Coming Back to Analog
TM: It seems that rediscovering analog music is all of the rage today. People comment that "analog music just feels better," etc. Just as IWAI uses old media like the phenakistiscope for his contemporary media art. How do you see this phenomenon?
SR: Well, it's not a social phenomenon that I can really comment on, but I can say that from a tonal point of view, most of the technical progress today is based on improving the S/N [signal to noise, i.e. eliminating all but the "intended" sound] ratio, and this is something that, again, has been the direction for the entire 20th century. Now recently, with the advent of digital recording, there has been tremendous progress made towards this end. Noise can finally be, for all intents and purposes, eliminated. As I said before, in analog information processing, the medium, such as the tape used in analog recording, on which the information is imprinted, always carries certain properties which influence the information. These "properties" come through, to the technical mind, as noise—"unintended" data. Digital recording technology can, and does, aim for a zero-noise factor.
Yet in these last five years we've seen a lot of young people and major artists coming back to analog sounds. We start to hear the wow and flutter, the pops and scratches from the media they're using. I'm not sure why this is so preferential. I've had a lot of fun doing some DJ-ing lately, but I'm afraid that I can't define the attraction. Maybe it's because noise just somehow triggers something in the imagination. Maybe it's just that these kids are finally catching up, through a different medium, to the tonal world that John CAGE was into some 50 years ahead of everybody else on, or maybe . . . .
TM: Today in pop music, whether distinguished as "Onkyo-ha," which uses sounds not traditionally associated with music in non-musical, banal compositional structures, or "noise" music which is perhaps more reactionary, using anti-musical sounds in their compositions, both employ the snaps and pops of analog media and other kinds of aural detritus in their work.
SR:I suppose that people just can't deal with 100 percent artificial environments that long. Our societies keep being overtaken by advances in artificial environment technologies, but music originally comes from banging "things" together. Instruments, voices . . . they all come from a certain physicality. Things. The problem is that the music made with digital technology tends towards the virtual. What used to be the sound of rocks being banged together, hands being clapped . . . in other words things being hit in the air, and generating sound waves . . . that's no longer necessary to make music, and more expedient production methods, virtual methods, are being employed.
Yet what we see here, is that the sound of the needle scratching the vinyl surface becomes reappraised as an instrument. The vinyl disk exists as a physical thing, and a random factor of noise is generated in using it. The needle picks up on this . . . or perhaps it's more accurate to say that the physicality of the vinyl disk, not factored into the virtual production, and the needle are having a session—of things coming in contact with each other. They become instrumental in the music. Just as we're not ready to be completely surrounded in artificial landscapes, neither are we willing to be surrounded by artificial soundscapes. People want to listen to the existence of things, and the tonal qualities that happen when they collide.
In live performance, for example, you can assemble the best players for one special performance, and use satellites or the Internet to broadcast this to people all over the world, and have great performances available to people everywhere. And yet, people would generally rather travel great distances and pay expensive entrance fees to see musical performances among a limited number of other customers. If you think of the cost performance it makes absolutely no sense. The Rolling Stones, for example, travel the world with an entourage of some 300 people. And yet, both they and the people who come to see them want to see performances that require those logistics. This may sound dorky, but in the end, it may be that it's just the temperature of the room, being in the same physical space where the instruments are being played, and having the sound come to their ears, feeling the atmospheric pressure generated by the music hit their bodies . . . maybe that is the answer to the riddle. For some people, I'm sure that's it.
Another possibility would be that it is simply because today's reproduction technology isn't good enough. The displays don't have high enough of resolution, and the speakers are too flawed. Maybe once screen resolution equals or supersedes that of the human eye a lot of these problems will be resolved. Then again, it may be that our sensory apparatus is just that good—that it's just a dialectic between technology's capacity for making available sensory experiences, and how they serve to elucidate, in increasingly concrete terms, how developed we are as a life form.
When I say "development," I mean something quite different from the "development" which most contemporary science strives for. Our "development" is a "development" which can be mistaken, and still automatically filter through to take in only the information that we desire, and disregard the rest. Our technology can't do this. For example, this, or any other conversation is necessarily, no matter how hard we strive, at least 50 percent grammatically incorrect. These statistics exist. A computer, on the other hand, can create texts that are 100 percent grammatically correct, yet odd or meaningless to the human ear. By the same token, it's nearly impossible to get a computer to create sentences which are not grammatically correct and still make sense. The fact that humans can do this "in their sleep" is really quite an amazement. I'd even go so far as to say that it's profound.
When humans interact with their environments, or with each other in communication, redundancy is immensely important. Redundancy issues come straight out of the S/N rulebook. It's NOISE. These creatures called human beings, maybe all living things, for that matter, can't live without some level of redundancy. Whether they're listening to music, or chatting away like we are, either are some form of communication, and having too much straight signal, not having enough noise, just gets on our nerves.
You can listen to folk music from anywhere on the planet, and you're always faced with the issue of how much of it is signal and how much noise. There are a lot of sounds in this problematic grey zone. It's probably some ancient form of wisdom, handed down through the generations, where people have always known to put a lot of noise into their instruments and performances. Western music is interesting in that, in the history of refining their instruments, from a certain point—and I'll be vague for the time being and tentatively say "since the modern period began"—they became quite focused on eliminating noise from their instruments. The developed form of this is that contemporary western instruments are quite noise-free. This is almost anomalistic, when you think about it. Whether in Japan or Somalia or almost anywhere else, the instruments are made with a great deal of attention and traditional wisdom to avoid tonally singularity, to bring the noise to its greatest depth.
In Japan, our shamisen [a three-stringed lute-shaped instrument] has to have its sawari [It is a play on the words for to hinder, and to caress, yet used in a tonal ambiance which the instrument produces.]. No sawari, no shamisen. Yet, if you looked at it in terms of reproducing music from the five lines of a western musical score, it's just another thing that's in the way. But it's not there by accident. Generations of shamisen makers have refined the sawari in order to make the shamisen a more enjoyable instrument. So you can say that these past ten years have seen the advent of new forms of artificial musical environments, and right now we're at the point where a desire for sawari-like DJ noise has started to surface. People just got to have their noise.