Rituals and Musical Materialities

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In light of the Musical Materialities in the Digital Age conference that takes place next week at the University of Sussex, and inspired by one of the organisers’, Richard Elliott, article on music materiality (read here), I thought I’d share some ideas on music rituals in modernity.

Rituals have been of interest for anthropologists. In principle, we define rituals as processes intertwined with values and beliefs. Richard in his article describes a ritual of listening to music on a Decca portable gramophone: “winding the gramophone, attaching the needles, and handling the 78s”.

Music can be a ritual or it can accompany a ritual. For example, if you’re an audiophile, in order to listen to music properly, one needs to set up a high definition recording, prepare the equipment (high-tech, of course), and then immerse in the ocean of crispy sound. However, music can also be part of a different ritual, which can range from an everyday activity such as cooking, to a once-in-a-lifetime event (say, graduating from college).

I am interested in both scenarios, but I want to ask a very specific question. I had a discussion yesterday with one of my Faculty colleagues, on the subject of lo-fi and chiptunes. I said that I know people who buy really expensive, high quality speakers in order to listen to chiptunes. I find this rather puzzling. Just to clarify here, I’m talking about chiptunes in the most puristic form, and not in a hybrid mode (i.e. trackers and non-chiptunes musical instruments). Why would anyone want to spend money on an expensive set of hi-fi speakers when they aim to listen to lo-fi sounds?

I think the answer is rather complex. Firstly, there is the concept of being up-to-date with the latest technology – Anders Carlsson has beautifully illustrated this point. In a sense, having hi-fi speakers brings us an inner satisfaction – we can exploit sounds at the maximum opportunity. It’s the possibility that counts – the materiality of intangibility.

Secondly, high technology creates the illusion that sound becomes better just by being reproduced by amazing gear. Fetishisation resides in this ideology. High technology appears magical, as if it has the power to re-create recorded sounds – it becomes a myth. In a logical world, however, this argument appears simplistic. Machines are not magic; they operate on a sequence of (logical) engineering orders.

Perhaps then, it’s the mystical myth that we want to live through high technology – not necessarily the musical outcome. I find it fascinating how the most reasonable thing in the world can be appropriated by people into a mythical being.

Anyhow, if you’re into this sort of thing, check the conference out here and the conference programme there.

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