Spectral Memories: the Aesthetics of the Phonographic Recording


Dugal McKinnon


[It is] in the phonograph record as a thing that its potential significance—and also its aesthetic significance—resides

Adorno, 'The Form of the Phonograph Record'

This paper is an attempt to divine a medium's message, that medium being the phonographic recording, primarily but not only in the form of the record. There are, of course, a plethora of excellent studies of recording and the record, but these have tended to examine the effect of recording on music (the work of Michael Chanan, Mike Katz and others), the cultural meanings and practices associated with recorded music (the seminal essays that form Eisenberg's The Recording Angel), or the wider sociocultural history of sound technologies (Stern's Audible Past for example). What remains less explored are the aesthetics of the record itself: how is the record, as a technology with a well-documented history, also a signifying medium that has generated certain meanings, and modes of aesthetic production and reception? Adorno's suggestive but scant writings on the relationship between music and the phonograph come closest to initiating such a project. So, Adorno-like, it is with the thingness of the record that I'll begin, initiating a series of epigrams linked by a somewhat associational chain of thought.

Time-binding. The sound recording did what no medium had done before: it captured and preserved the flow of time, turning sounding-flow into a virtual object, creating a river which can—contrary to the words of Heroclitus—be stepped into twice. The recording can thus be described as a time-binding medium (Innis in Peters, 2004, p.138). In contrast to that other great 19thC invention, the photograph, which preserves a point in time, the phonographic record allows the revisitation of a time-stream, rather than the sequence of stills which create the illusion of continuous time in the tellingly misnamed moving image. Despite this significant difference, all three media produce permanence from evanescence, reifying fugitive experience and turning it into a thing in the form of a print, a reel of film, a wax cylinder, a shellac disc. Adorno, again: 'evanescence and recollection… has become tangible and manifest through the gramophone recording' (1934/2002, p.279).

The Intractable Recording. It is perhaps a measure of the extent to which recording has been naturalised that we're disinclined to reflect on the ontology of recorded sound: yet it is worth denaturing. Reading the recording through the lens of the photograph's ontology tells us much in this regard. Of the photograph, Barthes writes that its referent is 'not the optionally real thing to which an image or a sign refers but the necessarily real thing which has been placed before the lens, without which there would be no photograph… in Photography, I can never deny that the thing has been there' (1980/2000, p.76). Prior to our digitally over-equipped era, which has given rise to a maelstrom of ontologically nebulous sound objects, the same was true of phonography: in order to be transduced and inscribed onto the surface of a rotating disc or cylinder, the subject had to be acoustically, which is to say physically, present as a sounding body before the ear of the phonographic recorder. Barthes considers this necessary constraint to be 'the very essence… of Photography', the name of this essence being '"That has been," or… the Intractable' (p.77). Although he seems inclined to reserve it for photography alone, it strikes me that phonography—up to a certain point in sound history—can be defined by this same essence: the intractable fact that Edison was there, speaking, is the one undeniable fact of the following.


Audio Thomas Edison (1927). 'Mary had a little lamb'.


The Veridical. Edison wrote of the phonograph that it made possible 'the captivity of all manner of sound waves heretofore designated as "fugitive", and their permanent retention' (1878, p.530). Here at the dawn of recorded sound, an explicit contrast is made between the essence of sound as "'fugitive"' and recorded sound as 'permanent'. With permanence comes what Barthes' calls the intractable and with this in turn comes a tendency to read the phonographic recording as a veridical document, an empirical record of past reality, thus emanating an aura of truth-value. (As the saying goes, 'It is a matter of record that… ') We should not confuse the aura of truth for truth itself, or put in another way, an image of reality for reality; nonetheless, this aura has a certain gravity, particularly for genres of sound art which have truck with the real. Soundscape, for example, relies on the listener's willingness to accept the recording as veridical: to accept the aesthetic parameters of soundscape is to agree to listen for the real, even when the soundscape is clearly composed of fragments—a pseudo-document as Michael Dellaira put it (1995, p.195).


Audio Chris Watson (2003). Ol-Olool-O, 1:40-2:10.


In listening veridically, it could be said that we listen pragmatically – this pragmatism understood in the philosophic sense: we agree, commonsensically, that what we hear had to have happened in order for us to hear its reproduction. It is this sense of the real that underpins Barthes' that-has-been.

Voice and Verity. The tendency to interpret sound as veridical is nowhere more evident than in recordings of the human voice. Such a reading, it seems to me, is encouraged when a vocal recording has one of two qualities: either it is technologically transparent, as if the voice were there, right before our ears (like the face before the eye of the camera); or, it is technologically opaque in such a way as to provide technological proof of the voice as real (the bandwidth reduction of a dictaphone, the bit-depth reduction of a digital answering machine). In both instances, it seems our belief holds that the recorder, like the camera, never lies: the overt absence or presence of machine and medium functioning as sworn oath. It should here be observed that this is not a matter of fealty as both transparency and opacity carry the connotation of veracity. The following examples demonstrate the infidelity of phonographic veracity.

Firstly, there is Sleep Exposure (1979), by New Zealander John Cousins. This anecdotal work begins in the present tense as Cousins, close miked in a dry ambience, describes his dream of his grandfather, Pop. This is followed by a shift to a resonant acoustic environment in which Cousin's voice is distant and embedded in a gently percolating texture of disjointed speech-fragments and ambiguous pitched sounds.


Audio John Cousins (1979). Sleep Exposure, 1:41-2:15.


Here it could be said that the technological opacity of the second part of this excerpt (which evidences transformation via reverb, editing, etc) connotes the voice as unconscious, irrational, emotional—a zone of the psyche in Doyle's words (2005, p.17)—an inner voice within the reverberant theatre of memory: the medium of the dream and anything but empirical. By contrast, the first part of the excerpt is technologically transparent—Cousins is heard as if he were speaking before our ears. Here, close miking and the absence of an ambient context connotes 'an emanation of past reality' (1980/2000, p.88) and by extension, the connotation of rational consciousness, of verity. By contrast, in popular music technological opacity is often used to connote veracity. Here I have in mind the familiar trick of simulating bit-depth or band-width reduction on a vocal recording as if to signify 'this happened' because ushc processes make a recording sound as if it originates from a documentary technology such as an answering machine, or from the paradoxically immediate but mediated technology of telephony.

Authenticity and the "Real". It is well known that the veridical nature of the recording was almost immediately seized upon by musicians and others of an ethnographic bent who heard in the recording a means to preserve and access musical truth: Frederico García Lorca, 'it is not possible to copy down [folk] songs on music paper; it is necessary to collect them with a gramophone so as not to lose that inexpressible element in which more than anything their beauty lies' (in Chanan, 1985, p.11). Lorca's comment suggests that at best transcription is transformative, at worst corruptive, and always incapable of capturing the essence of its subject. In contemporary parlance, what's lost is Simon Frith's version of authenticity, the element that 'keeps it real'. For sound artists and composers who deal in the real, the simplest way around this impasse has been to incorporate the recording into the work, thereby supplementing artifice with the authenticity of the (veridical) recording.

A number of examples suggest themselves, but for me Berio's Naturale is particularly interesting because it does not seek to establish an entirely homophonous or harmonious relationship between the composed and the recorded. Rather, the poignancy of Naturale derives from the distance it sets up between artifice (the instrumental writing) and recorded reality (the human voice), a distance traversed only when the voice's colours suffuse and warm the instrumental parts. In this way, the recording is framed as the wellspring of the work's discourse, granting Naturale the air of artlessness.


Audio Luciano Berio (1985). Naturale, 4:10-4:53. (see discography)


The Analytical Recording. The connection between the veridical recording and the search for music authenticity, for essence or truth, suggests another interpretation of the recording. Closed-miked recordings, revealing a surfeit of sonic detail, are often termed analytical recordings. This description understands analysis in an empirical sense, rather than a psychoanalytic one. But the latter reading is worth pursuit and not only because psychoanalysts have been known to record the "conversations" they have with patients/clients. Walter Benjamin, for example, links technologies such as photography and sound recording to Freud's psychoanalytical work. 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' is the source that's usually quoted, but Benjamin's 'A Small History of Photography' (1931/1985) makes the point more concisely: 'It is through photography that we first discover the existence of [the] optical unconscious, just as we discover the instinctual unconscious through psychoanalysis' (p.243). This suggests that the analytical recording tells us more than we may care to know, especially when we are listening to ourselves; the machine, after all, is unforgiving, incapable of adapting its superhuman power of exact recollection to suit the foibles of human subjectivity. As Beckett has Krapp say, 'Just been listening to that stupid bastard I took myself for thirty years ago, hard to believe I was ever as bad as that' (1957, 24). No wonder that we tend to choose not to listen to ourselves but to surrogates capable of providing us with a flattering likeness of ourselves. In Adorno's words, 'What the gramophone listener actually wants to hear is himself, and the artist merely offers him a substitute for the sounding image of his own person... Most of the time records are virtual photographs of their owners…' (1927/2002, p.274).

There a number of sound works which explore this frisson engendered by the clash between human subjectivity and machinic objectivity. A good example, again from John Cousins, is Tense Test (1986), which explores the paranoia provoking properties of the sound recording, replete with psychoanalytical overtones. The piece cuts between two elements: Cousins interviewing himself in an attempt to get to the communicative heart of a recorded interview, the second element, between himself and a journalist. At first, the reflexive interview reads objectively—as rational and distanced analysis of the recorded interview. But as the piece progresses, this aura of objectivity is fogged: Cousins' and his doubles, as well as the listener, become increasingly confused as to what was objectively "then" and what is subjectively "now". The result being that the truth promised by the apparent objectivity of the reflexive interview retreats in response to the increasing subjectivity of Cousins' (plural) interpretative efforts: the recording, which parrots but cannot talk or think, becomes a hall of sonic mirrors, refracting into noise, losing Cousins' and listeners in a hermeneutic imbroglio.


Audio John Cousins (1986). Tense Test, 5:57-7:47.


Pets and Phonographs. My reading of Tense Test suggests the recording to be dumb but not mute: the recording is a component in talking machine that speaks but does no more. In this sense, my earlier description of the recording as an object that parrots is not just a turn of phrase. The recording can, literally, do no more than parrot what it is directed to hear. However, if what Adorno says is true, that is, that listeners expect recordings to be flattering portraits of themselves, then this parroting articulates a very personal relationship between listener and the recording. As such, it may seem (in fact it should seem) that the recording is speaking to me, the listener, as if it knows my innermost needs and is able to respond to these. For Adorno, such a mode of listening was representative of a growing inability on the part of listeners to approach music objectively, to listen to music for what it is, rather than what the listener wants from it. But in an age of mass consumption, the dual orbit of subjectivity and objectivity around the record, or indeed around any consumer object, has become a profound matter. It could be said that objects are now auratic by dint of their owners' relationship to them, rather than because of their singular uniqueness and location within a particular culture and history. I don't want to get sidetracked by cultural politics, so let me steer this back in the direction of sound art. If the recording is a parrot of sorts and also the object of a very personal, perhaps even needy relationship, then it might be said that the recording can be regarded as a kind of pet: both subject and object, neither entirely autonomous as a being nor entirely emasculated as an object. A featherbrained metaphor perhaps, but one which is clearly visible in the relationship between Nipper and His Master's Voice (Fig.1, below), and one also borne out in Ages Ago, by Australian sound artist Sherry DeLys. In this radiophonic work, DeLys explores the relationship she has to certain objects, objects which hold a special meaning for her, but which are undeniably kitsch, such as a liqueur bottle that miraculates a bouquet of cigarettes when you take the lid off. What strikes me as interesting about this in relation to phonography is threefold: firstly, that DeLys' exploration of her fascination for such objects is set within the context of time's passing. Like the photograph and the recording, DeLys' objects are symbols of that-has-been and thus the narrative of the work is concerned with what was; secondly, her relationship to objects is a profoundly personal, which is to say arcane, one. As we'll hear her quote, her attachment to things 'was always for reasons which other people didn't grasp' (isn't musical taste often a very similar matter?); thirdly, and here's the point I really want to make, her companion in this nostalgic exploration is a parrot. It's tempting to dismiss this as a novelty, even if one appropriate to the piece, but in fact the presence of a parrot functions as mise-en-abyme, a heraldic summation of De Lys' relationship to objects in Ages Ago. The parrot, like the recording, is a kind of prosthetic ego, an extension of the self into another form, which as a thing is both independent of and conjoined with its owner. The parrot is not another person and one's relationship to a parrot is thus not properly interpersonal, but within De Lys' world it seems that the parrot acts as a surrogate for relationships to other people, as pets often do. Furthermore, De Lys' relationship to her pet is paralleled by her relationship to field recordings, documents of her past. If her parrot has become people, then recordings have become her world, surrogates for actually being in the world, and are precious as a record of a being in the world which Ages Ago intimates she no longer wishes to experience directly.


Audio Sherry De Lys, Ages Ago. 0:00-4:10.


Fig. 1. Nipper and His Master's Voice


Music's Doubles. In thinking of the recording as an extension of the listener's ego in sonic form, there's another path that we might follow, the gate to which was, again, put in place by Adorno.

The turntable of the talking machine is comparable to the potter's wheel: a Ton-masse [tone-mass] is formed upon them both… the finished tone/clay container that is produced in this manner remains empty. It is filled only by the hearer (1927/2002, p.274)

The point of this passage relies on the double meaning of the German Ton, signifying both clay and sound or tone. The polyvalence of clay/sound is interesting, for it suggests that the sonic vessel spun on the wheel of the turntable is essentially contentless until heard; content in this sense, is something that listeners make in audile relationship to the record. Like a clay vessel, the sonic vessel is pure form, empty, until filled by its user. To take this further, the vacancy of the Ton-Masse suggests a link to another empty clay vessel, the golem. In appearance, the golem is a real person, yet lacks the essential human features of personality and intellect. Like Adam, a golem is created from clay, and is given life through a kabbalistic process using God's special name. The golem is given life to perform some kind of mission or errand. Once this is done, the name of God is removed from him and he is returned to the earth.

That the golem lacks personality or intellect is interesting enough, as a direct parallel of Adorno's notion of the recording as an empty mass of Ton, of sound/clay: recorded music is golem-like without a listener to make something human, something meaningful, of it. Moreover, the metaphor of the record as golem also articulates the opinion, often expressed of recorded music, that it isn't real music; a recording is but a surrogate, a stand-in, a golem, in comparison to the living music that has been captured in the grooves of the record. When music is performed, it feels and thinks via the performer, but when a performance is recorded, the process of recording cryogenically freezes this intelligence. The listener is needed to meaningfully reanimate the music (though, worryingly for Adorno, there is no guarantee of the listener's ability to do so). In this we hit upon another aspect of the modern golem myth: the golem was created to defend Jews, but turns against his makers and thus must be speedily returned to the earth. Recording, as a kind of golem, is similarly feared because although it may defend music against the evanescence of sound, it also poses a threat to living music. Let loose upon the world, the recording may, innocently, undo its makers, undo the real music it preserves, replacing it with simulations that will, eventually, stifle music as a living, feeling, thinking, human phenomenon. John Philip Sousa's well-known reaction to the invention of the phonograph articulate exactly this fear: 'The time is coming when no one will be ready to submit himself to the ennobling discipline of learning music… Everyone will have their ready made or ready pirated music in their cupboards' (in Ross, 2005). For those of us who spend our time perfecting golems, such comments appear rather quaint, but there is something in them, at least where they concern music made in real-time, as the living now of a long tradition:

A peasant living in the remotest part of the bush listens to the radio every day and hears every kind of music except his own. So invasive, so insistent is this music that it becomes what his children listen to, replacing their own music (Randrianary, 2005)

Doubles and Others. Randrianary's quote (above) suggests that the concept of the recording as a double can be a very negative one; it shows recorded music to be a force for unprecedented cultural change when it comes into contact with cultures for which the music disseminated by the recording or broadcast is entirely other. For better or worse, this is a consequence of recording: once recorded, sound and music take on a life potentially independent of the context in which the recording was made. This may entail phonographic and radiophonic forms of cultural imperialism, the kind of thing Randrianary is pointing towards, or various forms cultural appropriation that may or may be not be ethical in nature (the most infamous being Deep Forest's unsanctioned sampling of a Taiwanese folk singer). Edison, ever prescient, anticipated that appropriative power of the phonograph. In the following statement, Edison seems not to be particularly concerned with the ethical consequences of recording; rather, his attitude is non-ethical, as if what would now be regarded a breach of human rights is simply a fait accompli:

Essential features of the phonograph…
5. The captivation of sounds with or without the knowledge or consent of their source of origin (1878, p.530)

I'll return to the subject of phonographic ethics shortly, but for the meantime I wish to pursue the ways in which the recording creates doubles, which – golem-like – become in various ways autonomous to their origins, their makers and masters. This independence can be regarded as productive of forms of otherness, in which the separation of sound from source generates others, doubles that assume forms, or allow the creation of forms, often very different to the original (remixes and mash-ups are a good examples). The other, as typically cast within cultural theory, is an entity – a culture, group, person – which is in some ways very similar to the self, but also significantly different to it, to the extent that the other is – stereotypically – perceived of either as a potential threat to the self (in which case the other is usually imagined as male), or, as highly desirable (in which case the other is usually cast as female).

The concept of the other connects to another trope associated with music, particularly in the 19thC, that of music's power to undo the self, to transform self into other. Take the following, from Tolstoy's The Kreutzer Sonata, as a representative statement: ''Music causes me to forget myself and my true state; it transports me to another state that is not my own' (in Kramer, p.56). To draw together music's transcendental and transformative power and the notion of otherness, it might be said that music has the power of othering – music can turn the listener into somebody (or something) else. To connect this to recording, it can also be said that in separating sound from source, recording implies an othering: evanescent sound event becomes something fundamentally other than what it truly is when it is recorded and made permanent as a sound object. Such othering is acutely transformative when the technology itself is unstable or unreliable: the wind-up phonograph is just such an instance of an unstable technology. As Adorno (1927/2002, p.275) observed some eight decades ago:

With the advent of the gramophone, absolute pitch runs into difficulties. It is almost impossible to guess the actual pitch if it deviates from the original one. In that case, the original pitch becomes confused with that of phonographic reproduction

In the terms I was using earlier, Adorno's statement suggests that the phonographic other may transform the original, the self if you like, to the extent that the other altogether displaces the self. Where a recording features the human voice, such othering involves gender transformation, male pitching towards female and vice versa due the effect on pitch of playback that is too fast or too slow. With the advent of recording then, Tolstoy's transport 'to another state that is not [his] own', is a form of unmanning. To return to the subject of ethics, whether or not one wants to be unmanned (or unwomanned) is another question, one that, if Edison's non-ethical stance is adopted, does not need to be answered. Indeed, such a combination of ethical disregard and transgender detournement might be regarded as an ontological consequence of recording, a conclusion that may well have informed the production of this notorious gem, the gender and identity politics of which are complex indeed.


Audio John Oswald. 'Dolly Parton – Pretender'. (see discography)


The Spectral Recording. I've traced a path that has taken us some distance from the analytical recording. I'd now like to return to this psychoanalytic starting point in order to follow a related line: the uncanny. Gender transformation is certainly an instance of the uncanny, but I'm not going to pursue this subject here. Rather, I'd like to return to an earlier, Barthesian, point: that the recording can be considered an emanation of the real. Barthes apologises for the banality of this observation, but also holds that its consequences are significant. It elucidates, for example, the fin de siecle tendency to regard the phonograph as a transcendental medium. Some examples, by way of illustration: 'Death has lost some of its sting since we are forever able to retain the voices of the dead'; 'phantasms of the living,' a phrase used in the late 19thC by Frederic Myers of the British Society for Psychical Research to describe the apparitions proliferating through newly invented communication technologies; more recently, Friedrich Kittler has written that 'The spirit-world is as large as the storage and transmission possibilities of a civilisation' (all in Peters, pp.139-144). The talking dead, phantasms, spirits: emanations of the real, but not the real. The uncanny, in other words. Barthes' notion of the photographic spectrum explains this phenomenon: '[Spectrum] retains, through its root, a relation to "spectacle" and adds to it that rather terrible thing which is there in every photograph: the return of the dead' (p.9). Likewise, in the recording, sound spectra are preserved so as to allow departed but audible presences to emerge from black boxes: spectres from spectra.

For these apparitions to be understood as spectres (as ghosts), it is necessary that we allow a degree of the uncanny into our reception of them: what we hear must be recognisable yet unfamiliar, known yet strange, a thing but not the thing itself. By extension, we might say that phonography makes the most of its medium when the ostranenie (Shlovsky, 1917), the estrangedness, of recorded sound is embraced. The spookiness of this is something that listeners have grown accustomed to in over a century of recorded sound. Yet it still provides an essential backdrop to phonographic practices. Acousmatic music, for example, is predicated on sound without sounding bodies. This is not simply to say that acousmatic music, like all recorded music, is "by nature" estranged (or schizophonic), but rather, that acousmatic practioners have made a fetish of the schizophonic nature of sound recording. At best, this is an intensely poetic practice, revelling in the possibilities for intimation, suggestion, allusion, that inhere in a mono-sensory medium. At worst, it is a practice, which (indecently) leaves no room for the imagination but rather presents a succession of unambiguous images or forceful materialities. This tension between the concrete and the abstract, intimation and overstatement, is a difficult one for sound artists to negotiate: when to hide, when to reveal? When to state, when to intimate? Yannis Kyriakides' Wordless (2004) opts exclusively for the latter, and as such its success depends on the listener's willingness to enjoy intimation and the ever-receding goal of revelation: the referent, the human voice, is only ever heard as an absence, a sonic negative.


Audio Yannis Kyriakides (2004). "Pensioner_0496", 00:00-0:45, from Wordless.


Spectres and Affect. The spectral nature of recording also inheres in phonographic practices that are as much concerned with sound semantics as they are with sound for sound's sake. I'm thinking of the way in which presence in absence, the phonographic sign as a pointer to Barthes' that-has-been, grants phonography a certain native ability: that of creating affect which emerges from distance and separation; nostalgia and melancholy being the most obvious of these (Naturale is an excellent example in this regard). To illustrate, the musical style of the following excerpt from Cousins' Sleep Exposure clearly indicates the recording's bygone-ness (it is Bing Crosby's 1947 recording of 'The Whiffenpoof Song'); this connotation is heightened by surface noise from the record. The evocation of nostalgia would be inevitable, were it not for the preceding stabs of noise from the needle in a locked groove: these point to a darker territory, signifying an incursion across the border from nostalgia to melancholy.


Audio John Cousins (1979). Sleep Exposure, 3:38-4:01.


Remove the torment from melancholy and the feeling becomes, perhaps, nostalgia. The word is a translation of the German Heimweh (homesickness), indicating a longing for something that exists at a spatiotemporal distance, which is to say, exists in the mind as a memory. There has long been an association between the record and nostalgia, via the Freudian notion of the recording as a form of prosthetic memory. For the recording to engender nostalgia, presumably it must house music which itself no longer has a home. In this way, a particular recording may become a metonym, a stand-in, for a time and place that is no more. But it is not just the recording, as a cultural object, which generates nostalgia: the record itself also signifies nostalgia when it shows signs of age—crackling and hissing as indices of phonographic senescence. This aesthetic phenomenon is widespread enough not to warrant further comment, but by way of a final example, it is interesting to observe that surface noise, or its surrogates, are often the analogue of photographic soft focus: the haze around the sound figure signifying, in a mellow tone, that-has-been.


Audio Yves Daoust (1989). Suite Baroque: L'extase, 3:00-3:28.


Coda. There are many other ways in which the phonographic record, as a signifying medium, can be interpreted: reading the record as a body, its senescence is a form of aging, a physical process resulting in transformations and accumulations of meaning (exemplified by Christian Marclay's Record without a cover, 1985). Taken further, this bodily reading suggests the degrading action of the stylus to be a wounding, transduction becoming incision, and the resulting noise a scream (the music of the medium, perhaps?); read as mind, the schizophonia of recording can be understood as a form of madness; read as writing, the recording can be understood to grant ephemeral sound the sovereign permanence of the score. This present paper has, I hope, provided some orientation as to the directions in which these and many other lines of interpretation, concerning aspects of phonography that I've not even touched upon, might be pursued.



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(1934). The Form of the Phonograph Record. Op. cit..

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Dugal McKinnon is a sonic artist, composer and writer on music. His recent work includes the soundtrack to Spacebaby – a short film by London Fieldworks (UK), the multichannel sound installation Geophony which sonifies realtime seismic data, and Strane e sconosciute vie composed for the Orpheus 400 compilation (DEGEM, Germany). Dugal is the Director of the Electroacoustic Studios at the New Zealand School of Music, where he also teaches sonic art, composition and the history and theory of electronic music.











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