How technology has transformed the sound of music.
. . . . . . . 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. . . . . .
. . . . . . With the arrival of magnetic tape, the relationship between performer and medium became ever more complex. German engineers perfected the magnetic tape recorder, or Magnetophon, during the Second World War. Late one night, an audio expert turned serviceman named Jack Mullin was monitoring German radio when he noticed that an overnight orchestral broadcast was astonishingly clear: it sounded “live,” yet not even at Hitler’s whim could the orchestra have been playing Bruckner in the middle of the night. After the war was over, Mullin tracked down a Magnetophon and brought it to America. He demonstrated it to Bing Crosby, who used it to tape his broadcasts in advance. Crosby was a pioneer of perhaps the most famous of all technological effects, the croon. Magnetic tape meant that Bing could practically whisper into the microphone and still be heard across America; a marked drop-off in surface noise meant that vocal murmurs could register as vividly as Louis Armstrong’s pealing trumpet.
Magnetic tape also meant that performers could invent their own reality in the studio. Errors could be corrected by splicing together bits of different takes. In the sixties, the Beatles and the Beach Boys, following in the wake of electronic compositions by Cage and Stockhausen, began constructing intricate studio soundscapes that they never could have replicated onstage; even Glenn Gould would have had trouble executing the mechanically accelerated keyboard solo in “In My Life.” The great rock debate about authenticity began. Were the Beatles pushing the art forward by reinventing it in the studio? Or were they losing touch with the earthy intelligence of folk, blues, and rock traditions? Bob Dylan stood at a craggy opposite extreme, turning out records in a few days’ time and avoiding any vocal overdubs until “Blood on the Tracks,” the fourteenth record of his career. Yet frills-free, “lo-fi” recording has no special claim on musical truth; indeed, it easily becomes another phonograph effect, the effect of no effect. Even Dylan cannot escape the fictions of the medium, as he well knows: “I’m gazing out the window / Of the St. James Hotel / And I know no one can sing the blues / Like Blind Willie McTell.”
In the nineteen-eighties, as Dutch and Japanese engineers introduced digital recording in the CD format, the saga of the phonograph experienced a final twist. Katz, in the last chapters of his book, delights in following the winding path from Germany in the nineteen-twenties to the South Bronx in the nineteen-seventies, where the turntable became an instrument once again. D.j.s like Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash used turntables to create a hurtling collage of phonograph effects—loops, breaks, beats, scratches. The silently observing machine was shoved into the middle of the party. It was assumed at first that this recording-driven music could never be recorded itself: the art of the d.j. was all about fast moves over long duration, stamina and virtuosity combined. As Jeff Chang notes in his new book “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation” (St. Martin’s; $27.95), serious young d.j.s like Chuck D, on Long Island, laughed when a resourceful record company put out a rap novelty single called “Rapper’s Delight.” How could a single record do justice to those endless parties in the Bronx where, in a multimedia rage of beats, tunes, raps, dances, and spray-painted images, kids managed to forget for a while that their neighborhood had become a smoldering ruin? The record labels found a way, of course, and a monster industry was born. Nowadays, hip-hop fans are apt to claim that live shows are dead experiences, messy reënactments of pristine studio creations.
Recording has the unsettling power to transform any kind of music, no matter how unruly or how sublime, into a collectible object, which becomes décor for the lonely modern soul. It thrives on the buzz of the new, but it also breeds nostalgia, a state of melancholy remembrance and, with that, indifference to the present; you can start to feel nostalgic for the opening riff of a new favorite song even before you reach the end. Thomas Mann described the phonograph’s ambiguous enchantments in the “Fullness of Harmony” chapter of “The Magic Mountain,” published in 1924. When a deluxe gramophone arrives at the Berghof sanitarium, it sends mixed messages to the young man who operates it. At times it sings “a new word of love” (shades of Robert Johnson’s “Phonograph Blues”), at times it exudes “sympathy for death.” At the end of the novel, the hero goes marching toward an inferno of trench warfare, obliviously chanting the Schubert tune that the gramophone taught him. These days, he’d be rapping. . . . . .
. . . . . 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. I’ll take “Rubber Soul” over “Sgt. Pepper’s,” and Gould’s 1955 Goldbergs over his 1981 version, because the first recording in each pair is the more robust, the more generous, the more casually sublime. The fact that the Beatles broke up three years after they disappeared into the studio, and the fact that Gould died in strange psychic shape at the age of fifty, may tell us all we need to know about the seductions and sorrows of the art of recording.
from The New Yorker
Issue of 2005-06-06
THE RECORD EFFECT
by Alex Ross