Facing digital realities: Where media do not mix

14 Jun 2019

Wagner’s vaunted model of artistic synthesis persists in scholarly assessments of his work. But at its center, the composer argued that the media of voice and orchestra do not mix: they retain their identities as separate channels of sound that can neither duplicate nor substitute for one another. Taking as a starting point Wagner’s claims for the nonadaptability of media, this article addresses the adaptation of Wagner’s music to the modern digital technologies of HD cinema and video game. Drawing on a wide circle of writers, from Friedrich Schiller and Slavoj Žižek to Mihail Bahtin, Marc Augé, Jean Baudrillard and second-generation media theorists, it interrogates the concept of reality within live acoustic performance, both historically, as a discursive concept, and technologically, via the sensory realism of digital simulcasting and telepresence. The philosophical opposition of appearance and reality fails when reality is defined by the intimate simulation of a sensory event as it is registered on the body. And by contrasting the traditions of high fidelity in (classical) sound recording with that of rendering​ ​sound in cinema, the author suggests ways in which unmixable media appear to have an afterlife in modern technologies. This raises questions—in a post-Benjamin, post-McLuhan context—about our definition of liveness, the concept of authenticity within mediatized and acoustic sounds, and our vulnerability to the technological effects of media.