Configurability in Music

MAWriting a dissertation is like climbing a mountain that seems endlessly high. Every time I feel like I’ve made a lot of progress – like I’ve ascended a major portion of the climb – I hit a dead end and have to go partially back down the mountain to find another path. In some ways, it gets easier because I know that I’ve made a lot of progress in my climb and that I’ll eventually find my way up to the top. On the other hand, it gets increasingly frustrating and anxiety-inducing – just how many more walls will I hit before I get totally burned out on this? I recently hit yet another dead end and was freaking out about it. For those of you writing or planning to write your dissertation (or completing some other conceptually-challenging project), I want to share a bit of insight: a lot of times when you get stuck, you find inspirations where you least expect them…

Case in point: while taking a break from dissertation writing and surfing the web, I came across this article. I love Cracked articles (particularly those about music) because they are edutainment in the best sense of the word. All four examples are really interesting, but the last one blew my mind away! For those of you who don’t want to read through the article, it’s a comparison demonstrating how Michael Jackson “borrowed” a lot of his dance moves from an obscure performance by legendary choreographer Bob Fosse.

To me, this drove home just how much of Jackson’s genius was in “sampling” elements from other performers. This in turn got me thinking about a scholarly source seemingly unrelated to my dissertation work.

When I switched dissertation topics, it was really more that I realized my first one wasn’t working. It took me about a year to really nail down what is now my topic (and even then it went through a lot of revisions and honing). However, in the immediate aftermath of the shift, I started reading as many books about U.S. music and popular culture as I could find. One of the most memorable of these was called Mashed Up: Music, Technology, and the Rise of Configurable Culture (Sinnreich 2010). The gist of the book was that configurability (being able to technologically manipulate music into a variety forms – like remixes or mashups) was fundamentally altering cultural definitions of music, breaking down a lot of long-standing binaries (artist/audience, musician/binary, etc.), and having profound effects on society as a whole.

The reason I thought about this book in response to the Jackson/Fosse example is because I remember reading the book and feeling like it overlooked a lot of past examples of musical sampling and remixing – at the time of reading, I was thinking about jazz musicians frequent use of quotes or references, but this example made me think the same thing. So I went back to see what Sinnreich had to say about past examples of sampling, and found this:

Riffing on a melody written by someone else using a saxophone or piano is a fundamentally different process than chopping up a recording of someone else’s rendition of a melody and then resequencing it to produce your own melody using computer software. To be sure, the sense of cultural give-and-take, of participation in a larger dialogue, remains. But a vital degree of abstraction— a buffer, if you will, between the participants in the dialogue— has been removed. The locus of action is no longer limited to the idea of the music, located within conceptual mechanisms such as melody, chord changes, or composition. What is acted on in these new practices is the musical expression itself… (Sinnreich 2010: 74)

Translation: technology democratizes musical production because you don’t have to know how to manipulate musical elements (e.g., playing an instrument, understanding chords and melodies, etc.) to manipulate the music itself. I’ve heard or read this sentiment expressed by a number of electronic-based musicians. Unlike some instrumentalists (or, musicians whose primary technology is an analog instrument), I don’t bemoan this fact. Although there are certainly ethical issues regarding intellectual property, there are many advantages to increasing musical accessibility. It forces instrumental musicians to be more accessible and to be serious craftspeople who can offer services that electronic musicians cannot.

If I had read the above passage six months ago, I would’ve said to myself, “oh, he’s not really talking about the same thing that I am” and discounted the source as a possibility for my dissertation (even though I’ve really been wanting to use it in some way). Now, however, I have a much better idea of how to engage sources in research. I want to use the framework of configurability – as outlined by Sinnreich – but in a slightly different sense.

While I agree with Sinnreich that there are fundamental differences between sampling in historical jazz contexts and in contemporary, digital ones, I disagree with his positioning jazz musicians as outside the influence of what he terms “configurable culture.” While the musicians I interviewed had been trained to manipulate analog musical elements, they were still greatly affected by larger changes in music, society, and technology.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. While seeing the video above made me think about the book, I didn’t actually go and look up that quote until today. What prompted me to do this was taking a walk yesterday. I went to clear my head and try to figure out how to get past the wall that I had run into. I was thinking – “I have a model for authenticity as hierarchical constructions used to categorize musicians and I have interviews of musicians explaining how they negotiate (accept and reject certain elements of) those constructions. However, to me, that doesn’t seem to be too different than existing scholarship on musical authenticity. Most of it is some variation of ‘musicians encounter restricting notions of authenticity and strategically respond to them.’” At that point, I started thinking about what made the musicians in my study unique – and I thought about configurability.

While my thinking about this topic is still really fresh and rough, here is the gist of what I’m trying to say in the dissertation: Jazz music has always been based around (re)configuring musical structures (from interpreting a melody to improvising a solo to walking a bassline). However, musical structures are inseparable from social ones (from societal ideologies to instrument roles to academic grades) – which is why authenticity always involves both a musical and social categorization.  In contemporary times, Sinnreich’s model of configurability has two primary implications for jazz musicians – a) it encourages manipulation of musical structures at a time when jazz music is being codified by academia and traditionalism; and b) it destabilizes social structures pertaining to music. While there is some scholarship related to (a), there is not – as far as I know – any about (b), which is what I’m focused on.

I argue that jazz musicians configure not only musical structures, but social ones as well. In the latter case, they do so by making choices and carrying out actions to determine their own position in social structures. Technology hasn’t enabled them to do this – but the cultural shifts associated with technological change have made it a lot easier to do so. While I’m not trying to propose my own definitions of authenticity in the dissertation, I personally think that “doing your own thing” is a lot more authentic than adhering to certain norms, conventions, expectations. I just need to slap on the oh-so-academic-sounding-term “configurative agency” on things and we should be good to go. Onward and upward!

And that, kids, is why you should put the dissertation down and go watch a YouTube video every now and then…

Author: Leah Pogwizd

Bassist and Instructor

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