Musique mécanique

In 1930, the French periodical Revue Musicale devoted an entire issue to ‘musique mécanique’ – mechanical music. They were, of course, not interested in fairground organs, orchestrions, reproducing pianos, or music-boxes, though that’s what you’ll find if you google for musique mécanique now.

In 1930 the exciting new mechanical music was recorded music, but also broadcast music – both were seen as ‘mechanical’ because the sound came out of a machine, not out of the mouth or instrument of a performer. Of course, this kind of musique mécanique does start with the musical performance of a musician. But nowadays, emphasis is placed on the type of mechanisation. A reproducing piano, for example, captures the performer’s key-presses onto paper tape as a series of start and stop instructions that can be read back by a suitably equipped piano to produce the originally intended sound by striking the appropriate strings at the appropriate time. By contrast, recording or broadcast technologies captured the sound waves produced by the musician’s instrument or voice, and turned them into mechanical or electrical impulses, to be scored on a shellac disc or transmitted by radio waves; they are read back by being used to excite a membrane in a loudspeaker or gramophone, to approximately recreate the pattern of sound waves heard at source.

When looking for music online, we are used to making a big distinction between audio recordings and MIDI files. A MIDI file is the digital equivalent of the reproducing piano’s paper tape; an audio recording is the digital equivalent of a gramophone record. I suppose a live stream is the digital equivalent of a radio broadcast.

But I like the distinction drawn implicitly by the Revue Musicale. All of this is mechanical; we are listening, not to an instrument manipulated by a person, but to a paper cone manipulated by an electrically-controlled magnet.

Music is fundamentally about communication, and the most interesting music is live, person-to-person, in an intimate venue. Even better if there is sharing or discussion between people rather than a one-way communication between a ‘musician’ and ‘listeners’. I am thinking more and more that audio recording is best considered alongside notation, written description, and other memory aids – a way to help us to make better music, live, face to face, with each other.

School visit, Baldragon Academy, Dundee

Baldragon Academy in Dundee has posted on its website, photos of my visit to the school last month. I spent an hour with the Higher Music pupils talking about the old native idioms in music, and demonstrating some old Irish and Scottish repertory on the harp. I think they found the concepts and styles very thought-provoking!

Gestures book

Today I sent out an announcement of the availability of my new book, “Gestures”. You can find out more here:

I considered many different options for publishing this book, including approaching another publisher, though I prefer to publish in house through Normally, one would use a commercial printing company to make and bind the books, but a conventional printers needs a run of 1000 to make economic sense – the setup costs are high in relation to the cost per unit. I was not sure this made sense for such a niche specialist publication.

I also considered using a print-on-demand company. These will print and bind one copy at a time for you – Lulu is perhaps the best known, though there are others who focus more on the needs of small publishers. However a big problem with these is the cost of shipping the printed books from the company; what you gain in flexibility of being able to order small numbers, you lose in the economy of scale for delivery.

In the end I have decided to keep this book entirely in-house, and it is being published as a hand-made book. Below you will see a photo of the first batch being assembled in my workshop. The big advantage of this method is that it gives me complete control over the design of the binding – in this case it is traditionally hand-sewn to make sure that the book will easily open completely flat – an important consideration for a music book, that will be placed on a music stand.

Anyway, I enjoy bookbinding as much as book design and writing!