Media @ McGill

Tara Rodgers | Synthesis: Technologies and Others in the Evolution of Synthesized Sound

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This dissertation is a history of how humans have used synthesized sound as a mode of communication to define themselves in relation to nature, machines, the body, and each other. I investigate how audio-technical language, which typically stands as neutral, relies on metaphors and analogies that are invested with cultural notions of identity and difference. Using archival materials from the first electronic sound-generating devices in the nineteenth century until the adoption of digital standards in the early 1980s, I turn to feminist theories to understand what is at stake in technical language. I show how certain metaphors and analogies--linking electronic sound to water, color, and life--have persisted over time and informed the emergence of new technologies in particular contexts. The history of synthesized sound can thus be organized under a constellation of metaphoric concepts that are relatively static, as much as by notions of technological change as such.

My project focuses on an analog era, but also historicizes digital audio by questioning the self-evidence of core concepts. In the early 1980s, the Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) protocol consolidated a universal language for digital audio systems. Embedded within this language, I argue, is a long history of encounters--with technologies and others--that have produced a dominant epistemology of sound that privileges the perspective of an archetypal Western, white, and male subject. Through a feminist analysis, I reveal this perspective to be partial, and open up possibilities for alternative histories and epistemologies of sound. This dissertation marks a timely intervention in histories of electronic music and sound, which have rarely exhibited sustained engagement with feminist concerns.

My research spans the century, roughly 1880-1980, from when Hermann von Helmholtz advanced the idea of synthesized sound until electronic musical instrument manufacturers adopted the MIDI protocol. This century was characterized by fluctuations in the language and form of synthesized sound and related musical instruments, suggesting that contemporary standards were far from inevitable. My method is to take a long view of historical consciousness as that which is constituted by overlapping waves of different scale and force, borrowing the figure of the wave from feminist historical memory as well as acoustics. Throughout, I draw connections to the ancient observations and myths that linger in modern discourses, and use these to interrogate why certain technical concepts endure. I also identify resonances between discourses of synthesized sound and other cultural fields.

The introductory chapter provides broad historical context: I explain how the idea of synthesized sound was influenced by circulations of the term synthesis in fields such as life sciences and philosophy, as well as by cultural notions of the natural and synthetic. I also describe a convergence of communities of practice in the early-twentieth century, when composers, acousticians, and hobbyists formed new professional and social networks. These practitioners consolidated knowledge of synthesized sound by connecting modernist musical aesthetics, acoustical science, and a cultural enthusiasm for electricity.

The middle chapters follow four aspects of synthesized sound's form, exploring how the production of stable oscillator frequencies relies on wave metaphors; how durational properties of sound waves are imagined in relation to life cycles; how timbre is constructed through color analogies and notions of individual variation; and how amplitude (perceived as loudness) is scaled to bodily encounters through touch-sensitive devices.
In the first of these chapters, I examine wave metaphors and allegories of maritime voyage in acoustics textbooks. Sound waves were defined as oscillations between disturbance and rest, as a voyage of particles outward and back. The technological mastery of electronic sound waves thus became a retelling of biblical creation themes, a representation of scientific and colonialist enterprise, and a symbolic containment of gendered and racialized excess.

Next, I discuss how electricity, sound, the body, and species life have been articulated in the history of analog sound synthesis. I conduct two case studies: of the origins of the terms "growth" and "decay" as parameters of the amplitude envelope, a technology for controlling a sound's duration; and of the synthetic generation of animal sounds. I show how late-nineteenth century classifications of sounds--as individual units comprised of variable parts, and in groups according to aesthetic similarities--manifested understandings of the body and species in contemporaneous writings by Marx and Darwin.

The following chapter outlines a history of the electronic production of tone color. The sine wave was defined through mathematical and technological ideals as the most pure tone. Uncolored by harmonics, it became the designated norm against which variations in tone color were measured. I ground this discourse of sonic purity and deviation in the context of the formation of a visual modernity predicated on racialized notions of identity and difference. I also examine filters as a technology of sorting and stopping, one that mirrors techniques of social surveillance within the realm of electronic sound.

In the next chapter, I investigate the articulation of human expression to electronic sound through touch-sensitive devices. Touch sensitivity, similar to the amplitude envelope, was conceived as a way of infusing human or otherwise life-like expression into electronic sounds, which were understood to have the capacity to exceed mortal, durational and physical limits. I interpret these technical imperatives through feminist and queer theories of touch as an encounter that breaks down hierarchical distinctions of subject and object, generates affective pleasures, and produces evolutionary novelty between species or entities in contact.
The conclusion explores how the idea of synthesis, as a temporary and contingent condensation of disparate parts, can be redirected toward a feminist theory of technological kinship and provisional humanism. Overall, this dissertation makes a theoretical contribution to several debates in media and communications studies and feminist science and technology studies. It generates new ways to talk about the status of the human in technological encounters, against post-humanist claims; it challenges distinctions between new and old, and digital and analog, forms of media; and it asserts the centrality of identity and difference within dominant epistemologies of sound and audio technologies. My work questions and expands what is typically included in media and communications histories and, in doing so, probes issues of ethics and social justice in epistemic structures and technological choices.