I like the sound of a National [Resonator Guitar] – it’s trebly and nasty-sounding – raw.
Johnny Winter, Raisin’ Cain
Legendary blues guitarist Johnny Winter speaks to the craft of musical performance and the communion of musician and instrument. Winter’s craft is rooted in technology – the guitarist conjures a signature sound by utilizing a guitar which can produce a “raw” tone. Winter intuitively exploits the techne of blues music and its traditional instruments.
Techne is the Greek word for craft or art. It refers to art as a practice rather than as a theory. The techne of a creative work such as a painting or a pottery work is the technique used to make it.
Is techne applicable to the study of popular music?
Although techne is typically associated with architecture and the plastic arts, its principles can also be applied to the performing arts. As such, we can speak of the techne of a musical performance or recording.
According to philosopher Martin Heidegger, objects made by techne have four “causes”: material, form, use, and maker. Applied to a work of music these are:
- Material: sounds – perceptible air-pressure waves (musical tones)
- Form: song structure
- Use: all the ways people “use” music in everyday life – pleasure, dancing, socializing, communication, commercially, etc.
- Maker: performer and support tools (the acoustical environment – may be separate for performing and listening – and all personnel and equipment used to transmit the sound to listener)
Making (and listening to) music involves:
- Musical instruments
- Devices: for enhancing, recording, manufacturing, broadcasting and listening to music
- Skills used to play musical instruments
- Skills used to make and maintain musical instruments
- Skills used to operate, make and maintain devices
What are the broad types of technologies used in popular music?
There are six types:
1. Performance-based: the technique used by the musician to create sound with their instrument
2. Instrument-based: the technology used to make the instrument
3. Enhancing: the technology used to enhance music electronically, such amplification or sound effects
4. Recording: the technology used to record and mass copy music for distribution
5. Broadcasting: the technology used to broadcast music
6. Listening: the technology used to listen to music, including room acoustics
A listening experience is effected by most if not all of these categories.
For example, sitting in my living room listening to a CD recording of a song, the sound I’m hearing has passed through multiple screeds of technology:
- Musicians’ skills (technique)
- Physical properties of their instruments (derived from how they were made and their current condition)
- Amplification or other electronic sound enhancement used by the musicians
- Recording technology: recording devices, techniques used by recording engineers, and room acoustics of the recording studio space
- Mass production technology used to make the CD
- My home sound system, and living room acoustics
Whew – a lot of technology for a 3-minute song!
Of course, most of this I’m unaware of. I’m responding to the end result, consciously and unconsciously.
My response, though, is a function of the song’s techne.
Now, if I want to study the song, perhaps critique it, I listen more critically. I lift away veil after veil, to get to the truth of the performance.
In some cases, this truth was intended by all concerned in its making. But, in some cases, the truth of a performance, such as a mediocre vocal, may be obscured by technological means used to “clean up” the end result.
Conversely, in some cases “low” technology may be simulated by using “high” technology, to get a deliberately “analogue” sound. Or, a song may be recorded using minimal “takes” in order to get a raw, spontaneous feeling. Out-of-tune instruments or fluffed notes may be kept in a recording for the same purpose.
The recording technology in those days [early 1960s] wasn’t as good as it is now, but in a lot of ways, I liked it better. The sound wasn’t as neat and clean – it was nice and funky.
Johnny Winter, Raisin’ Cain
In all of these examples, the techniques indexed by the performance, and/or recording, either reveal or conceal the truth of the performance. Through a close reading of the piece we can lift the veil of technology, and peek inside that sonic apparatus we call a song.
Click here to listen to “Lost Highway” as performed and recorded by Hank Williams.
Click here to listen to the same song, “Lost Highway” as performed and recorded by Jeff Buckley. Notice how the techne of the two performances/recordings – especially the recording technology, and guitar instrumentation/technique – produces dramatically different aural representations of the same song.
© Donald E. Armstrong and Material Practices, 2014