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Defining the Discographic SelfDesert Island Discs in Context$

Julie Brown, Nicholas Cook, and Stephen Cottrell

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780197266175

Published to British Academy Scholarship Online: May 2018

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197266175.001.0001

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Desert island discomorphoses: Listening formations and the material cultures of music

Desert island discomorphoses: Listening formations and the material cultures of music

(p.67) 4 Desert island discomorphoses: Listening formations and the material cultures of music
Defining the Discographic Self

Kyle Devine

, Julie Brown, Nicholas Cook, Stephen Cottrell
British Academy

Abstract and Keywords

Musical identities are forged in relation to the material properties of media formats. The cultures of listening and modes of identification fostered by the 78-rpm disc, for example, are not the same as those that took shape around the LP or the MP3. Each technology affords different modes of musical identification, fandom, enjoyment, and taste. To read Desert Island Discs as a continuous archive of self-presentation or a straightforward reflection of musical taste is thus to overlook a key point: the programme equally reflects seven decades of change in the material cultures of music. This chapter combs the online Desert Island Discs archive for evidence of the relationship between the discographic self and the ‘discomorphosis’ of music, focusing on such conjunctures as the hypothetical wind-up gramophone that furnished the island in 1942, the introduction of the LP and transistor radios around 1950, and the introduction of the iPod in 2001.

Keywords:   material culture, mediation, listening formation, gramophone, LP, radio, iPod

1. Introduction

WHEN HE APPEARED ON Desert Island Discs (DID) in 2003, Nick Hornby joked that he had ‘blown [the programme] out of the water’ through his choice of a particular luxury item: an iPod. ‘A what?’ puzzled host Sue Lawley. Hornby explained the storage capacity of the iPod, which had grown from 10GB to 40GB since its release just two years prior, and Lawley immediately agreed with his assessment. ‘Well you have, rather! I mean, what’s the point of eight desert island discs?! Should I allow this?’ she wondered. ‘I think you’ll have to ban it after me’, replied Hornby (28 September 2003).

Hornby was thus the first (but not the last) to smuggle an iPod onto the island.1 Yet he was neither the original nor the only ‘clever’ castaway, in this sense. The shipwrecked have often used their luxury item to cheat the desert island’s musical scenario. Indeed, just two months after Hornby’s appearance, British Ambassador Sir Christopher Meyer asked to furnish the island with a jukebox. Before Meyer could even finish requesting his luxury, Lawley cut him off: ‘This is another cheat!’ (23 November 2003). Many other guests have had similar ideas, and the most frequently chosen devious luxury has been a radio. Consider Sir John Burgh, a civil servant who appeared on the programme on 8 December 1984. ‘I shall take with me, if you will permit this’, Burgh told Roy Plomley, with a hint of self-satisfaction at the craftiness of his request, ‘a very powerful transistor [radio] with a very large supply of batteries, which will enable me to escape from your “non-benign rule” and to listen to as much music as I would like to’. Plomley was less concerned than Lawley about the acceptability of Burgh’s luxury item, calling his choice ‘permissible’ but nevertheless offering a qualification: ‘We can’t guarantee, of course, about reception conditions on the island; nor do we know (p.68) how long your batteries are going to last. But bearing that in mind, we cede your request.’

What interests me here is not Lawley’s question: do such items spoil the premise of DID? Rather, my interest lies in the ability of this programme to focus attention, albeit unwittingly, on the material culture of music. DID facilitates this despite entrenched European ideas about the ostensible ‘immateriality’ of music, associated since philosophers such as Kant and Schopenhauer with ideologies of autonomy and transcendence (cf. Chua 1999). And it possesses this ability despite what we might expect of the programme itself, given that its foundational fantasy requires a suspension of disbelief regarding the essential materiality of recorded sound. Yet music’s material culture has been invoked from the very first broadcast in 1942. Here is Plomley, introducing that show:

We present the first of a new series of gramophone-record programmes in which, each week, a well-known broadcaster is brought to the microphone to answer the following question: ‘If you were shipwrecked on a desert island, which eight gramophone records would you choose to have with you?—providing, of course, you also had a gramophone and a supply of needles.’

(quoted in Magee 2012: 11)

Indeed, noted Radio Times, ‘the most galling fate of all would be to be washed up on a desert island with eight records and no gramophone to play them on—or with records and gramophone but no needles’. Further, as Sean Magee notes in his authorised history of the programme, ‘the hypothetical gramophone on the island was of the old wind-up variety—rather than one powered by electricity’ (2012: 10).

This was occasionally a source of confusion. When the conductor Sir Malcolm Sargent appeared on the show on 28 April 1955, for instance, his first choice of record was the complete Handel’s Messiah. Plomley corrected him: ‘Well, not the complete, I’m afraid. Just one side.’ ‘Oh?!’ scoffed Sargent, ‘we’re allowed long-playing records, aren’t we?’ ‘No’, said Plomley, growing impatient, ‘because you have no source of power on the island. You only have a hand-cranked gramophone.’ Recent commentators, too, have found it irresistible to think of DID’s musical culture as a kind of material culture. For example, Magee (2012: 503) offers the following parting shot as he imagines leaving the island: ‘scattered among the seagull droppings in the sand dunes are some 22,000 records, from Arne to Zelenka and from Abba to Zappa’. The discographic imagination, it seems, is a resolutely material imagination.2

In describing the creation of the online DID archive, the BBC notes: ‘From the outset, everything—information about the castaway and their choices and (p.69) the programmes themselves—has been regarded as representing a snapshot of a particular person’s life and choices at the time of broadcast.’3 This volume represents an important extension of such thinking, because it recognises that DID offers a window onto more than biography. The individual discographic imagination, or discographic self, is equally a product of history and culture. In the editors’ words, the programme has over the past seven decades ‘built up a unique archive of information about the role that music has played in the lives of people from Britain and beyond, ranging from changing tastes to its social and personal meanings’. I want to supplement further this sociological and musicological perspective by underlining the relationship between the construction and presentation of the discographic self, on the one hand, and the numerous changes in the material cultures of recorded sound that have underwritten DID since its debut in 1942, on the other.

Such a perspective is not to be confused with the humourless criticism that sometimes accompanies reflection on the material realities of the desert island. Take for example those listeners who ‘would point out that herring gulls—whose cries form part of the signature sequence—live in the northern hemisphere and would not have been on a tropical island’ (Magee 2012: 8). Rather, my point is that to read DID as a continuous archive of self-presentation or a straightforward reflection of musical taste is to overlook a key issue: the programme and its presentations of self equally participate in seven decades of change in the material culture of music. It is thus possible to comb the DID archive for evidence of the relationship between the discographic self and what Antoine Hennion (2015) calls the ‘discomorphosis’ of music. In other words, DID can be used to explore the ‘distinctive protocol[s] of listening’ (Straw 2012: 234) that have been technologically and culturally available in cases such as the wind-up gramophone that initially furnished the island, the prominence of LPs and transistor radios after 1950, and the introduction of the iPod in 2001. I think of these techno-cultural conjunctures as ‘listening formations’, a concept that I outline in more detail below. The goal is to understand the discographic imagination as a function of musical mediation, and to present a materialist perspective that is suited to the complexity of DID as an archive of the changing role of musical culture in the UK and beyond.

2. Thinking things through: music, media, material culture

Scholars have spent a lot of time and energy thinking about things. Although this has been true for a long time, it has lately become a more pressing concern in the social sciences and humanities.4 One of the reasons for this appears to be a growing frustration with, or at least a greater recognition of, the limitations of (p.70) constructionism and hermeneutics, which constitute a constellation of ideas and methods that has defined humanistic and social-scientific approaches to culture since the 1960s and 1970s. Paul Jasen characterises this constellation in terms of ‘a group of linked tendencies that became normative in the wake of cultural studies and poststructuralism’, and which is marked by the following predilections:

the broad application of linguistic and literature-derived analytical models to all things (treating them as signs, texts, discourses and their effects, representations, dynamics of encoding/decoding, etc.), along with the dual assumptions that culture is the mediator of all experience (which is therefore only ever subjective, filtered, and relative), and that all the elements of experience, and their possible interactions, are always prefigured in their social construction, therefore holding no surprises, and having no world-making agency of their own.

(Jasen 2016: 4)

While there are good historical and political reasons that this paradigm became so widely influential—reasons that should not be forgotten5—numerous scholars at the outset of the 21st century believe that this form of ‘radical culturalism’ (Jay 2011: 50) has reached a point of diminishing returns.6 The insights of such scholarship are driven by two related tenets: ‘culture’ includes aspects of feeling and embodiment that exceed language and textual representation, while ‘society’ is defined not only by human actions and relations but equally by non-human agencies and associations. Scholars working with these ideas find some of the most promising future directions of humanities and social science research in the related realms of new and feminist materialisms, actor–network theories, object-oriented ontologies and ‘thing theories’, on the one hand, and non-representational, post-phenomenological interests in affective forces and bodily experiences, on the other. These diverse conceptual vectors can be summarised as a broad material turn in the study of culture: a shift from an anthropocentric representationalism towards the realms of the post-human and the post-hermeneutic; a shift that ‘is engaged in decentering the human in favor of a turn toward and concern for the nonhuman, understood variously in terms of animals, affectivity, bodies, organic and geophysical systems, materiality, or technologies’ (Grusin 2015: 1).

Such concerns are gaining traction in music studies, albeit more slowly than in other fields. This probably has something to do with longstanding aesthetic (p.71) discourses that suggest music is ‘the most immaterial of all [the arts]’—not to mention an enduring enthusiasm for the social interpretation of texts in the wake of ‘new’ musicology.7 Nevertheless, musicology is experiencing its own ‘material turn’ (Straw 2012). One facet of this ‘turn’ directly confronts immateriality, highlighting an apparently mistaken conflation of sound’s invisibility with its immateriality, because sound itself is nothing if not material. Scholars working along these lines also tend to suggest that attention to sound, as the unavoidably material medium of music, unsettles a purely textual or representational approach. As Jeremy Gilbert writes:

Music has physical effects which can be identified, described and discussed but which are not the same thing as it having meanings, and any attempt to understand how music works in culture must … be able to say something about those effects without trying to collapse them into meanings…. The problem we have is that music is by definition an organised form of experience, one whose effectivity is strictly delimited by sedimented cultural practices, but it is one whose structured effects cannot be fully understood in terms of meanings; precisely, they cannot be understood according to the structural logic of language…. [A] notion of ‘culture’ which sees in it only ‘signifying practices’ is quite simply not up to the job. Music is obviously cultural, but its ‘culturality’ is not limited to its capacity to signify.

(Gilbert 2015: 371–2, original emphasis)

The goal in this arena of music scholarship’s material turn, Jasen notes, is to put ‘thought in closer touch with the materiality of sonic experience, with the body’s sonorous relations, and sound’s a-signifying participation in culture’ (2016: 2).

Other impetuses for music’s material turn are more recognisably musicological, though no less innovative. These aspects of the material turn are evident in emerging research on the materiality of print sources (van Orden 2015), which resembles work in the field of book history. Such aspects are also evident in studies of instrument technologies and media infrastructures (Bates 2012; Steingo 2015) as well as studies of the material dimensions of subjective properties, including identities, bodies, and voices (Born 2011; Eidsheim 2015), and the ways that various aesthetic objects circulate and exert influence in the musical world (Piekut 2014).

Sound-reproduction technologies occupy a special position here. Indeed, sound reproduction is perhaps the most written-about topic in the broad material turn of music and sound studies (e.g. Roy 2015). Work in this vein varies widely. Some scholars excavate the normative assumptions about human hearing and acoustic subjectivity that subtend ‘the very possibility of sound reproduction as we know it’ (Sterne 2003: 33). Other studies look at how people engage with (p.72) sound-reproduction technologies at the level of consumer practices, in both past and present contexts (e.g. Bull 2007; Maisonneuve 2009). Although these studies are heterogeneous, they share a basic assumption: sound-reproduction technologies and listener identities are functions of one another; there is a broadly coformative relationship between technology and listener, object and subject.8 That is to say, there is a ‘symbiosis between recorded music, related industries and the listener’ (Bergh & DeNora 2009: 102).

Hennion offers a particularly productive account of this symbiotic ‘morphology’ of listening, which is anchored in a particular moment.9 For him, ‘it is the radical transformation of all [music’s] material intermediaries that has truly created the musical space of current listening’ (Hennion 2001: 4). This is a historically specific transformation that Hennion calls ‘the modern discomorphosis of listening’ (2015: 270). He explains further:

The record, by making of it something to listen to, has created a new music. Before its existence, whether at home or at a concert, music was first something to do (including for its audiences), and most often to do together. From the availability of a repertoire to its facility of immediate acquisition and selection, from the importance of the physical position to that of the hi-fi system that goes from the body to the sound enveloping it, from free listening to unlimited repetition, there is now actually a ‘listening’ function.

(Hennion 2005: 139, original emphasis)

‘To that “discomorphosis” of the repertoire’, he elaborates, ‘corresponds an equally important discomorphosis of taste’ (Hennion 2015: 271).10 That is, the possibility of sound reproduction afforded new kinds of relationships with music, giving rise to the ‘listener turned consumer’, which Hennion calls ‘the musical invention of the twentieth century’ (ibid.).

It is possible to identify earlier models for, and later manifestations of, this two-way relationship between the materiality of musical mediation, on the one hand, and the shape of listening cultures, on the other. For example, discomorphosis can be seen as an extension of the shifts towards attentive listening and the cultural valorisation of music that surrounded the rise of the ‘work-concept’ from the late 18th century onwards (Goehr 1992): conceived as a fixed entity embodied in a written score, the musical work lends itself to collecting, so setting a precedent for discomorphosis. Indeed, as Paul Théberge (1997: 176) argues, notation ‘prepared the social, cultural, and economic ground for sound reproduction’. And if discomorphosis can be connected to these earlier developments, other scholars suggest that discomorphosis may itself be giving way to a new morphology of (p.73) listening alongside the rise of the internet, file-sharing, streaming services, and recommendation algorithms. Such changes have been characterised in terms of a new epoch: the ‘digitamorphosis’ of listening (Granjon & Combes 2009).

For my purposes, I want to retain the sense in which discomorphosis provides a tool for naming and describing a historically specific relationship between objective affordances and subjective attachments in listening—a key issue for contemporary scholarship on the materiality of musical mediation. However, I also want to caution against the historiography of listening that might be suggested in reading across the work of Goehr, Hennion, and Granjon and Combes. It would be possible to use this literature to argue for a series of epochal transitions: from work-concept listening, to discomorphic listening (though neither Goehr nor Hennion explicitly explore this possibility), to digitamorphic listening (which Granjon and Combes do explicitly address). Although there is certainly something to be said about these large historical arcs—from the score to the recording to the audio file—I want to open up the possibility that discomorphosis can describe, not just a historical rupture and its century-old ‘listener-turned consumer’, but also an ongoing condition of musical culture that has itself morphed alongside a variety of shifting musical media. In other words, the relationship between recording and listening since 1900 can be described, not as a monolithic discomorphosis, but as a proliferation of discomorphoses.

I find it useful to describe these relationships and developments in terms of listening formations. A listening formation can be thought of as ‘the whole context of audition for historically specific audiences, taking account of expectations formed for them by the whole culture and technology of speech and hearing of which they are a part’ (Faulkner 1994: 165). Listening formations thus encompass the modes of thought, means of identification, principles of social action, technological objects and systems, and institutional arrangements that shape both the personal (ontogenetic) and sociohistorical (phylogenetic) evolution of acoustic subjectivities.11 That is, listening formations account for the development of personal listener identities and culturally available subject positions writ large, as well as how both are generated within specific matrices of audition. There are thus two temporal dimensions of the recorded music artefact at play in any given listening formation. One involves individual and, in a way, micro-rhythmic circulations of and encounters with a recording, which are the kinds of biographical developments and presentations-of-self that the BBC sees in DID—and which, in aggregate form, this volume takes as evidence of historical and sociological shifts in musical culture. The other is the macro-rhythm of the format, where we witness decades-long shifts in entire media infrastructures, economic systems, institutional arrangements—and, accordingly, expectations and modes of listening. It is at this level where a seemingly simple historical transition from one format (p.74) to another—from, say, the 78-rpm disc to the long-playing record—‘occasions a different relationship between listener and recording’ (Sterne 2012: 12). It is this connection between musical formats and listening formations that, in my reading, discomorphosis helps to specify.

The online DID archive represents a rich source of information about individual discographic selves, as well as the ways that musical taste and musical meaning have shifted over the years. In embracing the material turn in music scholarship, and understanding music’s mediations in the context of listening formations, it is also possible to understand this archive as a channel for observing decades of discomorphoses. That is, the ways that people construct, present, perform, and feel their identities through music are not only historically and culturally mutable; they are co-constituted by the shifting affordances of various forms of mediation—by the material cultures of music and the macro-rhythms of shifting formats, in the context of particular listening formations.

3. The LP

At first, the desert island was furnished with a ‘hypothetical’ hand-wound gramophone. Such a machine would have played shellac records at 78 revolutions per minute, and castaways were allowed eight discs. This was a practical decision, made early on in the creation of the programme. It was based both on the material constraints of the 78-rpm format, which held under five minutes of music per side, and on broadcast time restrictions. Indeed, during initial discussions about the series between producer Leslie Perowne and Plomley, ‘it was decided that, since each programme would have only thirty minutes of air time, the number of records selected would be reduced from Plomley’s suggested ten to eight’ (Magee 2012: 8).12 Perowne was also careful to remind Plomley: ‘Please remember to make one of the conditions the fact that no single work can spread on more than two sides of a record’ (ibid.). DID thus emerged in dialogue with the material constraints of the dominant format of the day. In a telling moment, Magee looks back on this negotiation and calls it ‘somewhat quaint to modern eyes’ (ibid.). To understand the full weight of Magee’s statement, it is first necessary to examine the listening formation in which the programme emerged.

Phonograph ownership grew from one-third of UK households in the early 1910s to two-thirds by 1930 (Maisonneuve 2001: 93). Ideologically, the shellac era—the early era of discomorphosis—was marked by contradictions. There were those who saw the purchasing and collecting of recorded popular music as (p.75) a dangerous cultural practice, a position represented most famously by Adorno’s critiques of the ‘culture industry’ and his thesis on the ‘regression of listening’ (Adorno 1991). At the same time, others began to value this nascent musical culture in particular ways: jazz collectors emerged (Shuker 2010); libraries started to view recordings as documents worthy of serious collection and preservation (Almquist 1987); and programmes such as DID were created. Such developments not only presumed but celebrated the rise of the listener-turned-consumer identified by discomorphosis. This transformative character of discomorphosis is clearly illustrated in Cliff Richard’s 31 October 1960 appearance on DID, when he noted: ‘my main hobby is buying records and my second hobby is playing them’. The programme is thus both a product and a proponent of discomorphosis, and the personal and social narratives on display at this time can be understood in the context of a listening formation that was marked by the double mediation of radio programming and the shellac disc format.

By 1960, the long-playing record (LP) had supplanted the 78 as the central commodity of the recorded music industry. The LP differed from the 78 in several important ways. Not only was it made of a different material (plastic instead of shellac) but it could be inscribed with narrower grooves and, thus, much more music per side (over 20 minutes). In this way, ‘Long-playing records could allow listeners to hear entire movements in operas without interruption, opera itself being a musical form designed for long periods of audience attention’ (Sterne 2012: 12). When Sir Malcolm Sargent assumed he could take the ‘complete’ Handel’s Messiah, he had already absorbed the expectations of the listening formation that emerged in tandem with the LP.

Interestingly, then, just over 10 years into its more than 70-year run, the listening formation underpinning DID underwent a fundamental discomorphosis that rendered the original programme idea obsolete. The conjuncture in which DID emerged is not the one that has defined the programme for most of its history. Yet the format of the show did not change to match the new recording format, or the musical culture that emerged alongside it. For most of its existence, DID—its structure and its pleasure—has been defined by a technological, discomorphic anachronism. It has almost always been ‘somewhat quaint to modern eyes’, as Magee says. Nothing better illustrates this anachronism than when guests choose recording formats and luxury items that strain the original premise of the programme.

4. The iPod

The transistor radio is the device that has been most commonly chosen to cheat the desert island’s musical scenario. About 50 guests have asked to bring a portable radio of some sort (whether powered by batteries, muscles, or the sun) so that (p.76) they may listen to more music than can be stored on their eight discs. The radio represents an undeniably significant part of musical culture and everyday life in Britain and beyond: it is perhaps ‘the most significant twentieth-century mass medium’ (Frith 2003: 96). Indeed, radio broadcasting played a key role in redefining the possibilities of acoustic entertainment in the home. In the words of one early promotional manual, radio offered a ‘richer and more complete home-life, with mental stimulus and pleasant relaxation, [which] has been made possible through broadcasting and its receiving corollary, the radio telephone receiver’ (RCA 1922: 5).

Portability has been another defining feature of radio since the 1920s. In combination with headphones and early loudspeakers, listeners could bring their radio sets along to picnics and other outdoor leisure events. This particular listening formation was thus marked by new forms of domesticity, as well as mobility and engagement in the public sphere. What is at stake here is not just a ‘mobile and home-centered way of living’, which Raymond Williams (1992: 20) called ‘mobile privatisation’. Radio also participated in the creation of a simultaneously dispersed and localised means of constructing identity. As Susan Douglas (1999: 5) has written, ‘radio hastened the shift away from identifying oneself—and one’s social solidarity with others—on the basis of location and family ties, to identifying oneself on the basis of consumer and taste preferences’. The listener-turned-consumer, as a means of identification articulated through the technological mediation of sound, is thus found in radio too. Discomorphic issues that were translated into the radio era, especially those redefinitions of public and private acoustic space, as well as corresponding modes of listener identification, were taken up in new ways following the rise of boomboxes and portable cassette players from the late 1970s, which were accompanied by yo-yoing debates about the social benefits and detriments of these technologies. Such issues reached another boiling point with the introduction of the iPod and similar devices, which have been beset by endless and overblown discourses that have tended to view the technology either positively, as a kind of deconstructive force that facilitates a more pleasant and agential experience of urban life, or negatively, as a destructive harbinger of an anti-social techno-dystopia (Everrett 2014). As noted above, Nick Hornby jokingly asked to take an iPod to the desert island as his luxury item, but underlying this joke (and Sue Lawley’s reaction to it) is a serious question about discomorphosis: new listening technologies and practices are typically met by a volatile mixture of wonder and scepticism that can expose some of our most firmly held but only implicitly understood beliefs about what music is and why it matters.

As far as I can tell, no guest has yet requested a subscription to a streaming service such as Spotify. But this kind of ‘clever’ castaway seems sure to arrive, given the increasing popularity of such services. When this happens, it will be indicative (p.77) of how the meanings that music has for its listeners—the ways they negotiate their senses of self and community through music, and display it through channels such as DID—continue to morph in tandem with music’s technological mediation and industrial bases. Granjon and Combes argue that the present moment is one of ‘digitamorphosis’, which can be distinguished from the earlier ‘discomorphosis’ due to the fact that information and communication technologies ‘are contributing to a more general access to cultural works, as well as to the wider diffusion and circulation of cultural content,’ thereby ‘triggering a reorganization of the practices of music lovers’ (2009: 287). The question, then, is what will happen to DID during an era in which listeners are presented with—and have the expectation of accessing—not just a few thousand songs on an iPod but ‘all the memory in the world, all the music in the world’ (Roy 2014).

This is not only an era of unprecedented access to and choice of music libraries. It is also a time when the music we listen to is chosen for us, or at least suggested to us, by recommendation algorithms and other ‘infomediaries’ (Morris 2015). Such a listening formation is one in which, as Lee Marshall (2014) suggests, what it means to collect music is changing—and, therefore, it is a formation in which what it means to define oneself through music is also changing. Does this mean that Lawley’s question—‘What’s the point of eight desert island discs?’—becomes more pressing in the co-definition of auditor and technology that marks the present discomorphic moment? Not necessarily. As I have argued, it has always, in a sense, been the pleasure of anachronism that has defined our interest in the process of selecting eight desert island discs. It is possible, then, that in an era defined by unprecedented access to music, the foundational material anachronism of DID does not undermine the programme but actually enhances our enjoyment of it.

Yet it would be too simple to suggest any smooth or continuous transition from one format to the next. The increasing tendency to listen to music as a digital file is counterbalanced, to a degree, by nostalgic forms of attachment that drive the widely reported vinyl revival and the cassette renaissance. As Raphaël Nowak (2014: 150) has written, ‘the reception of music is currently characterised by a multiplication and coexistence of various music artefacts that all possess their own features and characteristic forms of appeal for listeners. The outcome of the heterogeneous state of music consumption lies in the interconnectedness of music technologies and their subsequent redefinition.’ The contemporary listening formation is thus defined by a variety of formats and practices that are collocated but not necessarily integrated with a variety of attendant ways of acquiring, hearing, accessing, collecting music—and therefore also a variety of ways of defining oneself through music. It is possible that we are not witnessing a progressive history of discrete discomorphic moments and discographic selves being replaced, one after the other, as the literature on discomorphosis and digitamorphosis might (p.78) suggest.13 Instead, we may be witnessing an ongoing multiplication of discomorphic possibilities—the creation of a musical ‘multiverse’ (cf. Savage & Gayo 2011; Born & Devine 2015). As long as it is on the air, DID will continue to be a significant barometer of such changes.

5. Conclusion

This chapter considers DID as a sign of, and agent in, 70 years of change in the material cultures of music. It does so particularly in relation to the ongoing study of musical self-presentation and taste cultures—discographic imaginations—as they take discomorphic shape in relation to the material affordances of changing recording formats, and cohere as listening formations. There is more work to do. But I want to end on a different, reflexive note. It is possible to think of DID not only in relation to issues in our contemporary listening formation—iPods, file formats, infomediaries—or the changes in radio technology and radio formatting that equally underwrite the show’s history and current state. It is also necessary to consider the digitalisation of the DID archive itself, and its online presence via the BBC, iTunes, and other sources.

Ending on this note is not just a coincidence. As Mark Andrejevic, Alison Hearn, and Helen Kennedy (2015: 380) have suggested, there are resonances between the broad ‘material turn’ outlined here, on the one hand, and ‘databases and data processing practices’, on the other:

[R]ecent forms of social and cultural theory mirror developments in big data analytics: new materialism, object-oriented ontology, post-humanism and new medium theory … de-centre the human and her attendant political and cultural concerns in favour of a ‘flat’ ontology wherein humans are but one node, and perhaps not the most important, in complex networks of interactions and assemblages. Thus, analysis of the circulation of affects and effects rather than of meanings, content or representations, connected as they are to human-centred forms of meaning-making, has become a dominant trope in some influential current approaches to media. Such analyses tend to fashion themselves as anti-discursive in their rejection of a focus on representation and cognition and their turn towards bodies and things in their materiality (rather than their signification).

(Andrejevic et al. 2015: 381–2)

(p.79) So, if DID is an archive of the changing role of music in the UK and beyond—if it portrays a public performance of identity and taste in relation to the macro-rhythms of material changes in musical formats—then it should also be an object of reflexive methodological consideration. The significance of such a perspective becomes clear in the present research climate where, as Laurie Cohen and Joanne Duberley (2013: 165) argue, ongoing cuts to scholarly funding require academics to find new ways of ‘doing more with less’. Indeed, Cohen and Duberley focus on DID as one such free, publically available archive. Yet their engagement with that archive is marked by limited methodological reflexivity. They do not, for example, address the potentially patchy character of accessing online episodes, a problem encountered acutely in the research for this chapter. What is more, their treatment of ‘the interview transcripts from DID as data for understanding careers’ (ibid.: 174) is based on the assumption that the programme straightforwardly ‘offers a public arena for [guests] to make sense of themselves; an opportunity to construct their identity through narrative in interaction with the interview and the wider audience’ (ibid.: 172). I have argued that such a perspective ignores crucial, co-productive shifts in the material bases of music that underwrite that public arena. Together, these points raise an important methodological issue, one that is compounded by the historical and material issues considered here. What kinds of data are in the online DID archive?

In this context, it is interesting that the archive elicits engagements that are similar to those in big data and the digital humanities more generally. One key approach is ‘distant reading’, which is less concerned with putting individual cultural artefacts under interpretive microscopes (the traditional ‘close-reading’ method of the humanities) and more so in gathering large amounts of data and observing macroscopic trends across time. In the words of Franco Moretti (2000), the architect of this method, ‘we know how to read texts, now let’s learn how not to read them’ (original emphasis). Distant reading can tell us that novel titles got shorter in 18th-century Britain; it can illustrate the rise and fall of certain sentence structures over long periods of time; it can compare divergences in, say, the emotional vocabularies of US and UK literature. Commentators take a similar pleasure in viewing the DID archive from a certain distance. An article in The Guardian (anon. 2012) notes that 183 guests wanted a piano as their luxury item, while only one wished for bagpipes (‘to the undoubted consternation of the island wildlife’). Forty-one guests named the Encyclopaedia Britannica as their choice reading material; 43 took War and Peace. And while the Beatles were named 252 times, only one guest took Tom Petty and nobody chose the Allman Brothers.14 Although such surveys certainly say something about music history, the challenge for future research will be to deploy these insights in concert with historical (p.80) considerations of the ontogeneses and phylogeneses of particular subject positions, and to understand how all these variables shift as co-constitutive functions of music’s material formats, set in particular listening formations.

Note. For helping me think through various aspects of this chapter, thanks to Tom Everrett, Tami Gadir, Paul Jasen, Nick Prior, Paul Théberge, and Alex Wetmore. I’m also grateful to Julie Brown for sharing her archival research.


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(1) Geraldine James (30 May 2004) and John Sutherland (22 January 2006) also selected an iPod as their luxury item.

(2) Discussing the broader material realities of the island has been an important part of the pleasure of the programme. Plomley often asked questions such as ‘How would you manage?’, ‘What would you eat?’, and ‘Would you do any fishing?’

(4) For good surveys of this trend and its precedents, see Brown 2001, Ingold 2012, and Jacoby 2015.

(5) Jonathan Sterne (2014: 121) offers a useful caution against an unreflexive sprint towards materiality: ‘before we go too far down the path of affirming our fatigue with constructivism and seek refreshment in the garden of materiality, it is worth pausing … to remember why scholars pursued constructivism in the first place. For as strongly as we may feel the call of materiality, it was not so long ago people felt the same way—and more strongly—about constructivism. A brief detour through intellectual history begins with an earlier generation of writers who turned to constructivism to solve epistemological problems caused by excessive commitments to positivism.’

(6) There have also been thoughtful pleas against ‘efforts to kill the text and dance on its grave’ (Fornäs 1999).

(7) The quote is from Olivier Messiaen (in Christiaens 2007: 54), though the idea can be traced back through figures such as Schopenhauer. For a discussion of the development and influence of ‘new’ musicology, and its tensions with certain approaches in the sociology of music, see Shepherd & Devine 2015.

(8) Earlier scholars such as Adorno also recognised this relationship.

(9) Hennion seems to be acknowledging a broader interest in social ‘morphology’ that is found in the work of Durkheim, Mauss, Simmel, Benjamin, Elias, and others.

(10) See the related idea of mediamorphosis, articulated independently by Blaukopf 1994 and Fidler 1997.

(11) For a related discussion of social and cultural dimensions of visual experience, see Bourdieu 1996.

(12) Technically, the programme had a 30-minute ‘slot’, which meant 27–8 minutes of actual on-air time.

(13) Granjon and Combes do argue that digitamorphosis involves something more than a simply shift in format, and in this way they seem committed to the idea of an epochal shift: ‘À l’évidence, il n’est pas possible de résumer les mutations engendrées par la numérimorphose à une simple modification de formats (e.g. le passage du disque au MP3). Les changements observés relèvent à la fois de l’explosion des cadres stabilisés de la discomorphose mais aussi d’une importante multiplication des modalités de consommation liées à la multiplicité des prothèses technologiques mobilisées’ (2009: 289).

(14) These figures are valid up to 2012, when the following sources were published: anon. 2012, Symons 2012: 4.