Reading List: Mozart in Mirrorshades

After a slight schedule adjustment, I’m onto the first of the articles: “Mozart in Mirrorshades: Ethnomusicology, Technology, and the Politics of Representation”, by Rene TA Lysloff.

The first thing to say is that the Sterling/Shiner story is used as a frame, not the article’s central concern. How it’s used is interesting, though:

To summarize the story, Mozart’s life is radically and irrevocably altered with the arrival of rapacious time-traveling technocrats (ostensibly from America’s near future).

The actual viewpoint followed by the story is that of one of the said rapacious time-traveling technocrats, Rice. Mozart is arguably the protagonist — he’s ultimately revealed to be the driver of the story’s climactic events — but it’s surely significant that he’s in the background of the tale, particularly since what Lysloff is primarily concerned with is not the position of the exploited culture, not the Mozarts, but the position of those who exploit, the ethnomusicologists and musicians, the Rices.

To summarize: Lysloff presents an argument for the need for ethnomusicology to take account of technoculture (a word I have a feeling I’ll be encountering a lot over the next few weeks): “social groups and behaviours characterized by creative strategies of technological adaptation, avoidance, subversion or resistance”. Much hay is made out of the use of recording technology, and in particular “the implicit and often contested notions of authenticity and authority related to such technology”; Lysloff is equally critical of “romanticized” attempts to capture authentic versions of “native” (his scare quotes) music by including the whole soundscape, and of the use of samples of such music, either self-consciously or unselfconsciously, that reduces the originators to “unknowing collaborators in an Orientalistic narrative of cultural exoticism”. He insists:

The pleasure of listening to recordings like these is not in cultural advocacy, despite the rhetoric of the Deep Forest project; nor is it to provide the listener with a kind of “authentic” aesthetic experience, as with many New Age music compositions employing world musics and/or natural sounds. Instead, the pleasure of such techno ambient music lies in the technological artifice itself — in “natural” sounds (and music) being made “un-natural” through sequencing in the context of synthesized rhythms and sounds.

It cannot, apparently, be either/or. The suggested resolution is, it seems, sufficiently advanced sampling technology — it’s impressive how much more normalised some of the language in the article has become since it was published in 1997 — which enables the creation of “audio simulacra”.

What the article doesn’t really address, to my mind (although it does feint in this direction early on), is the presumed distinction between “natural” and “artificial” music. I suppose the concept of an audio simulacrum is in part a suggestion that the artificial has become natural, within our technoculture (see, I’m getting the hang of this), but Lysloff doesn’t ever pay much attention to the obvious counter, that the whole distinction is bogus to start with, that all musical instruments are technologies. Of course, this may be the danger in reading one article that is outside my field of interest: it may be that this point is so obvious that it’s assumed before the debate is begun. But I didn’t feel that Lysloff was arguing for the translation of music between two technocultures so much as its importation from outside into a technoculture.

What has all this to do with science fiction? Certainly sf writers are influenced by music, as in the case of, say, Ian McDonald, who sought out Indian and Brazilian music as research for River of Gods and Brasyl, respectively (although wrote the climactic sequence in the former, if I remember rightly, with Godspeed You! Black Emperor on a loop); or as in the case of Tricia Sullivan, who responded to the question about influences in the survey (in part) by noting that she thinks she thinks more like a musician, and draws inspiration and ideas out of music. And those influences are filtered through a technologically-structured perspective. Lysloff suggests the following “lessons” for ethnomusicologists from the Sterling/Shiner story, if Mozart is seen as a trickster figure (he notes he could equally be seen as tragic):

(1) That “native” is not necessarily a naive and passive recipient of media technology; (2) that media technology may be especially empowering for those people with little or no political or economic power; (3) that people may use media technology in radically new and surprising ways, and infuse it with meanings specific to such use; and (4) the social meanings associated with particular technologies often change as these technologies traverse cultural boundaries.

You could, I’d suggest, strike out every instance of the word “media” in that paragraph, and re-read it as a list of issues sf writers should bear in mind.


8 thoughts on “Reading List: Mozart in Mirrorshades

  1. One of the things that’s definintely interesting about this piece is the implicit assumptions in the use of language. One the one hand, there are terms like ‘schizophonic’ that Lysloff expects the reader to be familair with – on the other hand there’s all the explanation of exactly what ambient techno is, which gives the impression that Lysloff has heard an album by The Orb, but doesn’t think his readers will have.

    I didn’t read Lysloff as quite as critical as you do of ethnomusicologist’s approaches – rather he seems to me to be trying to make the point that people don’t properly take account of the influence of technology on the way their research is presented. At the end he says that the ambiguity of the story is one of the things that drew him to it, and I think he intends his conclusions to be equally ambiguous. But I agree that the statement you quote is a bit reductive.

    It will be interesting to see why this was set for us, as the Sterling/Shiner story is, as you note, pretty peripheral to the argument, except at the beginning and the end.

  2. I really enjoyed this article, especially since ethnomusicology isn’t a field I’m familiar with. However, I felt that the article wasn’t as focused as I’d like; the middle seemed to get a bit onto a few different rants. I think that’s the source of Niall’s comment “although it does feint in this direction early on” — it felt like there were more feints than payoffs in the middle. But I felt like I agreed with the four-point summary at the end.

    This article seems to plug in nicely to the writing-the-other discussion that’s been going on in the genre, and in parts (like the gamelan musicians using different microphone placements than the ethnomusicologists) it felt more sfnal than some of today’s sf. I’m interested in the uneven distribution of technology across the globe and the different ways tech gets adopted into different cultures.

    As a side note: not *all* ethnomusicology is devoted to the Exoticized Other. The Atlantic had a really nifty article about the various academic studies centered on the Grateful Dead, including business, social media, and ethnomusicology.

  3. Tony:

    rather he seems to me to be trying to make the point that people don’t properly take account of the influence of technology on the way their research is presented.

    That’s definitely in there, it just seemed to me he was surprisingly convinced by the concept of a purely technological creation of music, separate from nature — which I find a false dichotomy.

    It will be interesting to see why this was set for us

    Looking down the reading list, I see a few more discussions of music, so I’m guessing — per Karen’s comment –it’s going to be about finding science-fictionality, science fictional thinking, in places we wouldn’t normally look for it.


    I’m interested in the uneven distribution of technology across the globe and the different ways tech gets adopted into different cultures.

    Definitely. I wouldn’t have minded having the couple of paragraphs on that topic expanded into a whole second article…

  4. I think you have to remember that “Mozart” was a different metaphor before the end of the Cold War, when the text was written … summing up what European culture stood for, as opposed to “materialistic Americanism”. Lyskoff refers to Walter Benjamins “Kunstwerk im Zeitalter der technischen Reproduzierbarkeit” as references-text. TEchnology was still seen as something “unnatural” as it made the “divine” connotations of the art (Mozart !) disappear for the fact of reproductibility. Since the US won and show no signs of a their “cultural inferiority complex” (on the contrary) so apparent before, the article to me seems somewhat “historic” already.

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