Book Review – Shara Rambarran “Virtual Music”

Bloomsbury Academic, 2021

A timely investigation into the worlds of virtual music but not aimed at the casual reader.

Subtitled, “Sound, Music, and Image In The Digital Era”, Virtual Music is seriously academic in its investigation into how the future of music has arrived (as its Introduction claims). The author is Assistant Professor of music at BISC UK (Queen’s University, Canada) whose specialisms include (according to her bio): remixology/post-production, digital technology, electronica/dub, hip-hop, media, music video, cultural studies, critical theory, music industry, music education, and law (Intellectual Property Rights). Perhaps we should have replaced seriously academic with frighteningly academic back at the beginning.

Upfront, we should say that there is nothing here pertaining in particular to what we call Americana music. Included in the extensive index are the Eagles, The Grateful Dead and Sparklehorse but, going to their respective pages, they are only given brief mentions within the context of what is being discussed. The Sparklehorse entry pertains to EMI refusing to release Gnarls Barkley’s collaboration with Mark Linkous and David Lynch, leading to Barkley putting the album online for anyone to download, typical of his “disruptive” practices under his many guises including Danger Mouse. Unsurprisingly, artists such as Bowie, Eno, Danger Mouse himself and Lil Nas X  are given more space while the means of music production, distribution and promotion are far more prominent.

Rambarran begins with a potted history of how we have arrived at what she calls a “technoscape,” a virtual space where we can access, exchange, receive, or send information immediately thanks to digital technology. From player pianos to gramophones to Walkmen to IPods to streaming, music has become more portable and much more accessible. In tandem, the means of making music and then making it available has become much more accessible, MIDI technology allowing anyone anywhere to record. She investigates the role of “experimental music” in removing barriers, citing pioneers such as John Cage and Pierre Schaeffer (who coined the term Musique concréte) along with genres such as Krautrock, Dub, Hip-Hop and Ambient which opened doors for all kinds of musical mischief. This leads into an interesting chapter on authorship, sampling, mixing and copyright, with Rambarran paying particular attention to Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album, the infamous mash-up of The Beatles’ White Album and Jay-Z’s ‘The Black Album’. This so outraged EMI that they threatened to sue all who downloaded the album although that never came to pass.

There is some heavy-duty reading here. For example there’s chapter two -“Technology gives you everything immediately… A brief critical discussion on the digital virtual.” It  introduces concepts such as virtuality, hyperreality, postmodernism, hauntology and actor network theory (ANT) in order to provide the basis of critical thinking on how to perceive the digital virtual in music (quoting the author). It is much easier to engage with the more factual episodes as when Rambarran discusses the likes of Bjorn, David Bowie and Radiohead’s use of computer programmes to promote albums, singles and videos, encouraging fans to remix the audio or visual content and post it online for example. Of note, she is quite illuminating (while discussing music videos which go viral) on Lil Nas X’s mix of country and rap on Old Town Road positing that it played on the idea of American identity being contested and in particular, the exclusion of black people from most country music.

While the book is destined to be read primarily by students who find it on their reading list, it is timely, given that all of us have been forced into experiencing music “virtually” for the past 14 months. The chapter, “Showroom Dummies”, tackles simulated live performances, from virtual bands such as Gorillaz to immersive events best experienced via an Oculus virtual reality headset. Written before Covid, Rambarran acknowledges this as an ongoing and exciting development but questions how virtual performers impact and communicate with their audience. The book’s conclusion, hastily revised, admits the author in the midst of the pandemic, allows that live streaming of events (via Zoom, Twitch, Skype etc) is now much more common and will probably remain so, while she also mentions the ongoing debate about fair remuneration for artists from streaming services.

We’ve barely scratched the surface of Rambarron’s investigations into what has become, in the past year, the way most of us experience music. An academic question suddenly became a reality and while much of the book remains in the domain of theory, there’s no doubt that the digital and virtual worlds have changed the way we experience music. We can interact with musicians via social media and streaming makes almost everything available at the press of a button. The author’s bottom line is that the digital virtual era has “certainly strengthened our relationship with music.” Welcome to the modern world.

‘Virtual Music: Sound, Music, and Image In The Digital Era’ by Shara Rambarran was published by Bloomsbury Academic in April 2021.

About Paul Kerr 445 Articles
Still searching for the Holy Grail, a 10/10 album, so keep sending them in.
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