Materials talk to Damon Krukowski (Galaxie 500, Damon and Naomi) about his recent book Ways of Hearing.
We were recently asked to write about an image for an Irish photography magazine and we chose an image of Roisin Murphy in her Stockport flat age 16 in 1989 and we mentioned your book Ways of Hearing in passing because having read the book the whole image seemed really kind of pregnant with something like the last days of analog or something. Obviously digital did exist in 1989, and for a long time before that, also the AKAI MPC60 came out that year but only had like 13 seconds of sampling time and Cubase notably came out that year and sound could be cut up and moved around on an Atari (just about!) but it seemed like it was very much kept at bay, still peripheral at that point. The first Galaxie 500 albums were released in 88 and 89 too. If 1989 wasn't quite the 'End of History', it does seem to us that it was kind of the beginning of the end of an analog era. What do you think about all of this? Did you have a sense of the digital waiting in the wings whilst you recorded those albums?
Not really – I didn’t even buy a CD player until one of our own albums was first released on CD, which happened in Europe only cause in the US we were still all vinyl/cassette into the start of the 90s. The third (and final) Galaxie album was mixed to DAT, which was the first appearance of digital in our music lives. Still no computers or screens, though! All that didn’t come, for us, till much much later. So, I think I was pretty much ignorant of what was to come, back then in the 80s.
You mention the change in latency between analog and digital in the book. We read recently about another, earlier, change in latency which was illustrated by the 22 year period it took Beethoven's Ninth Symphony to make the journey to be played in New York in 1846, having debuted in Vienna in 1824, and the further 9 years it took before it could be played in Boston. The writer goes on to apply the thought experiment to what it would look like if every artistic work took 31 years to cross the channel noting that America wouldn't have heard the first Beatles album until the middle of the Clinton administration and how in 2021 Europeans would be able to see the first season of Seinfeld. I guess our question here is do you consider yourself a technological optimist or a pessimist with regard to Ways of Hearing? Or both? Or neither? Sometimes, in the book, you talk about what has been lost in the transition between analog and digital but its maybe true to say that these transitions have periodically happened before as demonstrated by the Beethoven example.
My feeling is that analog and digital have never existed in isolation, we are actually always translating between the two – in my book The New Analog I mention player pianos as an example of a pre-electronic digital instrument, but really you can push that idea much further back. In Ways of Hearing, I interview Gary Tomlinson, who has written a book called A Million Years of Music which uses the term digital to explain certain aspects of prehistoric human logic. Our use of digital technology has changed, and is changing rapidly, to be sure – but I suspect the ideas behind that technology go very deep in our past. By the same token, analog isn’t going anywhere – because our bodies are analog! You can’t “hear” digital music, it’s all zeros and ones. All you can do is exchange it, move it around, and then translate it back to analog (a speaker) to listen to it.
The text of Ways of Hearing starts on the cover of the book and reminds its audience that computers were something that people didn't see in the home for most of the 20th century and how a person might more associate them with NASA launches during that period than everyday items. Both members of Dostoyevsky Wannabe were born in the mid-to-late 1970s and so a large proportion of our lives were spent without computers. We didn't send an email until like 1999 or really have any kind of PC in our houses until the year 2000, and yet we occasionally find it odd how we almost can't quite now remember a time before laptops and Google and social-media even though we totally know we can. Have you felt this too?
I had more or less the same experience of computers arriving later in my adult life – although there was a giant IBM computer with punch cards in my high school, that itself seems like a dinosaur now. But having this happen during my lifetime is what made me start writing about it – this is an experience, of the transition, that won’t happen again. So maybe it’s valuable to testify as to what it was like.
As designers ourselves, can we ask about the design of the book? First off, we were into the whole light blue cast that was placed on all of the images, kind of zine-like with the two-colour feel but more than that what we wanted to ask about was the thinking behind the many synaesthetic special-effects in the text? One example would be where you discuss high- and low-pitch sounds and you either narrow or widen the individual glyphs in typeface to perform the effect. Was this kind of a deliberate distancing effect to demonstrate the plasticity of the subject matter?
DK: The design of Ways of Hearing is by James Goggin, and he and I worked very deliberately to model it after Berger’s Ways of Seeing, as well as other mass-market paperbacks of the 60s and 70s that dealt with technology and its influence – McLuhan and Fiore books, etc. The use of cyan half-tones were a nod to that era too. James would have more to say about the details, I really put that in his hands – he did an amazing job of translating the spirit of the project to the page.
You talk about the distinction between a real-time four bars of music and a quantised, spreadsheet-like four bar grids of time as rendered in something like Pro Tools. The latter is something that is perhaps most widely known initially from the music of the early-mid 1980s. Maybe Bowie's 80s period stuff like 'Let's Dance' or The Human League's 'Don't You Want Me', an example you use in the book, or even something by The Pet Shop Boys. Beyond that difference in latency, which we've touched on, we do get the sense that as those songs have aged they have taken on a sort of aural patina despite their machine-made, tied to a grid provenance. What do you think about that type of reasoning? We guess the change in latency doesn't affect the fact that whatever instrument has some kind of timbre, right? Maybe we're conflating the two here. Thoughts?
I hear grids in music now more than ever – I was thinking about more than the early experiments in that realm. It seems to me like it’s become second nature now for how people deal with rhythm in digital recording, across genres too!
We're going to guess that it's safe to say that as a musician you know you way around Pro Tools etc as well as being au fait with analog. Has the digital process affected your own creativity for the better in any way or is there more that has been lost?
I use a computer hard drive now instead of tape, but otherwise my recording process is fairly unchanged. Naomi and I still record in “real time,” we edit minimally, we never quantize or redraw curves on the screen. And I still mix through an analog board – no automation, either. It’s not analog recordings, because we both record multi-track to hard drive, and mix to hard drive, but the processes are still analog. I’d say the biggest influence from the medium on us has been the ease of keeping multiple takes, and of editing. But that’s about it.
What do you think reissues culture has done to the way we listen to music these days? Magazines like MOJO in this country sometimes show a cover where it perennially seems to be 1968. On the other hand, Bandcamp, a positive development we think, is quite without the same old music press filters the last time we checked, perhaps to too much of an extent. Would you agree that these changes have been affected by the move from analog to digital in the world more generally?
I think history in general is under assault from digital media, because of the way they strip away context. This would apply to music and to journalism equally – even to academic journalism. I have taught at the university as a day job, and my students would routinely use articles in their research that were out of date or otherwise taken out of context because they simply landed on it via a digital search. We all do that in some manner or other these days – it’s part of using digital information to lose the context around it. Reissues, on the other hand, are all about context. So maybe they are a bit out of step with the Spotification of music listening? In any case, I know I am stocking up on those CD box sets I couldn’t afford when they came out, they are all so cheap now and they have those amazing liner notes. Who is going to archive those liner notes online? I’m waiting…
You can listen to Ways of Hearing via the Podcast or buy the book here.