Technics and the Contours of Music History

At the beginning of the 16th century, Josquin des Prez was one of the first composers to gain widespread renown through the printing press. Gottschalk accomplished his national success by riding the cross-country American railroad system in the 19th century. Enrico Caruso was the first international recording star, beginning in the first decade of the 20th century. Arturo Toscanini’s widespread celebrity as a conductor was amplified exponentially through the new medium of radio broadcasts beginning in the late 1930s (Vol. IV, 752).

The contours of music history are bound by the history of technics, and vice versa. And as I pointed out in an earlier post, sometimes the nature of one’s success is dictated by when one is born, and what technology is available to you—or invented by you. More recently we’ve had the music video star (Michael Jackson), the youtube “star” (more infamous than famous, usually), and the indie-“wunderkind”. One can only imagine—what’s next?

5 Comments

  1. “…and vice versa.” The contours of technics are bound by the history of music? There’s an idea worth exploring. We might look at Tod Machover, who develops new instruments to (as he says) bring into reality the music he hears in his head, and who emphasizes that real power for artists comes from getting behind their tools and changing them to their ends. His work has led not only to new music, but also to new medical techniques and, most famously, new video games like Guitar Hero. There’s been quite a bit of work on how disability has shaped the history of technology; I think there’s quite a bit to be done on how music has shaped it.

    Out of curiosity, why technics over technology in this post?

    Thanks for blogging!

  2. dkl—Thanks for commenting. You allude to another type of star unique to our age—the guitar hero/rock band star. On youtube, search “freddie wong guitar hero”. Yikes. (Also see Kiri Miller’s 2009 article in the Journal of the Society for American Music: “Schizophonic Performance: Guitar Hero, Rock Band, and Virtual Virtuosity”.)

    On technics vs. technology:
    Though both words have a long history, “technology” has almost completely overrun “technics” in today’s general use. This is largely due, in my opinion, to the personal computer and digital “technology” revolution. But retaining the distinction, however fine, is useful. Technics has more general connotations of relating to science, arts, or handicrafts, whereas technology indicates practical or industrial arts more specifically (see Bryan Garner’s entry in _Garner’s Modern American Usage_). Technics has also been the letterhead term used in the discussion of technics’ relation to culture (e.g., Lewis Mumford’s _History of Technics_, 1932). Mumford uses both terms, and though the distinction is often retained, there are other times when it is muddled. Other writers in the history of technics vociferously maintain the distinction (e.g., Vaclav Smil; see _Creating the Twentieth Century_ (2005), p. 260).

    I use the term here to indicate that the relationship between music and technology is encompassed within the larger category of technics. Hope this helps!

  3. Very helpful! And Freddie Wong nicely exemplifies the inseparability of technology and technique, which is what I think makes “technics” a useful word. However, Freddie Wong provides yet another example of how new technics have enabled new musical phenomena. I challenge (!) us to think about how musical aims have shaped the history of technics – or rather, to develop an understanding of the feedback mechanisms between the two. (The last thing I want to read is that Beethoven or Liszt brought about a revolution in piano manufacture, without a sense of the technological limits and possibilities working upon them as well).

    In other words, your “vice versa” points to something significant but as yet little examined in musicology, which I’d like think more about; and though you already have plenty from Taruskin, I hope my comments offer some food for thought as well!

  4. Thanks, and I absolutely agree that we could do with more studies that reverse the “technology as musical catalyst” equation. Perhaps a companion book to Mark Katz’s excellent book, Capturing Sound? What’s the opposite of a “phonograph effect”?

    I found your blog, by the way, which looks very exciting! I’m looking forward to reading more of it and following your future work there as well…

    1. Hmm, good question (and book idea)! Too bad “the aesthetic effect” has precisely the wrong meaning, suggesting consequences for the experience of the artwork only.
      Thanks for the blog compliment – the feeling is mutual.

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