Cracked Media: The Sound of Malfunction by Caleb Kelly

Cracked Media: The Sound of Malfunction BY Caleb Kelly. The MIT Press. Hardcover, 392 pages. $24.
The cover of Cracked Media: The Sound of Malfunction

Music has been made by means of technology for nearly as long, if not exactly as long, as music has been made. Except for the voice (as well as the effects of clapping, slapping, and snapping), the sounds we agree to designate as musical rely on the use of tools, whether those tools be sticks, synthesizers, banjoes, electric guitars, or flutes carved from the bones of whales. The contemporary question of what kinds of music rank as technologically borne, then, is less a matter of provenance and more a matter of what kinds of sounds—and what types of tools—we choose to class as musically germane.

Addressing that question in the computer age is one of the subjects of Cracked Media: The Sound of Malfunction, a survey of music made from various mangled processes on various mangled gear (radios, turntables, laptops). At the book’s core is the swell of “glitch” music that greeted the arrival of computer software as a compositional tool in the 1990s and 2000s—the kind of music made with skipping CDs and hacked digital devices by ambient acts like Oval and numerous sound-artists with timely conceptual aims. Author Caleb Kelly, a lecturer at the Sydney College of Art in Australia, begins his discussion with recent movements spied in music clubs and art galleries during the past few years. But almost immediately, he works to situate our current state within a greater history. “A major twentieth-century shift occurred with the addition of all sound into music,” Kelly writes. With that shift in philosophical and aesthetic perspective, it was just a matter of time before sites set on that special byproduct of cracked-media practice: “a point of rupture or a place of chance occurrence, where unique events take place that are ripe for exploitation toward new creative possibilities.”

Cracked media predate the rise of computer music by decades. Kelly devotes the first half of his book to early instigators who switched on with the birth of recorded music, citing historical examples from the Italian futurist composer Luigi Russolo to fervent musical thinkers, such as Theodor Adorno and Jacques Attali, who fretted over the changing nature of music as a commodity that could be all too easily dismissed. Early experimenters with tools for musical playback included John Cage, who employed two turntables to abstract effect in a composition in 1939. It was Cage, according to Kelly, who “first saw, with the greatest clarity, the possibility for the phonograph as an instrument and who went a long way toward the cracking of the medium.”

Cracked Media finds its main ideological thrust with the arrival of Fluxus, a movement whose aural adherents regarded musical experimentation “as an action rather than as playing” in any traditional musical sense. Kelly delves deeply into the ways such semantic realignment affected both the ideas behind composition and their musical results. But it also marks a point at which Cracked Media fixates on process to the near-total exclusion of effect. Sections on Nam June Paik, Milan Knizak, and Christian Marclay chart significant projects related to using obsolescing vinyl records and turntables as tools for art. And sections on the modern likes of Yasunao Tone and Oval serve to set contemporary digital work in an inclusive context. But too absent from Cracked Media’s inventory of concepts and conceits is a sense of how and why, in poetic or even prosaic terms, sounds made from reconstituted media resonate aesthetically—of why such music matters beyond the simple matter of its manufacture.

Andy Battaglia is a writer and editor for The Onion's A.V. Club in New York. His work has also appeared in Spin, Pitchfork, New York, Slate, and the Washington Post.