ZEINER-HENRIKSEN, HANS T. (University of Oslo)
Vintage Instruments and Retro Technology in Popular Music Culture
[abstract] On the cover of the Norwegian electronica duo Röyksopp’s 2009 album Junior, Svein Berge is carrying a Korg SB100 synthesizer from 1975, while his partner Torbjørn Brundtland is holding a vinyl record. At concerts and in interviews regarding their production techniques the duo also emphasizes their use of a 1978 Korg MS synthesizer. Röyksopp exposes and celebrates instruments and a technology that in many ways are outdated – they may use these analogue synthesizers together with samples from old vinyl records, but the digital computer with a sequencer and software instruments is definitely playing a more central role in their productions. The celebration of old technology seems to be important even in music genres where a rather modern sound is being produced. I will discuss this fascination with old technology and ask whether it is stable and lasting, or constantly changing as David Pattie argues concerning the discourses on authenticity in rock culture (Pattie 2007). All types of technology or old instruments are not celebrated in the same manner. Using Wiebe E. Bijker’s theory of sociotechnical change (Bijker 1997), I will investigate processes within genres that lead one instrument or a type of technology into an elevated “vintage” position, and discuss to what extent its position is established once and for all or if it is an area of constant change and modification.
Hans begins with some audio from Parliament’s ‘Do That Stuff’ followed by Røoyksopp’s ‘Happy Up Here’ (see whosampled link);
Stevie Wonder’s Too High is referenced in Royksopp’s Vision One, although the latter do make deliberate references to classic analogue synths (for example, by having them visible on stage in live shows).
He then briefly alludes to the telephone on the Roysopp album cover and plays a brief audio example.
We now turn to a theoretical framework regarding developmental processes and Bijker’s 1997 theoretical work is cited. This work uses the development of the bicycle as his illustrative example for all technological development over time, going from the boneshaker to the high wheeler, to the solving of safety problems through ‘interpretive flexibility’ and new technologies (e.g. the air tyre) through to the modern safety bicycle. [Googling Hans’ work reveals his fascinating prior work – I infer his PhD thesis – which is downloadable in full here].
Our ‘bicycle chain’ of events [my horrible pun, not Hans’s] is now applied to the development of recorded music, starting with prehistory and culminating [for now] with closure and stabilisation (internet, MP3 etc). [JB comment – we cannot of course know whether music audio has yet achieved the same level of stabilisation that the bicycle enjoys – or even whether we are at the end of bicycle evolution!].
There follows a brief discussion of sampling from vinyl and what this means for the application of Bijke’s theoretical framework, which brings in social roles and functions.
The Bijke timeline is now applied to the technological development of synthesisers, with the same nine developmental steps, starting with prehistory and working through similar problem solving towards closure and stabilisation. Hans then asks a question about the culture value of borrowing from previous steps in the Bijke technological chain – that there is a ‘hip-ness’ to such nostalgia that is culturally valuable to creators.
He closes philosophically with a broader discussion of musical nostalgia, and asks ‘why is the old so celebrated?’, showing us a Stradivarius in a double-blind live lab test (where it underperforms sonically compared to a modern violin), and noting that our preference for nostalgia, while sometimes demonstrably irrational, remains a powerful driver within music and musicians. We don’t buy a nostalgic washing machine – but we love a nostalgic sound.
We end with two videos: of Elvis performing ‘Hound Dog’ at the Texaco Star Theaer in 1956, interpolated with cuts to ecstatic teens and a disapproving older generation. The room enjoys a final excerpt of the elder music critics at ‘Breakfast at Sulimay’s’ [applying meta-nostalgia in reverse!]