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On the musicology of music production

Tellef Kvifte, University of Oslo

One of the possibilities I have in mind when using the term ‘The Musicology of Music Production’, is a rather detailed, empirical study of the interaction between studio technology and the people involved in the production process, like sound engineers, producers and musicians. One key idea is that vocabulary taken from engineering and acoustics, in various ways is implemented in music and studio equipment, and that this vocabulary takes on musical meaning, and becomes part of the musical toolbox by being used in actual productive work.
In the following, I will try to give some background for this view, and put it into a context of a broader understanding of what a discipline of musicology of music production might be.
Being a musicologist with a history as a television and music producer in the not too distant past, it is not obvious what starting point to choose. As a musicologist, I am fundamentally uncertain about what 'music production' is, while as a producer, I have a fairly clear opinion on the subject. My basic problem is that the producer does not trust the musicologist very much. In fact, the relationship is more complicated: In the heat of a production process in a studio, I simply do what I perceive as the relevant thing to do at the moment, and do not spend time to problematize my role as a producer. But it happens many times that I come across problems that might have been solved in better ways given better equipment, better conceptual tools and better knowledge – in short, areas in need of research and learning. But as a musicologist I have not always really recognized such areas as relevant to musicological research, and this paper may be seen as an attempt to reconcile my two different roles.
I will make no apology for the too generalistic and at times misleading ways I describe what I call ‘traditional musicology’. My point is not to make a case against traditional musicology, but rather to use it as a background to highlight some of the issues that are important to me.
I will use four different musical examples to comment briefly upon some kinds of studies the musicological literature might offer.
1: Jan Henrik Kayser, piano: Edvard Grieg’s Holberg suite
Traditional musicology might give us technical analyses of the work, based on the score, discussing formal structure and harmonic style; some possibly comparing the piano version with the orchestral version; we might get comparisons of this work with the earlier and later works of Grieg; or with other composers of the period, or studies that put the work into a context of stylistic development of western art music. We might also find many biographical descriptions of the composer.
2: Sigrid Moldestad and Liv Merete Kroken, Hardanger fiddles: Halling after Jens Maurset. (HEILO HCD 7163)
The second example - a traditional Norwegian hardanger fiddle tune played in a slightly updated version - might in traditional musicological research be described in terms of metrical and formal structure, while the performance style might be described as a local style and - in general terms - be compared to styles from other localities; intonation might be commented, and the performance compared to a strictly traditional solo performance.
3: Cato Sanden: New Steps
The third example, performed by the artist Cato Sanden, seems to fall outside the interest of most musicologists - including traditional, modern and post-modern varieties, being of too low aesthetic value for some researchers and not sexy enough for others.
4: Amputation: Abduction of Limbs
The last example represents musical expressions of more interest to some contemporary musicologists, and we might find studies concerning the concept of identity - from youth- and teenagers via class and race to - more popular today - sex.
I will use these highly selective examples of possible musicological studies to highlight three areas that, in my opinion, needs special attention if we are to develop a musicology of music production, areas I feel are not sufficiently developed in much musicological literature. The areas concern genres, technology, and the concepts of process and product.
It seems to me that musicologists traditionally tend to pose separate questions, and use different theories and methods for the different genres of music. Following that perspective, we could easily end up with separate subdisciplines for the production of different genres of music – the music production of popular music, the music production of jazz, the music production of art music, the music production of world music and so on.
Even if there are production techniques specific to certain genres – I can’t quite see for instance a Mahler symphony being recorded to a click-track – I don’t think such a splitting is a good idea. We should bear in mind that the examples we heard, have quite a lot in common. First of all, the simple fact that they are all results of a studio production process.
Further, there is also the fact that all of these examples happen to have been produced in the same studio with the same sound engineer, Pytten Hundvin who is running the Grieghallen studio in Bergen. To him, they are all productions -  even though the music is different, he is basically doing the same job. He is using the same equipment, the same software, he has the same collection of mikes to choose from, he uses the same rooms in his studio etc. And this job is clearly relevant to the study of music production.
The situation may be different in other studios, and some may be able to specialize a lot more than the case is here. But the point nevertheless remains, that there are many aspects of studio music production that is common to several genres of music. There is therefore a need for a musicological approach that understands and interacts with different genres, and a need for conceptual tools that are relevant across the genre borders.
It is also my view that musicology seldom takes technology into account in a serious way. In fact, musicology has only a very limited view on what technology is, limiting the term to technical devices, usually electronic. Sometimes it seems that 'technology' is the same thing as a computer. First of all, we need a broader view of technology. We need to be able to consider technology as the interaction of objects and the ways we use the objects; we need to be able to view technology also as cultural and economic factors, and, last but not least, we need to be able to see the continuity of traditional music technology and electronic music technology.
I also will suggest that musicology is only seldom concerned with processes as such. The focus of interest is more on finished works of art than on the process leading up to such works, not to speak of the technological, psychological, musical and social processes involving objects of art.
This leaves questions of change wide open. To explain stylistic change within traditional musicology, one usually invokes specific objects as the cause of change; these objects being called geniuses or composers – that is, unless the change to be explained is considered negative, in which case technological devices like radio, CDs or synthesizers may be invoked and blamed.
Applied to a musicology of music production, this would imply a focus on the finished products, and on conceptual tools to describe produced sound, rather than on the process of production. And it implies, as is said in the description of the aim of this session in the conference program “to focus on the producer as a key creative figure in musical culture”.
Given the rapid development of technology, the rapid changes in the aesthetics interacting with changing technologies, and the rapid changes in the social organization of music production, it seems obvious that the creative production process has to be located at the centre of the research. Changing focus from product to process will be a challenge for a musicology of music production.
If the remarks so far may be regarded as coming from the musicologist – ethno or not – in me, I’ll turn for a short while to the producer. In this role, I would describe the activity of production through three main areas – the areas of focus that I as a producer always have in mind. In alphabetical order, these areas concern people, sound and technology. People: in their diverse roles as producers, musicians, technicians and workmates. Sound: both in the sense of sound as an acoustic phenomenon, and sound as perceived by human beings. Technology: both in the sense of studio and recording technology like electronics, mikes, recording equipment and recording formats, as well as the technology of musical instruments of all kinds.
 
For me as a producer, these three areas are closely connected and integrated. Understanding of sound as a phenomenon helps me understand the relevant technology - and understanding of the technology increases my understanding of the sound. And the more I understand sound and technology, the easier it is to communicate with other people involved in the production process.
Finally - in the centre, tying these areas together conceptually and practically, and making them a meaningful entity, is 'music'.
So, attempting to reconcile the musicologist and the producer, where should we locate a musicology of production? For me there are many interesting questions located in the relations rather than in the specific areas. It is obvious that the three areas and the relations between them may form a large number of interesting fields of research. There are fields like 'the psychology of production', as well as 'the technology of (music) production' and 'the psychology of (music) technology', as well as a number of fields based on other permutations of the terms used.
But if I should define one key area for the musicology of production, I would choose one that embraces all the areas in the diagram. A short description might be: The study of how people use technology to explore sound and thereby develop concepts that are useful in their musical activity.
As I said in the beginning, this will include a detailed, empirical study of the interaction between studio technology and the people involved in the production process, like sound engineers, producers and musicians. One important aspect will be to study concepts of music, musical sound, and musical structure, both as implemented in software and hardware, as well as how the concepts are part of the production process and ongoing discourse among the participants in the production. Sometimes the implementations feel restrictive – I still can’t use any of the major sequencing software to emulate a convincing flexible and irregular Norwegian springar meter – but even more interesting are the many new concepts that so to say seem to spill over from physics and acoustics into a productive musical conceptual discourse. A case in point is all the concepts and control possibilities synthesizers and studio equipment have added to the musically relevant description and manipulation of sound and sound colour. Another may be all the new developments in the manipulation of time and rhythm in newer software. The processes underlying and feeding these developments seem more interesting to me than a discipline where the old composer-genius is replaced by a producer-genius.
Are such studies relevant to musicology? In my opinion, yes, certainly. I am, however, not as convinced about the relevance of musicology to these studies, unless one come to terms with problems in the areas I have touched upon regarding genres, technology and the process/product-concepts.  
But with this reservation, I will end with the assertion that like musicology, a musicology of production should be a field with many sub-disciplines. Music production is indeed a multifaceted field, a field that, if well developed, may feed interesting perspectives back into the traditional disciplines of musicology. Also, we may hope for relevant feedback into the practical field of music production.