. UK: Clarendon Press

D’Escriván, Julio and Collins, Nick (2007) The Cambridge Companion to Electronic Music. UK: Cambridge University Press

Von Helmholtz, Hermann (1954) On the Sensations of Tone. UK: Dover Publications

Latour, Bruno (2007) Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. UK: Oxford University Press

Prior, Nick (2010) ‘The Rise of the New Amateurs: Popular Music, Digital Technology and the Fate of Cultural Production’, in Culture: A Sociological Handbook, John R. Hall, Laura Grindstaff and Ming-cheng Lo (eds), UK: Routledge, forthcoming.

_________(2009)’Software Sequencers and Cyborg Singers: Popular Music in the Digital Hypermodern’, New Formations, 66, pp81-99.

_________(2008)’OK Computer: Mobility, Software and the Laptop Musician’, Information, Communication and Society, 11: 7, pp912-932.

_________(2008:2)’Putting a Glitch in the Field: Bourdieu, Actor Network Theory and Contemporary Music’, Cultural Sociology, 2: 3,  pp301-319.

Sterne, Jonathan (2003) The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. UK: Duke University Press

Théberge, Paul (1997) Any Sound you can Imagine: Making Music/Consuming Technology. USA: Wesleyan University Press

Thomas, Maureen (2009) ‘Taking a Chance on Losing Yourself in the Game’, Digital Creativity, 20: 4, 253-275


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