Music and Digital Media: A Planetary Anthropology - Georgina Born (ed.). London: University College London, 2022
By Jean-Baptiste Masson
This book stems from the MusDig programme that Georgina Born conducted between 2010 and 2015 while she was at Oxford University (she has now moved to University College London, where this book is published). MusDig stands for “Music, Digitisation, Mediation: Towards Interdisciplinary Music Studies” and was funded by the European Research Council. The programme aimed to map and analyse the far-reaching changes to music and musical practices afforded by digitisation and digital media, to interrogate “how the digital modulates intersecting histories via specific situations and events” (p. 2). As the title of the programme indicates, interdisciplinarity was at the heart of MusDig. Anthropology, sociology, media studies, and material culture studies were put in dialogue and applied equally to popular, folk, and art musics.
Born was the principal investigator of the MusDig programme and the authors of this volume were all involved as well, as doctoral, postdoctoral, or associate researchers. This ensures the remarkable coherence of the book, despite the variety of the ethnographies’ subjects. Indeed, rich and diverse, the book groups together an ethnography of the Kenyan music industry; a study of Buenos Aires’s independent music sector; an examination of the digital archiving of vernacular music in North India; a comparative study of musical consumption in the music platform Spotify and in a defunct major extralegal BitTorrent Tracker; an ethnography of the music software Max; an investigation of the current state of Montreal electroacoustic music scene; a survey of the dynamics of pluralism in contemporary digital art music; and an analysis of the impact of Internet on how music is made and experienced. This panorama of the book’s content reveals what is understood under the term “planetary” used in the title: both geographical variety (the MusDig programme added Cuba, with a study by Alexandrine Boudreault-Fournier) as well as genre variety of the studies. By studying examples from the Global South and the Global North, the book demonstrates the worldwide impact of digitalisation on music – on its practice, education, distribution, and preservation. But the choice of the world “planetary” also stems from a theoretical background that favours alterity and singularity instead of an abstract globalisation (p. 14-15).
This serves to both enhance and mitigate the comparative stance of the different studies. Indeed, the majority of the ethnographies are based on a comparative viewpoint and, if each of the chapters can be read independently, stepping back to consider them together enables further comparison and brings further food for thought on musical entrepreneurship across the planet, the interventions of public institutions and private foundations, or music education in the age of the digital, to cite only a few of the recurring themes that traverse the different studies. The result is enlightening and very instructive in terms of both content and methodology.
As such, Music and Digital Media: A Planetary Anthropology is an important contribution for researchers and graduate students and can even be seen as a manual in music anthropology. The extensive introduction and the equally vast conclusion, where Born details the purpose of the book and its conceptual framework, are remarkably clear and detailed. Some of the ethnographies are models of their kind, such as Andrew J. Eisenberg’s chapter on digital production, aesthetic entrepreneurship, and the new recording industry in Nairobi, Kenya. Eisenberg offers three vivid case studies, where we are transported into the making of a sound organisation and then the organisation of concerts and a research project to preserve and modernise musical traditions before stepping into a busy production house. Each time, Eisenberg does a remarkable job in helping us feel how music genres are made and evolve and how Kenyan musicians, music industry workers, and cultural organisers work to establish a Kenyan sound. The result is a wonderful take on the intersection of music, digitalisation, and capitalism. The other chapters are equally insightful, and the whole book is highly pleasant to read, even if the subject is far from your field.
A common node of several of the ethnographies is the tension between the old and the new (old and new technologies, analogue and digital, tradition and novelty), as if the digital was not yet fully digested and is still the subject of a quarrel between ancients and moderns. Another node is the intertwining of aesthetics and economy and the difficulty of mixing publics (Andrew J. Eisenberg on the Silicon Savannah, Patrick Valiquet on Montreal’s electroacoustic tradition, Blake Durham and Georgina Born on two music platforms, and Born on the pluralism of contemporary digital art music). The book does a remarkable job in showing how these questions are embedded in how the digital pushes institutions and industry to adapt themselves to a much more fluid and distributed environment. The local and individual levels are not forgotten in these inquiries, as they are the basis for each ethnography. We then follow artists and independent label owners in the pressing query of how to make a living with music when the new environment brought by the digital provokes a disjuncture between fame and financial return (Geoff Baker on Buenos Aires’ independent music sector) or when public institutions support specific trends more than others (Born on the pluralism in contemporary digital art music).
As the whole book deals with music, it is very pleasing to see that aesthetics and its discourses are not forgotten. This is especially detailed in the conclusion, where Born presents a theoretical framework to study the multiple mediations of music, notably aesthetics and its mediation. This integration of aesthetics within anthropology has been the core of Born’s work for more than a decade (Born 2010), and hints of these concepts can even be found in her ethnography of IRCAM from the 1990s (Born 1995). As she puts it in her 2010 article, aesthetics can be considered by anthropology “by generating a critical field that is focally concerned with the social and material, the temporal and ontological, as these mediate and imbue the aesthetic” (Born 2010: 28). In Music and Digital Media: A Planetary Anthropology, this is accomplished through discussions on music genres. Indeed, while the word “aesthetics” is absent from the index, “genre” – in relation to music – is detailed in the index in 18 sub-categories, with further reference to 26 other index entries. This makes “genre” the most detailed word of the index, alongside “digital archive,” “politics,” and “temporality.” This summarizes two key concepts of the book: to historicize the ethnographic present, and to address through music, political and economic systems (22-23).
Music and Digital Media: A Planetary Anthropology is an anthropological reflection on musical genres: how they represent nodes and entry points for studies where the aesthetics and the social, the political, the economical, the material, the technological, the digital, the temporal, and the ontological come together. Through that perspective, most of the ethnographies trace the search, the making, the defence, the preservation, and the mutation of specific musical genres: a Kenyan sound (Andrew J. Eisenberg), digital Cumbia (Geoff Baker), the pluralism of contemporary digital art music (Georgina Born), Montreal electroacoustic music scenes (Patrick Valiquet), the mutual mediations of aesthetics and digital technologies (Georgina Born and Joe Snape), the myriad of new genres that have appeared thanks to Internet (Christopher Haworth and Georgina Born). And each study adds a sounding voice to the anthropology of music that Born has worked on since the 1990s.
Sometimes, edited volumes are a collection of studies and results that do not go into details (this is not a value judgement, as these are often handbooks and companions that have a different objective, such as The Cambridge Companion to Music in Digital Culture edited by Nicholas Cook, Monique M. Ingalls and David Trippett , which is a useful companion to Born’s volume). Still, that is clearly not the case here. The book is comprehensive, with 501 pages divided into ten chapters, plus a useful index. With chapters ranging from 42 pages to 73 pages, every author takes the time to establish their subject, methodology, ethnography, analysis, and conclusions. This makes for a dense, yet accessible, volume. Moreover, as each chapter relies on a vast number of sources, they provide a rich bibliography and serve as excellent introductions to their respective areas. The introduction and the conclusion, with the breadth of their conceptual work, can potentially inspire many ideas.
The book is published online, open access, and the paperback version is available for £40 at the time of writing, which is a reasonable price given the size, depth, and quality of this excellent volume.
Born, Georgina (1995). Rationalizing Culture: IRCAM, Boulez, and the Institutionalization of the Musical Avant-Garde. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Born, Georgina (2010). “The Social and the Aesthetic: For a Post-Bourdieuian Theory of Cultural Production.” Cultural Sociology 4: 171-208.
Cook, Nicholas, Monique M. Ingalls, and David Trippett (eds.) (2019). The Cambridge Companion to Music in Digital Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.