June 2, 2005

NewYorker: Technology & Music [10:29 am]

The Record Effect: How technology has transformed the sound of music [pdf] — reviews of some new reading for the summer - Mark Katz’s Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music (California), Colin Symes’s Setting the Record Straight: A Material History of Classical Recording (Wesleyan), and Robert Philip’s Performing Music in the Age of Recording (Yale) — to accompany Sterne’s The Audible Past on my bookshelves;

[...] I want to be aware of technology’s effects, positive and negative. For music to remain vital, recordings have to exist in balance with live performance, and, these days, live performance is by far the smaller part of the equation. Perhaps we tell ourselves that we listen to CDs in order to get to know the music better, or to supplement what we get from concerts and shows. But, honestly, a lot of us don’t go to hear live music that often. Work leaves us depleted. Tickets are too expensive. Concert halls are stultifying. Rock clubs are full of kids who make us feel ancient. It’s just so much easier to curl up in the comfy chair with a Beethoven quartet or Billie Holiday. But would Beethoven or Billie ever have existed if people had always listened to music the way we listen now?

[...] The principal irony of phonograph history is that the machine was not invented with music in mind. Edison conceived of his cylinder as a tool for business communication: it would replace the costly, imperfect practice of stenography, and would have the added virtue of preserving in perpetuity the voices of the deceased. In an 1878 essay, Edison (or his ghostwriter) proclaimed portentously that his invention would “annihilate time and space, and bottle up for posterity the mere utterance of man.” Annihilation is, of course, an ambiguous figure of speech. Recording broke down barriers between cultures, but it also placed more archaic musical forms in danger of extinction. In the early years of the century, Béla Bartók, Zoltán Kodály, and Percy Grainger used phonographs to preserve the voices of elderly folksingers whose timeless ways were being stamped out by the advance of modern life. And what was helping to stamp them out? The phonograph, with its international hit tunes and standardized popular dances.

[...] Like Heisenberg’s mythical observer, the phonograph was never a mere recorder of events: it changed how people sang and played. Katz, in a major contribution to the lingo, calls these changes “phonograph effects.” (The phrase comes from the digital studio, where it is used to describe the crackling, scratching noises that are sometimes added to pop-music tracks to lend them an appealingly antique air.) Katz devotes one striking chapter to a fundamental change in violin technique that took place in the early twentieth century. [...]

In 1964, Glenn Gould made a famous decision to renounce live performance. In an essay published two years later, “The Prospects of Recording,” he predicted that the concert would eventually die out, to be replaced by a purely electronic music culture. He may still be proved right. For now, live performance clings to life, and, in tandem, the classical-music tradition that could hardly exist without it. As the years go by, Gould’s line of argument, which served to explain his decision to abandon the concert stage, seems ever more misguided and dangerous. Gould praised recordings for their vast archival possibilities, for their ability to supply on demand a bassoon sonata by Hindemith or a motet by Buxtehude. He gloried in the extraordinary interpretive control that studio conditions allowed him. He took it for granted that the taste for Buxtehude motets or for surprising new approaches to Bach could survive the death of the concert–that somehow new electronic avenues could be found to spread the word about old and unusual music. Gould’s thesis is annulled by cold statistics: classical-record sales have plunged, while concert attendance is anxiously holding steady. Ironically, Gould himself remains, posthumously, one of the last blockbuster classical recording artists: Sony Classical’s recent rerelease of his two interpretations of Bach’s Goldberg Variations sold two hundred thousand copies. That’s surely not what Gould had in mind for the future of the medium.

A few months after Gould published his essay, the Beatles, in a presumably unrelated development, played their last live show, in San Francisco. They spent the rest of their short career working in the recording studio. They proved, as did Gould, that the studio breeds startlingly original ideas; they also proved, as did Gould, that it breeds a certain kind of madness.

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