I’ve greatly been enjoying A History of Music And Technology from the BBC World Service. It’s an eight-part series in conjunction with the Open University, available through the World Service’s “Documentary Podcast” (which syndicates recent documentary programmes). My friend Andy tipped me off to it, and it’s just wonderful.

Presented by Nick Mason, it casts an eye over the role of technology in 20th century music. To do so, it doesn’t just focus on the technical or artistic angles; it also takes time to look at economies of manufacturing, the nature of innovation, and the role business plays; lots of overlaps into STS in the best possible way.

It also manages go deep enough into all its topic areas to be satisfying, picking interesting interviewees – especially from the archive – and telling good stories. The Telharmonium pops up in both Electronic Music Pioneers and The Hammond Organ, for instance, and I enjoy the focus it places on ‘recording’ and ‘the studio’ as topic areas.

Episode 2, Electronic Music Pioneers, is particularly striking. It looks at early electronic music – covering the Theremin, the WDR, and so forth – but manages to retain focused by announcing early that The Synthesizer and The Hammond Organ are going to get their own 50-minute programmes – so it’s freed up to talk about the foundations for later innovation, rather than ramming it all together. (The show on the Hammond is a particularly fine one, looking at the way that instrument developed life and culture outside and contrary to what Laurens Hammond had intended for it).

Yes, there’s a bit in the episode on the electric guitar about the role of the guitar in a culture of increasingly electronic music that has a familiar, wooden clang… but by and large it’s a self-aware series that acknowledges the biases implicit through musical history.

Deep, meaty, and rewarding; I recommend listening before it goes off air. Individual episodes are here to be listened to:

  • "The problem is that photography has always been a technical pursuit and the mediating technology required to make a photograph has always threatened to overwhelm it. To quote Donald Kuspit, 'Technology is the last valiant attempt to discredit and devalue the unconscious…. The unconscious is the bête noire in a scientifically and technologically managed world, which is why it must be killed or at least ostracized.' The endless upgrade cycle, the more and more laborious and tedious mastery of imaging software, the solid belief in technical improvement and control as a means to achieve success, all of this leads one further and further away from any possibility of making original or authentic work. This is the bind of the technology treadmill. What it gives, it also takes away. So in digital photography we have an inherent pitfall in the photographic process married to the culturally dominant fixation with technology and control which are themselves obstacles to the unconscious, the very source of creativity itself."

    Fantastic quotation and comment from David Comdico over at TOP. I feel this applies hugely to electronic music, too.