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posted on 06.02.09

What follows is an excerpt from the essay "The Record Effect: How Technology has Transformed the Sound of Music" by Alex Ross, published in the New Yorker June 6th, 2005. The essay is a detailed and articulate review of"Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music,” byMark Katz. Both authors point to a fascinating aspect of music that is rarely examined: how the process or recording music changes the ways music is performed and created (for better or worse). Full article here.


 




"Ninety-nine years ago, John Philip Sousa predicted that recordings would lead to the demise of music. The phonograph, he warned, would erode the finer instincts of the ear, end amateur playing and singing, and put professional musicians out of work. “The time is coming when no one will be ready to submit himself to the ennobling discipline of learning music,” he wrote. “Everyone will have their ready made or ready pirated music in their cupboards.” Something is irretrievably lost when we are no longer in the presence of bodies making music, Sousa said. “The nightingale’s song is delightful because the nightingale herself gives it forth.”


Before you dismiss Sousa as a nutty old codger, you might ponder how much has changed in the past hundred years. Music has achieved onrushing omnipresence in our world: millions of hours of its history are available on disk; rivers of digital melody flow on the Internet; MP3 players with ten thousand songs can be tucked in a back pocket or a purse. Yet, for most of us, music is no longer something we do ourselves, or even watch other people doing in front of us. It has become a radically virtual medium, an art without a face. In the future, Sousa’s ghost might say, reproduction will replace production entirely. Zombified listeners will shuffle through the archives of the past, and new music will consist of rearrangements of the old.


Ever since Edison introduced the wax cylinder, in 1877, people have been trying to figure out what recording has done for and to the art of music. Inevitably, the conversation has veered toward rhetorical extremes. Sousa was a pioneering spokesman for the party of doom, which was later filled out by various post-Marxist theorists. In the opposite corner are the technological utopians, who will tell you that recording has not imprisoned music but liberated it, bringing the art of the élite to the masses and the art of the margins to the center. Before Edison came along, the utopians say, Beethoven’s symphonies could be heard only in select concert halls. Now CDs carry the man from Bonn to the corners of the earth, summoning forth the million souls he hoped to embrace in his “Ode to Joy.” Conversely, recordings gave the likes of Louis Armstrong, Chuck Berry, and James Brown the chance to occupy a global platform that Sousa’s idyllic old America, racist to the core, would have denied them. The fact that their records played a crucial role in the advancement of African-American civil rights puts in proper perspective the aesthetic debate about whether or not technology has been “good” for music.


I discovered much of my favorite music through LPs and CDs, and I am not about to join the party of Luddite lament. Modern urban environments are often so chaotic, soulless, or ugly that I’m grateful for the humanizing touch of electronics. But 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?"

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Billie Holiday
Ludwig Van Beethoven

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