How music went on the record
As a new history of recording shows, the artistic implications of the process are vast and disturbing. Has it changed our musical universe for better or worse?
By Bayan Northcott
3 November 2000
When the celebrated 19th century pianist and conductor, Hans von Blow, first heard himself playing a Chopin mazurka on one of Edison's primitive cylinder phonographs, he is said to have fainted. As well he might, for the advent of sound recording was arguably the most radical development in the history of music since the invention of music printing, if not since the evolution of notation itself.
For the first time ever, it was possible to hear again a specific performance of a specific work, its every exact nuance (not to say, every mistake), a potentially unlimited number of times, and to reproduce it in a potentially unlimited number of copies. As at least a few musicians dimly realised from the start, the artistic, social, economic and even philosophical implications of the new technology were likely to prove vast, and not a little disturbing. And so it has turned out.
"A century of recording has changed the way we listen to music and the way music is performed as well as what we listen to to an extent we are only just beginning to grasp," remarks Timothy Day, curator of Western art music at the sound archive of the British Library, in his engrossing new survey, A Century of Recorded Music: Listening to Musical History. Yet, as he ruefully adds, "music historians, classically trained musicologists studying the concert traditions and opera and liturgical music of Western Europe, are reluctant to investigate discs and tapes and to study these phenomena."
No doubt part of that reluctance initially sprang from the primitive quality of early cylinders and discs. The evolution of recording, from Edison's first acoustic "talking machine" of 1877 to the arrival of electric recording in the mid-1920s, is pretty well-documented, but Day recounts it with many a vivid instance: tenors with heads plunged deep into recording horns; tiny studios heated to 90 degrees to keep wax discs soft and malleable; sublime masterpieces cut by two-thirds in order to fit on to three or four 78-rpm sides.
No wonder the alternative medium of the reproducing piano with its punched paper rolls held its own against the gramophone until the late 1920s. The real wonder is that at least a few musicians such as Elgar and Rachmaninov actually seem to have enjoyed the early recording process.
While electric recording allowed at last for more spacious orchestral and operatic acoustics, works still had to be registered in uneditable four-and-a-half minute chunks and put out on noisy-surfaced shellac discs, until the emergence of tape-editing and the vinyl LP around 1950, enhanced by stereophony from 1958 and by the cheaper alternative of audio tape from 1963 only to be sideswiped by the advent of digital recording and the virtually undegradable CD from the early 1980s.
Yet Day's main concern is not so much with the mechanics of recording as with the manifold ways in which the process has increasingly influenced the evolution, reception and understanding of music itself. Admittedly, this happened more gradually than in the early dissemination of jazz, or the way post-war pop was recording-driven from the start. No one imagined that the recording of operatic arias that comprised much of the early acoustic discography offered any real alternative, let alone threat, to the experience of live opera, while the first two decades of electric recording were largely devoted to catching up on the standard classical repertoire.
Only since the emergence of the LP has recording come to play a more central role in musical developments in the rediscovery of early music, for instance, or the promotion of new music (electronic music, not least). And only with the vast expansion of the recorded repertoire over the last couple of decades has something approaching the entire history of Western music been restored to present consciousness a phenomenon which, interacting with comparable expansions in the availability of pop, world music, and so on, has so powerfully contributed to the relativistic, pick-and-mix culture of so-called post-modernism, which we are all now enjoying, or suffering from.
The benefits of recording, as a means of preserving past greatness, of reaching vast new audiences, of restoring unjustly neglected music and promoting the new, are obvious enough. Yet Day quotes a Spectator editorial of as early as 1888, warning that the accumulating products of mechanical reproduction could threaten "the free growth of our posterity" and comparable doubts about recording have continued to surface ever since: the notion, for instance, that the edited perfection of discs has increasingly inhibited live performers from taking spontaneous risks, has become a critical commonplace. Though an inveterate record-maker himself, Benjamin Britten evidently felt that the gramophone somehow violated the "holy triangle" of composer, performer and listener, and lamented that records allowed great works to be misused as mere background music.
Hans Keller went so far as to argue that our growing reliance on recordings as the primary source of musical experience, plus the ubiquitous curse of muzak, have tended to foster an "infinite postponement of concentration", progressively degrading our powers of focused listening his own included.
Since Day's declared purpose is to stimulate and source further thought and research into the history and repercussions of recording, he is more concerned to raise such issues than to resolve them. In any case, he has his work cut out to reduce the vast array of evidence and commentary that the recording process has thrown up to something like an orderly plan. This he has partly contrived through a deft choice of case histories: the influence on taste of Walter Legge as a recording executive; the role of David Munrow in the early music discography; the shifts in performing style preserved in successive recordings of the works of Webern, and so on. Occasionally the sheer pressure of material reduces Day's prose to portmanteau syntax and breathless lists. But it remains a lively and provoking read.
As a historian, he is, of course, more concerned to understand the past than to speculate about the future. Yet it could be argued that at least one basic development in recording technology is long overdue and could go part of the way towards reconciling those who regard recording as a deadening substitute for live musical experience. Sound recording may have changed out of all recognition since Edison; what has not is the simple fact that, every time a disc is played, it remains exactly the same. Yet how easily one could imagine something called, say, the "variable disc" upon which an artist such as Alfred Brendel had recorded perhaps a half dozen slightly contrasting interpretations of a Beethoven sonata which the playback mechanism then crosscuts differently each time to provide the illusion of perpetual spontaneous performance.
Or the "transformational disc", enabling purchasers to modify the tempi, dynamics and nuances of a Bruckner symphony to create their own ideal performances. Or, maybe not. For however the rest of us might profit from such extravagancies of "interactive" recording technology, to the systematic archivist-historian they could well prove the ultimate nightmare.
Sally Y. Shelton Collections Officer National Museum of Natural History Smithsonian Institution Washington, DC 20560-0107 phone (202) 786-2601, FAX (202) 786-2328 email Shelton.Sally@nmnh.si.edu
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