One of the claims Hayles makes throughout her first two chapters has to do with the dialectic between the analog and the digital, where she takes the middle ground that neither category, at this point, would be particularly useful without thinking through the other. In addition to this, Hayles is interested in what we might call the organicity of language, one of the main categories that structural linguists, after Chomsky, use to cleave apart a difference between natural and “artificial,” or computational, language. The Chomskyan argument goes something like this: we acquire a thing we can call natural language, rather than learn it, and the ability to acquire language is universal among all human subjectivities. The particularities of one’s first learned language, in this system, are arbitrary, involving a kind of flipping-on of switches within an underlying universal grammar during one’s critical period (before the age of 3, certainly). Results that might be unthinkable within the grammatical rules of one’s first language, or L1, are totally possible within other languages. We might say, for example, that Hayles’s assumption about the material impossibility of a word containing 100+ syllables is a mistaken one grounded within her L1, if her L1 is English (43); while the morphological and syllabic structure of English might not allow for a 100+ syllable word, an agglutinating language like Turkish would certainly allow for it, regardless of its seeming material clunkiness in English.
Is it yet clear how overseriously I took my early undergraduate coursework in linguistics? One of the things that now bothers me about this Chomskyan, evolutionary model has to do with its overreliance on generational transmission that seems to fail to account for intragenerational changes in culture and use — any advancement related to changes in the distribution of human universals, like changes in harmonic or rhythmic sensibility in music (which is thought of just as language in this kind of structural/neurological model) would have to take place over several generations–one would not be able to see it, clearly, within their lifetime. When we look at the way digital technology interacts productively with analog convention, I simply cannot accept that this is the case.
I’m interested in the way looping technology, over the last twenty years or so, has transformed the landscape of what musicianship might mean and what musicians might be capable of doing. My interest in this proceeds from my own embeddedness within a guitarist (and guitar pedal) culture that has, to my mind, experienced a sea-change over the last couple decades.
By the late-90s and early 2000s, the amassing of an unreasonable number of unreasonably expensive guitar pedals had become a cliché of high-minded alt- and indie-rock. This leads to images like this one, of the pedalboard Kevin Shields used for the My Bloody Valentine reunion tour in the late-aughts:
Unfortunately, much of the discourse surrounding this kind of textural obsession/ridiculousness RE: guitar playing is rather poisonous (if you want that exact sound, you need that pedal).
At the same time, a single feature on a single pedal, the Line 6 DL4, has substantively changed the way musical composition occurs in such highfalutin musical settings. It looks like this, goes for ~$150 used, and most touring guitarists seem to have one, or a pedal like it:
The loop sampler function, which becomes engaged when the user switches the left-most knob to the 6 o’clock position, is the function embedded within this pedal that most interests me. It turns the pedal into a live sampler that transforms its input(s) into a recorded digital output meant to be layered-over by the performer — in essence, the top-down studio view of music as modular and digital, in Hayles’s sense, which looks like this:
can now be controlled by one’s foot, in real time; I would argue there is a sense of democratization of this kind of top-down understanding of musical composition implicit to the use of the DL-4. Here is an example of the sampling function of the pedal in live use:
Here we see the live-loop logic, co-opted from hip hop and DJ culture away from the the human body by digital studio convention, brought back into more-dynamic relation with such a body (though I would hesitate to remove the particularities of racial history from this technical history).
I would argue that guitarist culture, or musical culture generally, has moved away from a textural logic, present in the infinite-pedal dream of 90s alt-rock, to a logic of meter and rhythm through the sampling of loops. I would admit this has created a sometimes silly state of affairs, where for example the late-aughts Animal Collective were almost unrecognizable from earlier “folk”-based iterations, having the appearance of just pressing buttons and turning knobs over and over (for better or worse):
At the same time, we can also see how this kind of digital, loop-based thinking might provide altogether new possibilities for musical composition. I remember being floored by the sense of melodic and rhythmic simultaneity created by Thom Yorke’s rearrangement of his song, “The Clock,” on a single acoustic guitar, when the original had had a very rhythmic, loopy bleep-bloop feel to it:
(here is the original for comparison:
I believe that the question of productive interaction between digital and analog processes can be seen in recent developments in music technology, and wonder what will come next, though it seems clear that any sense of analog virtuosity (be it guitar shredding or pedal-collecting) has given way to much more-streamlined interactions between the human and the digital.