Schizophonic Performance: What We Can Hear and When We Can See It

In 1969, R. Murray Schafer coined the term “schizophonia,” which refers to the splitting of a sound from its source by using recording technology.

For example, you hear a recording of a pig grunting, but you don’t see a pig. This is schizophonia. You might also hear a recording of a pig grunting as part of the Pink Floyd song “Pigs.” This would also be schizophonia, since the pig that grunted and the band members of Pink Floyd both remain out of sight in your listening context. When you consume music without being in the presence of the source that produced the sounds, you experience schizophonia.

But what if someone performs a live air guitar solo to pre-recorded music? The recorded music certainly appears schizophonic, since the original artists are far removed from this new context. Yet the performance feels “live,” in a way that seems to connect the sounds to a new source. (And, in many ways, “source” becomes quite relative.)

In her analysis of virtual virtuosity, Rock Band, and Guitar Hero, Kiri Miller puts forth the idea of “schizophonic performance,” which emerges from the co-occurrence of live music performance with pre-recorded sound. For example, when someone presses buttons on a controller in real time, the game plays sounds that have been pre-recorded and programmed into the game. She argues that these games threaten certain values associated with “live” and “recorded” performance elements [1].

Schizophonic performance obviously relates to air guitar, in which live performances animate pre-recorded music.

Let’s take it back, though, to some of the cultural origins of these schizophonic tendencies.

Greg Milner’s Perfecting Sound Forever pointed me to Thomas Edison’s “tone tests” in the early 20th Century. These “tests” were actually performances used to promote the New Edison phonograph (for sale at a price of about $250). Edison representatives would go to various cities and stage these performances to promote the machine. Here’s a description of a “tone test” from the Red Cloud Chief in Nebraska (2/28/1918):

Screenshot 2014-10-15 21.34.43

Sometimes, these testers would ask audience members to determine the source of the sounds, and, other times, the testers would simply allow the singer and recording to trade off. Here we can see a schizophonic sensibility emerging, where audience members had to actively discern the source of a certain sound. These “tone tests” were indeed spectacles—occasions of amazement and wonder [2]. According to the many newspaper reviews of these events, audience members delighted in the interplay between phonograph and performer, as they tried to determine the “real” source from the fake one.

Upon reading these accounts, though, I am left with one question: How did the recorded sounds seem so real? In other words, when I listen to old recordings, they sound so manufactured, with crackles, muffled tones, and uneven mixing. How did audience members find these so convincing?

Perhaps they had no basis for comparison—they had simply always taken for granted that, when you hear the sound of singing, a singer is most likely present. The New Edison appeared so magical that they had no way to comprehend its ability to “sing” without a singer.

But maybe a more complex explanation is more suitable: In promotions of the New Edison, advertisers made the case that the recording sounds just like reality. However, we might think about how these statements are simultaneously making a subtler claim: this recording is what reality sounds like. In other words, by saying that machines capture the sound of reality, these advertisers are forwarding certain claims about what reality sounds like in the first place [3].Screenshot 2014-10-15 22.15.17

In terms of our visual sense, we often see the things we’re looking for. With sound, the same is true. Just as we would be skeptical of a photograph that seems to offer an objective perspective, we should also be skeptical of the ability to record sound objectively—there are value-laden editorial decisions and technological limitations that make complete objectivity impossible (and ideologically problematic). When analyzing a photograph, we would want to know what might be outside of its frame, and we would also be critical of its gaze–of its mis-en-scene and arrangement of content within its boundaries.

Recordings, too, establish a “gaze” by directing us to hear certain things. Schizophonic recordings index both their source and their process of decontextualization—and, in doing so, they suggest a relationship between the two. For example, when we hear the crackle of a record in a Woody Guthrie mp3, we think of Woody as a source of that voice, and we also hear the record technology that has been remediated into mp3 form. To me, the crackle of the record suggests nostalgia and folk authenticity. Perhaps for some who used to listen to records before new formats emerged, this crackle had no sound, or, at least, it didn’t register consciously as a sound [4]. Yet time and new technologies have redefined what we hear as silence. This is obviously cultural, too. (A New Yorker’s notion of silence is certainly different from an Arkansans’.)

Therefore, it might be less useful to ask: Why didn’t the “tone test” listeners hear the terrible sound quality? And it might be more fruitful to ask: What conditions us, now, to hear the crackles in the recording? And what are we not hearing?


[1] Philip Auslander’s Liveness deconstructs some of the ontological distinctions made between “live” and “recorded” in useful ways.

[2] The above newspaper clipping is actually part of an advertisement, hence the boastful language. Other journalists reviewed these events in similar ways.

[3] Greg Milner makes some of these points, although he’s interesting in analyzing these technologies in terms of how they claimed to be better than reality or a form of heightened reality.

[4] This is also similar to “room tone” in digital storytelling. “Room tone” refers to a base level of noise that we tend to ignore, until we become conscious of it. Digital storytellers record “room tone” because, without it, an auditory segment appears too silent and too virtual. Room tone helps make digital stories sound like they are taking place in real places with real background/ambient noises.


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