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Recent Music-Related Readings

In recent months I’ve been reading a lot of books and articles on music, sound, and related topics, so I figured I’d share a short, briefly annotated list of some of those that I’ve found compelling, informative, and/or enjoyable. Any comments or suggestions for further reading are most welcome!

Mark Brend, Strange Sounds: Offbeat Instruments and Sonic Experiments in Pop Backbeat Books, 2005 (w/cd)

This is an informative, if not exactly riveting, examination of the use of unusual instruments in pop and rock. The focus is almost exclusively on the 1960s with chapters devoted to everything from the Theremin to the electric jug. Brend covers an impressive range of instruments and techniques (the tape cut-up work of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, late sixties’ drum machine experiments, the use of the sitar, mountain dulcimer, and other non-rock instruments, etc.), and yet, while the book is a good reference work, detailing a variety of pop’s dalliances with unusual instruments and “strange” sounds, Brend fails to fit them within a larger context or overall narrative of pop’s relationship with musical experimentation. Each experiment, each “strange sound” is treated more or less discretely, so the whole of the book is merely the sum of its parts and (disappointingly) nothing more.

Christoph Cox, “An Interview With Christina Kubisch,” Cabinet Issue 21 (Spring 2006).

The most recent edition of Cabinet magazine centers around the theme of electricity and includes a wonderful interview by Christoph Cox with the sound artist Christina Kubisch in which she discusses her “Electrical Walks.” To create these auditory journeys, Kubisch designed custom-built headphones that receive the electro-magnetic signals emitted by the objects and environment around them, which they then convert into sound. Participants on these “Electrical Walks” are given these special headphones and invited to follow a map that Kubisch has drawn up of the surrounding area, spotlighting electrical landmarks and hotspots. These sonic travellers are also free to follow their own paths, composing their own pieces as they find their way through various electrical networks. There is a series of thirty sound samples from Kubisch’s “Electrical Walks” available online here that should appeal to fans of Pan Sonic.

Aden Evens, Sound Ideas: Music, Machines, and Experience, University of Minnesota Press, 2005

An extremely interesting phenomenological study of contemporary music, focusing on the effect of digital technology on our experience of sound. Evens’ focus is broad and multi-disciplinary, drawing on media studies, philosophy, acoustics, psychoacoustics and music theory. It’s challenging, but always thought-provoking. He begins with an examination of how we make sense of sound in the age of its mechanical reproduction, paying special attention to the differences between our perception of analog and digital recording media. He ends with a discussion of the relationship between musicians and technology (aka their instruments), emphasizing the problematic nature of digital music production. In between, Evens looks at music and time, examining the experiments of modern avant-garde composers, such as Cage, Stockhausen, and LaMonte Young, as well as what Evens, who is no hater of bits and bytes, calls “the digital threat.” The book has been out for a year, but has just been published in paperback.

Robert A. Helliwell, Whistlers and Related Ionospheric Phenomena Dover Publications, 2006

For those RF listeners out there who are fans of the VLF recordings of Stephen P. McGreevy, this book is for you! This is a new edition of a classic, hard-to-find text on whistlers and other VLF emissions. I’ll admit, soft-headed humanist that I am, that the dense technical sections have made for slow reading and tired eyes, but the effort is worth it. It’s essential reading for those interested in the lower reaches of the radio spectrum.

David Owen, “The Soundtrack of Your Life: Muzak in the Realm of Retail Theatre,” The New Yorker (April 10, 2006).

An article about the history and current practices of the venerable Muzak corporation. Muzak has moved from the background to the foreground, aiming to become the perfect DJ, crafting the appropriate mix for any contemporary commercial activity. Silence is the villain in Muzak’s soundtracked world, since it would seem that it has No Commercial Potential.

Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction Duke University Press, 2003

A fascinating book about the origins and history of sound reproduction. Sterne not only looks at early experiments with telephony, radio, and phonography, but also examines the broader cultural history of sound with its specialized techniques of listening that emerged and evolved in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The breadth and scope of the book is impressive and supported by a wealth of research on everything from the audile techniques employed in medicine to the professionalization of listening engendered by the advent of the telegraph. A wonderful book.


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Brandon LaBelle’s recently published “Background Noise” [Continuum] is an informative and compelling read…highly recommended!

The books you’ve listed look great and enticing; I might add a wild and wonderful book that I just finished by sound artist/scholar Joe Milutis, entitled: Ether: The Nothing that Connects Everything (U of Minn P, 2006); it includes (among many other things) some brilliant discussion of radio waves and the reimagined ether, what he calls the “superflux of sky.”

Clark Lunberry Florida

Thanks so much for the suggestion. I was utterly unaware of the Miliutis book. It sounds incredibly interesting.

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