James Yu Music 104 Final Paper

Technology: A Cultural Diffuser

Cultural diffusion is a phrase that is quite cliché now. Suppose you are taking an ethnomusicology class at a

university, and you sit down at your computer to download a qin piece from China. qin and its melody. You listen to it, and admire the beauty of the However, you will not likely pay much

attention to the technology that delivers the sounds to your ear. In our fast paced world of internet audio technology, we have forgotten that at some point, someone needed to place a microphone in front of the qin to capture its sound. Then, the

sound byte must go through many processes to come to your ear. The cultural boundaries that the sound must cross are mindboggling. A thousand years ago, or even a hundred years ago,

that sound byte would not be able to reach your ears, unless you visited and immersed yourself in China. This fast access to

cultural data brings much gravity to how we listen and respond to cultural or “world” musics. In this essay I will explore how

technology has changed the face of Asian music in the contexts of the listeners, and the music makers themselves. I will look at I

the technologies of travel, audio capture, and communications.

will also look at how technology has altered cultural identity and trends through cultural diffusion and other factors. Imagine that you are at a court performance of a Gagaku piece in ancient Japan (1000 AD). The music that you

listen to comes directly from the performers; you know exactly where you are and in what context you are listening to the piece. You are immersed in your own cultural world as a Japanese nobility. But there is a problem, you have a foreign friend

from England that wants to know what Gagaku music sounds like. You are in a quandary; because you cannot very well take a whole ensemble to England, time issues aside, the journey would be too arduous to be worth the one listening. Also, you cannot bring

your friend over to listen to an ensemble play the Gagaku piece: cultural boundaries forbid it (only the Japanese nobility are allowed). So you forget about it. This would be an average

picture of ancient music: most musics in Asia were inward looking. By that, I mean that even though there was cross Asian

influences (like Chinese instruments showing up in Japanese music), these influences were mostly localized to borders and direct contact. Now let us jump forward to the 20th century. The

technology of travel has matured enough to basically give anyone the ability to go anywhere on the globe in a span of a day (barring economic variables). musics? What does this mean for Asian By

Suddenly, foreigners are involved in the audience.

foreigners, I mean, people who are from a very distant place. Suppose you are an Englishmen visiting the middle east, and you

happen upon a Qur’an reading. You have heard about these famous

readings, and are curious to see and hear the real thing, so you stay and listen. But this brings a new gravity to the audience: In

not all of them are listening in the same position anymore.

the past, most were listening to the music on the level, whether it be for religious enlightenment, communal entertainment, or local celebration. In essence, the people there know what is The technology

going on, and have been immersed in the society.

of fast and cheap global travel has planted new seeds in the audience. The audience is no longer homogonous, but contains In many cases, this musical tourism has For example, some of

external variables.

affected performance styles or traditions.

the dances and musics in Indonesia (like Bali’s kecak and sword dances) were started because of tourists and foreigners. And in

some cases, it is because of colonization and nationalistic causes that spur a revival of traditional musical arts (like in the case of India).1 In cases like this, the audience has actually altered the performers. Even though we like to think that when

we visit another culture, we want to keep it untouched and unchanged by our viewings. But as seen, this is impossible.

There are two ways that performers change: unintentionally, and on purpose. Travelers that play a passive role by just viewing For

the performances may change them just by being there.

example, in the Balinese performances for the tourists, the performers tend to play shorter pieces, in fear of boring the


audiences with more traditional longer pieces that they may not understand. In doing this, they may not practice the older This “commercializing”

pieces as much, or may even forget them.

of music is seen in many places, and many deem this to be a loss of tradition in Asia. The other way performers change is on

purpose, where they choose to change because of musical reasons. One example of this is through early western travelers who brought their own instruments with them, which some Asian societies picked up (an example is the arrival of a variation of a guitar in Indonesia, and how the local cultures picked up the instrument as their own). Another example of purposeful change

ties into the next topic of audio tools. In the late 19th century, the first phonograph was built. For the first time in history, sounds and voices could be This simple invention would After the

reproduced with stunning accuracy.

change the way music is heard and performed.

phonograph came records, cassette tapes, and other newer forms of audio tools like digital CD-ROMs. All these audio inscribing

technologies have brought about many changes in Asian music. The first type of audio data devices that brought about major changes was the cassette tape. They were cheap, and

you could record onto them with a cassette recorder, which was reasonably cheap too. In 1970 in Indonesia, a 60 minute cassette

only cost 50 cents.2 Basically, now anyone can record a piece of music, whether it be an event they go to, or just making their own music in their home. How does this affect musicking?


Hatch, pg. 52

In respect to more traditional musics, recordings have made it easy to access them. This means that, if, for

example, with respect to traditional dances and rituals that are accompanied by music (like the traditional rituals of Indian cultures), people would use recordings of famous players instead of hiring local musicians.3 This, in effect, has totally eliminated the musical performer from the equation. In its place

is just a machine that evokes the sense of a performer on stage. And this can also be done cheaply and quickly: there is no need for the cassette to practice, and it is perfect each time it plays. This ease of use has put music into a new stage, a stage

where amateur musicians can record and send off their demo tapes to companies, where one can sit down in their living room and listen to professional taiko drum players, without leaving their home. In addition to just ease of musical reproduction, tape cassettes can be used for learning. Originally, practice

and teaching of music was done through just pure master and student interaction. Now, the cassette can be used as an aide to

mastering skills in music more quickly, and more definitively. This ease of transmission has spurred critics to say that students have become less focused, and less skilled in their playing, because the machine can ease the amount of concentration required of a purely master student interaction. Another function of the cassette is of input to the Asian society. Stores provide an avenue for other cultures to



diffuse in, like western pop or rock. People in Asia, especially

the youth populations, can easily get their hands on these new influences, and will get changed by them. This presents a Before

totally new input never seen before by Asian cultures.

the dawn of cassettes or any of that kind of technology, the youth of Asia only had access to what they were directly connected to. It was hard to ever hear music from another

culture in Asia, not to even mention music from all the way around the world. But now, it is just as easy, if not easier, to

go to the store to by a foreign cassette than it is to go listen to a local group of musicians. This, in essence, has created an Through

influx of other music in the culture of the youths.

this, western pop, rock, jazz, and other musics trickled into the Asian culture. Of course, cassettes can also be used as output from an Asian culture. Since these devices were made, people in other

cultures have been exposed to recorded traditional Asian musics. Some traditions have even been made widespread. For example, one There

of the most studied Asian music is the Indonesian Gamelan.

are many ensembles now around the world, in the USA, Europe, Honk Kong, and many other nations.3 As with the foreign influence in

Asia, without the technology of travel or audio samplers, it would be unlikely that an Indonesian traditional art would show up in the United States. After cassettes, CD-ROMs were invented, which is almost just as good (fidelity-wise) as going to a local musician to hear him play. New kinds of media like video tapes were

invented. Now, not only would you hear a musician play, but also

we can now even capture powerful images of a traditional ensemble, or a traditional dance. This just further propels

musical realities to people who could not possibly be there to hear an ensemble in real life. Other auxiliary technologies like

Karaoke have also impacted the cultures of music in Asia. All this technology can be boiled down to a single factor: communications. Without the culmination of easy

communications through cassettes or travel, the face of music in Asia, and throughout the world would be very different. were would be less diffused, and be more definitive. Cultures

What I mean

by this is, one can tell just from a glance, what kind of culture they are seeing. For example, if you were to see a Gagaku

ensemble (and you have studied ancient Japanese music), you would immediately identify it as Japanese. breakdancing group in Japan? to be? However, what if you see a

What culture would you identify it

Here, the question is, can we identify hip hop and The mere question asserts

breakdancing culture to be Japanese? the fact of cultural diffusion.

The area of communications have been even more propelled in recent years, through the use of the internet and high speed fiber optics. internet. Music can be seen everywhere on the

If you desire to hear a certain song, you can most The

likely download it: everything is within minutes of reach.

whole internet can be called a cultural diffuser: you can find hip hop web pages in Japanese, or Gamelan pages in Dutch. Communications has tied the world together so close, that anyone

can usually obtain anything they want musically (with the proper money). This ease of influence has led many musical groups to fall into the category of “fusion”. Their music is

influenced not only by their own native culture, but has been also influenced by another culture. This has spurred many to

claim that there will be a musical “gray-out”, as cultures diffuse into one another.3 There is a fear that once we “gray-

out” the meaning in music will have disappeared as well. Evidence of this fear is that fact that many traditional musics are struggling to survive in a modern world. Many of them need

much help and support from the local government to survive.4 In the end, we must ask ourselves whether technology is a good or bad thing for music. But that all depends on what Technology has

one would consider being good for music.

propelled music around the globe, and has influenced many people who, without technology, would not have had the chance to become more “cultured” by foreign arts. But then again, this has caused

many musics to begin to die next to the modern mainstream music. Technology has made everyone’s lifestyle to be more extraverted: the whole theme of technology is of going out and connecting to something you’ve never connected to before. In most cases,

traditional music, which is mostly more inward looking, has no place in such a lifestyle. But yet again, we can still look at

it from another angle where technology has eased the spread of traditional music just through recordings and videos.



Whatever conclusions we make about technology, the traditionalists will still hail it to be the death of true music, and the embracers will always hail it to be essential for a new kind of era. But whatever people think about technology, it is

something natural that will continue to grow and change music in Asian cultures. As a side effect it has caused cultural

diffusions to propagate throughout Asia, but only time will tell whether this diffusion will “gray-out” all culture, or only strengthen it.

10 Bibliography 1. Hatch, Martin. Popular Music in Indonesia. World Music, Politics, and Social Change. New York: Manchester U.P., 1989. 2. TERADA, Yoshitaka. Asian Music in a Globalizing World. JAPAN ECHO Vol. 27, No. 4, August 2000.

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