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.