Further Adventures in Technomusicology

And on we go!

Having conducted a few more sessions of Technomusicology this past spring and summer — about which, more below — I’m happy to report that I’ll be offering the class again next semester, Spring 2018, at the Harvard Extension School.

As always, anyone is welcome to join us if you have the time, inclination, and means to do so. (Be in touch if you have questions about any of those things.) I’ve been tweaking the class like any good remixer, in collaboration with students and TAs, and at this point I believe we’ve collectively refined it down to a compact set of creative, conceptual projects that also offer a varied introduction to the study of sonic media in the age of audio. Or as I put it in my most recent reframing:

In this course we make audio and video art that examines the interplay between music and technology since the dawn of sound reproduction and especially in the digital age. Embracing new technologies ourselves, we use popular, powerful music software (Ableton Live) to explore new techniques and idioms for storytelling by composing a series of etudes, or studies in particular media forms. These etudes can accommodate novice experimentation or virtuoso programming while offering shared conceptual ground to all. Students develop a familiarity with the history of sound media while cultivating competencies in audio and video editing, sampling and arranging, mixing and remixing, as well as in critical listening, writing, and discussion.

But the proof is in the pudding. So allow me to share some of this year’s work. In this case, I’m embedding collections of this year’s “Musical Supercuts” — musically-guided, YouTube-sourced montages that help us to understand the contemporary social lives and archival presence of specific musical works and dances. As always, this year’s supercuts run quite the gamut, touching on classical modes, jazz tropes, meme-tastic rock songs, and Vine-era dance crazes. Together they reveal amazing, gleaming iceberg-tips of musically-gathered sociality riding the waves of YouTube’s algorithms, and sometimes lurking in the corners–

Notably, one of these supercuts — one of two about “All Star” as it happens — has reached nearly 350k views [update: the video actually surpassed 1M views at one point, but the student has since deleted it], which I believe now stands as the new record for views/listens of one of our class etudes. It’s difficult to predict which of our productions will, in turn, address their own publics, and it’s always fascinating to see which etudes prove remarkably “sticky” or “spreadable” (as well as which ones enjoy a certain algorithmic obscurity).

Since I’ve been asking students to produce YouTube-sourced montages for several years now, I was delighted to see Beyonce get into the act recently with the video for her “remix” of J Balvin’s “Mi Gente.” Alongside an effort to donate any proceeds to hurricane and disaster relief, Beyonce also infuses her support for the song — and the implied message of solidarity with “my people” — with a montage that seemingly shows dozens and dozens (hundreds?) of people already dancing along(side each other?)–

Alas, while it’s certainly plausible, there’s no clear way to tell that these various dance videos were all set originally to “Mi Gente.” Nor is there any documentation linking back to the sources. It might have made a stronger gesture of solidarity for a video that’s now been watched almost 55 million times to link back to its sources (as I ask my students to do), but it certainly “embeds” and “embodies” the idea quite powerfully at any rate — another example of how such “supercuts” can tell stories with social, cultural, and even political import, not to mention how they enjoy a certain currency in this day & age.


Of course, I’m revising the syllabus once again for next semester, and while the main series of projects will remain essentially the same (though I always tweak parameters and instructions) — i.e., we’ll still make soundscapes, sample-based beats, mashups, DJ mixes, supercuts, podcasts — I’m considering a new etude that grapples with the growing practice of using commercial (or not) video/film as sound sources for whimsical remixes that highlight core aesthetic qualities and other matters of import or interest as they condense and loop the source materials. This is quite different from a supercut, though the two forms can overlap. I don’t know what to call it yet, but I’m thinking of such clips as–

These remind me of some of the fun experiments in re-scoring you can find on YouTube, but they add the concr√®te element of being musically-inspired sample-based works — and often with an intense focus on a particular visual form. In that sense, they also relate to some of the work of Kutiman (especially his city-centric “mixes”), who has long stood as an influence in our class for the ways he initially approached YouTube as a musical palette.

I’m still working out what the remaining etude of the course will be, and I’m open to any ideas along these lines — or others! Holler if you’ve got any. Novel technomusicological objects always welcome.


Finally, while it is beyond the scope for me and for this class, I remained impressed and inspired by such works as the following, a new visualization of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge by Stephen Malinowski, who has created a number of deeply engrossing graphical animations of scores. He describes his choices for the new Beethoven piece here, but I think you get the picture as you watch (which is one of the main points of a technomusicological approach, IMO)–

I love how the different architectures of musical patterning jump out at the viewing-listener in a piece such as this. The possibilities for illustrating musical figures and relationships this way are endless. (In some sense, I’ve been exploring ways to do it via Ableton.) I’ve occasionally thought about ways to bring coding into our technomusicological endeavors, but that would seem to require an entirely different set of skills than the hands-on audio-visual remixing we currently employ as central method.

A big ol’ bravo to Stephen, to Beyonce, my students, and many, many others for imagining new technomusicological forms and functions. No doubt future semesters’ etudes are making the rounds as baby-memes at this very moment. Keep your ears peeled, and keep us posted if you spot a new native that demands our attention.