Vol. 31 Issue 1 Reviews

Golo Föllmer, Netzmusik: Elektronische, ästhetische und soziale Strukturen einer partizipativen Musik

Softcover, 2005, € 24, ISBN 3-936000-33-6, 260 pages, illustrated, bibliography, glossary, English abstract; published by Volke Verlag, Web www.wolke-verlag.de; supplementary CD-ROM (German and English), €12.95, published separately by Neue Zeitschrift für Musik/Deutsche Gesellschaft für Elektroakustische Musik; Web www.musikderzeit.de.

Reviewed by M. J. Grant
Berlin, Germany

When Golo Föllmer started the research on which this book is based, he was faced with a problem. It was 1996, and there was no way of knowing if Internet music was just a fad. Then there was the problem of how to deal with the new sources, including those on Web sites that could well have disappeared into thin air by the time the book was published. The answer was to treat this book like a node in its own net, with supplementary material to be found both on the author’s own Web site and the sites of many of the projects discussed, but also and most usefully on the CD-ROM documentation produced in 2004. The result is that this survey is comprehensive but digestible, and will appeal to the different requirements of interested amateurs and serious researchers. This brings us, though, to another problem he faced—the academics: on the one hand the media theorists, full of discourse on social practice but short of analytical interest in the music; on the other hand the musicologists, for whom the exact opposite may be said to apply (with the additional problem that musicologists generally find little of structural interest in this music, adopting the attitude that it is, as Mr. Föllmer puts it, merely “a listening experience with a mouse attached” (p. 3). Thus, this book is not only one of the first to address the subject of net music thoroughly and scientifically, it also comes into the still underrepresented category of books dealing with music as, in the first instance, a part of human social life.

Ten years on, it is clear that the idea of the net, and of networking, has been as significant for theories of human social relations as it has been for the actual ways in which we communicate. This is also very much the starting point for Mr. Föllmer, whose interest is in understanding how music-making can function under the conditions of the net. He suggests that there are two overriding paradigms that define how a particular net music project evolves: the compositional paradigm, that is closely related to traditional ideas of author and work, and the communication paradigm, in which the focus is less on the music created as on the diverse processes of creation, recreation, and interaction made possible or made apparent by the technology. In both cases, three interrelated levels (adapted from Christiane Heibach’s work on net art) are always implicated: the electronic or technical level; the aesthetic level (the point of interaction, for example the screen in the case of net art); and the social level of realization and of the interaction with the user.

This book is divided into four parts, each of which lays a slightly different emphasis on these three aspects. The first is theoretical and technical, and includes reflections on how earlier musical utopias predicted by John Cage, Alan Turing, and Bertolt Brecht may or may not find realization in the age of the networked computer. Unlike radio, for example, a networked computer not only receives but can also send: it is thus not only a medium, but simultaneously an instrument. It has at least the potential to promote a specifically interactive form of exchange, as typified by some installations and projects that only come to life when triggered into action by the user. And, one might say, like other forms of technology it has led to an art theory whose basis is not the works themselves, their genesis and interconnection, but the possibilities of the creative technology itself.

It is at this point that Mr. Föllmer proceeds logically from the theoretical utopia, far-ranging and future-oriented, to the contemporary reality of slow networks and incredibly expensive technology. We can almost hear the bump as we fall from the ethernet to the hard earth, but, as the rest of the book makes clear, the technology and its current limitations are only part of the story in any case. It is, after all, a communication technology, and just as earlier experimental composers reflected on the communicative contexts of traditional musical media such as the score and traditional contexts such as the concert, so too many working in the field of net music have made the new medium’s nature and implications—both real and virtual—their focus.

The most important technical characteristics of the new technology are the ability to connect people over large distances by means of communication technology, the ability to access large amounts of data and carry out complex machine processes, and last but not least the tendency to interactive use of the technology. As regards the cultural practices that result, Mr. Föllmer divides these into two major tendencies. The first, simulcasting, covers transmission, sale, distribution, broadcasting, and so on, of all forms of cultural goods, whereby the medium has little or no impact on the form of the goods on offer. “Genuine net practices,” on the other hand, are cultural activities that emerge thanks to the specific possibilities and contexts of this medium, and often reflect these critically. These include certain forms of interactive Internet radio, archives, and peer learning, that expand the creative potential of existing principles of communication; these also include particular, artistic responses to the concept of networking, including offering alternatives to the mass-media flavor of the Internet and its tendency to offer pre-baked solutions rather than to stimulate creativity.

The second part of the book presents brief summaries of a very wide range of individual projects. Here as well, Mr. Föllmer breaks down the surfeit of material into five categories or, as he appropriately calls them, clusters. Firstly, there is the “forum,” covering chatrooms, mailing lists, and all aspects of the communities that spring up around particular portals and projects; secondly, the “game” (Spiel), whether created as an advertising gimmick or with more serious artistic intent; thirdly, “algorithm and installation,” including software that makes music from URLs, programs that create collages from audio files trawled using search machines, and net-based variations on sound installations that can only be accessed and influenced via the net rather than by actual presence in the space; fourthly, “instrument and workshop,” covering both ready-made instruments and software that allows users to create their own; and finally “performance,” which Mr. Föllmer uses in the English sense of the term to mean the general idea of performances but also performance art. Most of the examples are presented without much critical commentary, an exception being the generally dim view Mr. Föllmer takes of a subcategory of this last cluster, namely scenic performances or “net opera.” Don’t believe the hype, he warns, net operas may be the most well-known examples of net music, but they also tend to be the most superficial.

The third part of the book is the only one that does not contribute significantly to the text as a whole. It deals with reception, and aims to provide initial answers to the question of how the technology is used and what makes it successful (or not) by setting up a quite classical experiment to monitor people’s reactions to four particular projects. The main aim is to establish whether the degree of interaction or the degree of complexity is more significant for receivers of net music, and though the results of the experiment—initially intended as a pilot for a more extensive experimental study—suggest that interaction with the material is the most important characteristic, one wonders how reflective the results are of the actual situations in which net music is used. A controlled experiment in what is effectively a laboratory, with constant supervision, is rather a different set-up to that experienced by most computer users and particularly most Internet users, facing only a computer screen and the famously tempting sense of anonymity and license that this fosters.

The author himself realizes that there are limits to what can be deduced from this experiment. He takes another approach in the fourth part of the book, which addresses itself to the “experts,” the creators of net music, who are for this very reason those most likely to be versed in the technologies and the historical and aesthetic contexts. Here, he conducts interviews based on a wide-ranging catalogue of questions covering all the fundamental issues that have to be addressed in such cases (everything from who they are and what technology they use to whether this will have any impact on the future of music, and if it is still music at all). The experts asked, like the projects presented in the second part of the book, represent a wide range of fields and approaches, some classing themselves as composers in a fairly classical sense, others coming from disciplines such as media art. The responses they gave, by electronic mail, video conference, telephone, and so on, are as diverse as the backgrounds—and here as well it becomes clear that there is no one answer, nor even a group of answers, to the questions raised by net music for our understanding both of “music” as a concept, its different genres and aesthetics, and human communication generally.

It is to Mr. Föllmer’s credit that this seminal study offers breadth and at the same time clarity, helping us to sort between different approaches while avoiding any of the simplistic causality that readers of media theory are all too familiar with. Thanks to the glossary and the unpretentious, readable style, this book is suitable for anyone with an interest in the subject, no matter how limited their technical experience (this reviewer being a case in point) or their knowledge of other currents in experimental music, media, and sound art. The superb layout and design simply adds to the attraction; taken with the supplementary material on the Web and the contents of the CD-ROM, this is a superb introduction which historians of the future will appreciate as much as students and theorists of the present. Whether or not they adopt or adapt Mr. Föllmer’s categorizations remains to be seen, but hopefully they, too, will recognize the inescapable message emanating from between the lines of the examples that, magpie-like, the author has presented for our delectation: that the most important interface in any technical system, no matter how innovative or complex, is the human one, and that it is ultimately the human interface that defines what happens through the technology.