Digital to Analog: Plug and Play

It is the history of music, forever communicating—what, exactly? But forever communicating, nonetheless, even as the message gets hopelessly lost in the translation to music. And it’s not a bug; it’s a feature.

Written By

Matthew Guerrieri

The Boston Daily Globe surveys the frozen scene, March 13, 1888.

The Boston Daily Globe surveys the frozen scene, March 13, 1888.

Our latest blizzard in these parts hit New England while I was out of town for a wedding. The result was a lot of time on the phone: arranging new flights, arranging extended hotel reservations, and (having arrived back in Boston to a non-functioning car) arranging a tow through a somewhat overextended AAA. Did I mention the roof? The roof started leaking; start calling roofers.

What this means is that my wife and I have listened to a lot of telephone hold music over this past month: Muzak, soft rock, the allegedly calming strains of the most mainstream classical-lite repertoire imaginable. And it made me think of something that might be worth writing down, which is this: right now, in 2015, when technology is more amazing than it’s ever been, when what we call a “telephone” is, for most of us, actually a pocket-sized computer of sufficient power and capability that, twenty years ago, it would have been considered in the realm of science fiction—in spite of all this, telephone hold music is still defiantly and even hilariously low fidelity. It is still rendered back to the ear in the most tinny possible timbre.

Oddly, and surprisingly, that just might say something fairly deep and intricate about the history of music.

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There’s one common feature to the way music has been made and experienced over the past century or so, a feature that cuts across genre and style, a feature so ubiquitous we don’t really have to think about it anymore. And it came into music by way of the telephone. It’s this:

Phone Plug

This is, of course, a quarter-inch phone plug. It’s what’s at the end of most patch cords. If you’ve ever worked with an electric guitar, or bass, or keyboard, or a modular synthesizer, or a mixing board—and so on—you’ve used this plug. If you’ve ever listened to music through headphones, you’ve used it as well—or its smaller, eighth-inch sibling. It’s a linchpin of amplification, recording—any musical activity that uses electricity.

It’s actually older than you might think—it’s certainly older than I thought it was. The familiar form of it dates from at least 1880: that’s when Charles E. Scribner applied for a patent for a “certain new and useful Improvement in Spring-Jack Switches” that included a diagram of a plug nearly identical to the one still used today.

Scribner PT489570 figure

The idea, though, goes back at least another couple of decades, to “plug-switches”: a metal contact and a metal spring—completing an electric circuit—and a metal wedge that one could insert between the two. Plug-switches came into common use with telegraphy; Scribner adapted them into the plug-and-jack arrays of telephone switchboards. (The etymology here preserves some technological history: the first telephone switchboards were just that, boards of manual switches that had to be flipped one by one; Scribner’s first try at a suitable plug-switch looked like a jack-knife, which is why we still call the connection a jack.)

The key part of the modern phone plug is the ring of insulation between the tip and the sleeve. It’s what lets both signal and ground flow through a single plug—the tip conducts the signal, the sleeve conducts the ground. (Add more rings of insulation and more interspersed metal rings and the plug can carry more conductors. A stereo plug, for instance, adds an extra ring between the tip and the sleeve.) The insulation—the gap—keeps everything separated, preventing short circuits, ensuring the flow of current.

The signal fidelity of the phone plug is pretty robust. But the drive behind the development of the phone plug wasn’t signal fidelity; it was efficiency. The phone plug—and the spring-jack—let more telephone connection points be packed into a smaller space, and let switchboard operators make (and break) those connections with a single physical gesture. And it let those connections be made again and again and again. The connection embodied in the phone plug, is, in fact, at odds with the communicative connection of music. A connection made with a phone plug is reliable; a connection made via music is not.

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"Hello! Telephones provide communication." From Gaston Serpette's "La demoiselle du téléphone," 1891.

“Hello! We are calling and giving the gift of communication.” From Gaston Serpette’s “La demoiselle du téléphone” (1891).

There have always been and always will be composers who adopt technology as a subject matter head on. Gabrieli. Berlioz. Stockhausen. Tristan Perich has put the physical nature of computer technology front and center; Mikel Rouse has turned our 24/7 interaction with media technology into opera. It’s a rich, rich area of exploration.

But I find it most interesting when technology turns up in the music of composers who aren’t necessarily thought of as being particularly technologically minded, at least thematically speaking. Consider three examples, one older, two more recent:

Francis Poulenc’s 1958 La voix humaine, to a libretto by Jean Cocteau, is perhaps the most famous operatic telephone call in the repertoire, a one-woman tour de force presenting a love affair’s entire history and dissolution through a single, one-sided, technologically mediated (and, occasionally, sabotaged) conversation. Nico Muhly’s 2011 opera Two Boys (libretto by Craig Lucas) might be its descendent, a traditionally operatic tale of obsession and violence that instead swirls through the internet. Gabriel Kahane’s Craigslistlieder, a 2006 song cycle setting texts drawn from online personal ads, is precisely breezy, miniatures that capture something of the fleeting yet permanently preserved nature of online interactions.

In La voix humaine, Poulenc displays all his usual hallmarks of musical surrealism: the abrupt shifts, the use of pop music tropes to produce immediate but sometimes alienatingly oblique emotional beats, the cold comfort of standard progressions. The music of the internet in Two Boys is—at a slight but fascinating stylistic variance to the rest of the opera—the driving, rhythmically tiled common-tone harmony shifts of second-wave minimalism, ingeniously yoked to another style, plainchant: online rituals of communication as reenactments of perennial patterns. Craigslistlieder goes back further, to the aphoristic expressiveness of Romantic-era song, leveraging its touchstones of yearning and loneliness.

In other words, all three composers are not inventing new styles to illustrate their given technological connectivities, but adapting an older style that best encompasses what it is about each technology that they want to highlight. The interesting thing is that all those older styles can be heard as having their own, divergent technological antecedents. The technological precursor of Poulenc’s style was cinema, with its ability to disjoint space and time through framing and montage. (Poulenc and Cocteau’s transference of that disjointedness to their subject is casually echoed in the fact that the quintessential surrealist party game—the Exquisite Corpse—would be refracted into the more prosaic game of Telephone.) Both plainchant and minimalism have musical technologies in their genomes: notation for the former, recording and studio techniques in the latter. And Romanticism? I’ve always thought of Romanticism as reflecting the technology of the letter and the democratization of postal services: self-expression and the expressive fragment united into a potent, concentrated compound. All three works, then, as different from each other as they are, do for technology what classical music has always done: reinterpret the new in terms of the old, make the connection with the tradition.

This new/old relationship between music and technology has been around for a long time, often to the point that today we don’t even hear it anymore. Those Romantic letters, for instance: in Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession, Ian Bostridge’s new book on Franz Schubert’s Winterreise, he makes a compelling point about the lied “Die Post,” of how the jaunty horn calls implied in the piano part could, in Schubert’s time, have been heard as deeply ironic, the Romantic nostalgia traditionally attached to the sound of the horn here signaling the arrival of a disruptive new connective technology—the horse-drawn mail coach.

The paradox is that, at the same time, it’s the failure to connect that has been the characteristic expressive trope of classical music, from the entreaties of troubadours to the Byronic suffering-in-isolation of the Romantic era (epitomized by Winterreise) to the alienation of modernism. In La voix humaine, the signal is constantly being dropped or interrupted. The connections in Two Boys explain everything and nothing—the drama is in misunderstanding, not understanding. (The fact that the opera’s audience stand-in character, the police investigator Anne Strawson, is not more fluent or perceptive about the internet—something that came in for criticism in reviews of the piece—is actually one of the most operatic things about it, channeling an entire lineage of figures who can’t complete or decipher a communicative connection.) The ads Kahane set for his cycle are, literally, “Missed Connections.” This is the history of opera—all the way back to Orpheus, a signal acquired, then lost.

Not just opera: it is the history of music, forever communicating—what, exactly? But forever communicating, nonetheless, even as the message gets hopelessly lost in the translation to music. And it’s not a bug; it’s a feature. Music keeps a ring of insulation between eloquence and meaning. It’s what keeps the current, the power, flowing. It’s what makes the connection so immediate.

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Advertisement ca. 1899 (via the Library of Congress).

Advertisement ca. 1899 (via the Library of Congress).

“I Can Hear You,” the penultimate track on They Might Be Giants’ 1996 album Factory Showroom, was recorded on a wax cylinder, in the same manner that such recordings would have been made in the late 1800s. (The recording was made on a visit to the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, New Jersey.) Song and technology combine into a crafty joke:


Like all the other music I’ve been discussing, the song is about communication technology—but, in this case, it’s a tribute to every such technology that privileged efficiency over fidelity. Sure, drive-through intercom systems have terrible sound quality, but they get the job done.

Telephone hold music is where this calculus between efficiency and fidelity breaks down: you can’t stop listening to how bad the reproduction is. But, then again, it gets the job done. The hold music for AAA of Southern New England, for instance, was a series of Mozart piano concerti—which I easily recognized, even though the piano sounded like an underwater glockenspiel, even though the strings groaned in and out of the mix like a squeaky hinge, even though the bass was practically non-existent.

It was, in other words, privileging structure and syntax over color and sensuality—or, at least, substituting a version of color and sensuality that was an awful lot more circumscribed and compressed than normal. Which, it turns out, is still a perfectly valid musical experience. I’ll be honest: I kind of got into it. I started to appreciate its weird, alien pings and pops. I started to hear just how little signal information you need to establish baselines for harmonic tension and resolution. I started wondering how you might go about writing a piece that would emulate these exact sounds and qualities. And I realized: people already have.

A fairly wide swath of the history of recorded and broadcasted music was limited to something approaching a hold-music level of fidelity. Wax cylinders; acoustic recordings; early 78s; primitive radio—to our ears, they sound impoverished. But to contemporary ears (judging from contemporary accounts), they sounded amazing. And no wonder: the quantum leap from a completely ephemeral art form to one that could be fixed and reproduced ad infinitum is something we can’t really comprehend. What did it matter that the sound was brittle, stark, pointillistic?

Maybe a lot—because, around the same time, musical styles in those places where recordings and radio played began a turn toward brittle, stark, and pointillistic. Jazz, with its cranked, intricately syncopated drive, its characteristic rhythm-section foundation plucked, hammered, and struck. Neoclassicism, Romantic stock boiled back down to lean harmonies, bracing clarity, and bone-dry wit. Serialism, structure and syntax schematized into the spotlight, pitch and rhythm as points on a grid. It’s almost as if musicians listened to those early recordings and began to hear music from another angle, one stripped of sonic plushness but alive with the give-and-take of musical grammar, and realized that such give-and-take in itself could be a playground for expression.

Which means that another obsolete technology gets preserved in the repertoire and the toolbox: a style to be channeled, or adapted, or rejected, but holding at its core the substance of a long-ago technological advance, alongside Schubert’s postal delivery, Poulenc’s telephone, and—in future times—Muhly and Kahane’s internet. We don’t think we’re writing and playing and hearing an archeology of technology, but we are.