Tag Archives: Recording

Sound as Object

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

After World War II, audio recordings gradually replaced sheet music as the dominant means of distributing music to consumers. As a result, the musical centerpiece of the family home moved from the piano to the hi-fi system and, consequently, from active music-making to audition and record collecting. The LP (3313 rpm, long-playing, microgroove vinyl disc), introduced by Columbia Records in 1948, revolutionized the music industry. Along with changing habits of consumption, records transformed basic perceptions about music. Fleeting sounds became fixed objects.

Recordings had been around since Thomas Edison’s mechanical phonograph cylinder, patented in 1878. Within two decades, commercial recordings and distribution grew into an international industry. Popular titles at the beginning of the twentieth century sold millions of units. Gramophone records, which were easier to manufacture, ship, and store, hit the shelves around 1910, and subsequent advances in technology made audio recordings increasingly accessible. Still, sheet music—and the piano playing it depended on—remained king. The wholesale value of printed sheet music more than tripled between 1890 and 1909, when 25,000 songs were copyrighted in the U.S. Sheet music sales totaled 30 million copies in 1910. The popularity of printed music continued through the 1940s. An article in Variety on October 4, 1944 boasted “Sheet Music Bizz at 15-Year Crest.”

Sales declined precipitously as the 1940s moved into the 1950s. The days when hit songs were fueled by a combination of sheet music and, secondarily, record sales gave way to our recording-dominated era. A Variety article from November 21, 1953 captured the turning point: “Publishing Industry Alarmed by Pop Sheet Music Decline.”

The current ubiquity of recordings is the culmination of a centuries-long effort to mechanically reproduce sound—an evolution that began with musical notation and continued with programmable devices (hydro-powered organs, musical clocks, music boxes, player pianos, and the like). However, earlier inventions still required manual engagement and/or autonomous real-time devices/instruments. With recordings, sounds disembodied from their performance could be played back at any time. Music itself became the object.

Michel Chion details seven ways recording technology facilitated the objectification of music: (1) capturing ephemeral sound vibrations and converting them into a permanent medium; (2) facilitating telephony, or the retransmission of sounds at a distance from their original source; (3) enabling new ways of systematic acousmatization, or the ability to hear without seeing; (4) allowing sounds to be amplified and de-amplified through electronic manipulation, as opposed to the crescendo or decrescendo of live instruments; (5) affording phonofixation, or the fixing of sounds and reuse of fixed sounds in the recording studio; (6) paving the path toward phonogeneration, or the creation of sound “out of nothing” by way of synthesizers and computers; (7) giving engineers the ability to reshape sounds through editing, processing, and manipulation.

This last effect, in particular, contributes to Chion’s view of sounds converted into objects: “recording has been—above all from the moment that it enabled editing—the first means ever in history to treat sounds, fleeting things, as objects: that is to say, both in order to grasp them as objects of observation and in order to modify them—to act on their fixed traces.” Likewise, the listener’s control over recordings—through pausing, skipping forward, changing volume, using multiple devices, etc.—furthers the impression of music’s “thing-ness.”

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Accuracy and Soul

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“I may say that in the studio accuracy is more readily manageable than ‘soul.’” This statement appears in master pianist Alfred Brendel’s 1983 essay, “A Case for Live Recordings.” Brendel, who played his last concert in 2008 at age 78, is no stranger to the recording studio, and appreciates its technological advantages. However, he opines that studio perfection is merely mechanical, not musical. More is lost than gained when the tension and risk of the concert hall is replaced with the purification of numerous takes.

Brendel notes several differences between live concerts and studio recordings. The live performer has one chance to convince the audience; the studio allows multiple playthroughs. The concert is only experienced once; the recording is repeatable. The concert performer imagines, plays, projects, and listens all at once; the studio player can hear it again and react accordingly. The concert atmosphere is raw and often nerve-racking; the studio allows for loosening up. The concert involves audience-performer interaction; the recording is made in virtual solitude. The live performance includes unscripted coughs and chirps; the studio offers manicured silence. The concert has a physical presence; the recording is a disembodied sound. The concert does not value absolute perfection; the studio is “ruled by the aesthetics of compulsive cleanness.”

Although both sides of the dichotomy have pluses and minuses, Brendel contends that the controlled studio environment adversely impacts listening habits and performance approaches. Pristine recordings condition listeners to expect technical precision, even in the unfiltered concert setting. Performers try to replicate what fans have heard over and over on the recordings. As Brendel puts it: “[A] concert has a different message and a different way of delivering it. Now that we listeners to records and studio troglodytes have learned so much from studio recordings, it seems time to turn back and learn from concerts once again.”

He recommends live recordings as a middle ground between the unfettered electricity of the concert hall and the artificial sterility of the studio. Specifically, he prefers live recordings that come about by chance and without the artist’s knowledge (but sold later with the artist’s permission). This oft-neglected “stepchild” stands between the one-shot concert, which takes place on a certain day in front of a particular audience, and the recording, which can be heard anywhere at any time, paused, and played again. The live recording is portable and fossilized, yet it captures the spontaneity of the performance and the presence of an audience. The quality may suffer compared to a studio version, but the aura of being there is worth the imperfections.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Sousa’s Menace

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“Sweeping across the country with the speed of a transient fashion in slang or Panama hats, political war cries or popular novels, comes now the mechanical device to sing for us a song or play for us a piano, in substitute for human skill, intelligence, and soul.” These dire words begin John Philip Sousa’s 1906 article, “The Menace of Mechanical Music.” Riding on anti-modernist sentiments and fears of cultural degradation, the March King warns against the nascent technologies of phonograph recordings and piano rolls (for player pianos). He predicts the demise of amateur music-making and the deterioration of human intimacy: “When a mother can turn on the phonograph with the same sense that she applies to the electric light, will she croon her baby to slumber with sweet lullabys, or will the infant be put to sleep by machinery?” “In the prospective scheme of mechanical music, we shall see man and maiden in a light canoe under the summer moon upon an Adirondack lake with a gramophone caroling love songs from armpits. The Spanish cavalier must abandon his guitar and serenade his beloved with phonograph under his arm.”

Sousa abandons his usual charm for a prophetic voice calling out on behalf of the populace. Without the impulse to sing or play instruments, the nation’s throat will weaken, its chest will shrink, and its soul will recede. Modern critics have noted Sousa’s cultural nearsightedness and hypocrisy (his band was among the early recording ensembles). Others have shed light on personal interests underlying the essay. Among other things, Sousa worried that recordings would adversely affect ticket sales, decrease royalties and threaten composer’s rights (concerns still relevant today). The old business model relied on amateur musicians, who would purchase sheet music, learn it, and go see it performed in concert, or attend a concert and rush out to buy the sheet music. Both of these put money directly into Sousa’s pocket. Not so with the record industry’s corporate-controlled mass production.

Setting these observations aside, it is worthwhile to return to Sousa’s surface argument. Like most alarmists, his prediction was overblown. One hundred years later, the United States is home to thousands of amateur choirs and orchestras, and music teachers can still find work. Yet, although the “menace” was not as severe as Sousa warned, homegrown music-making has been in decline. Access to recordings, glitzy concerts, and aggressive promotion of selected performers have made consumption the norm. Why make music if others can make it for us (and do it better than we can)? It seems that the more technologically advanced a society is, the more passive its music culture.

In contemporary America, there are only a few social contexts in which ordinary people are expected to contribute musically. These include preschools (where song is a pedagogical tool), karaoke bars (where liquor drowns inhibitions), and houses of worship (where singing is a form of devotion). It is important to note, too, that in many (most?) congregations, the harmonized notation of hymnals has been ditched for unison song—yet another sign of dwindling musical literacy.

To be sure, consumer culture is not totally to blame for declining musical activity. There are other factors, such as the high cost of lessons and instruments, the elimination of music programs in many public schools, and the increasing value placed on specialization. Music as a hobby is no longer a cultural expectation. Still, listening to recorded music has stunted amateurism in two important ways. First, high quality recordings are intimidating. The unfiltered sounds of our own making seem inferior in comparison, and thus not worth attempting. Second, it is well established that music satisfies fundamental emotional, psychological and social yearnings. How and by whom the music is produced can have varying degrees of impact, but what is important is that music is being experienced. Thus, given the convenience and capabilities of mechanical devices, it is only natural that we gravitate toward them. We need music and they give it to us.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions. 

The Short Life of Music

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Music is concentrated in the present tense. Its lifespan is the length of its performance. It emerges out of nowhere and disappears into nothingness. It manifests and expires in the same instant. Its two ingredients—sound and silence—evaporate into the hazy ether and the fuzzy recesses of the mind. It leaves no physical traces behind. To the extent that the music existed at all, it occupied the invisible spaces of time and consciousness. It was more energy than mass—more essence than substance.

The preceding eulogy applies to all music. Nothing of the thing lives beyond the act of its creation. Even when meticulously composed and faithfully played, note for note, it is not the same music that was heard before. Its relationship with prior performances is that of a facsimile or reenactment, not a resurrection. Similarly, audio recordings, while capturing data in a replayable format, should not be confused with permanence. What is heard is an impression of performance—however exacting—but not the performance itself. Like light reaching us from a long-extinct star, what enters our ears has already passed away.

The same can be said for musical notation. Though the printed page has material form, the paper is not the music. Jean-Paul Sartre made this point in his book, L’Imaginaire (1940). According to Sartre, true existence cannot be claimed for any musical work. Music is not located in the silent symbolism of bar lines, notes, key signatures, dynamics or articulations. Nor is it found in any one performance, since all renditions are fundamentally new and ephemeral creations. In contrast to something empirically real—defined by Sartre as existing in the past, future and present—music disappears as soon as it is heard. Whatever lingering impact it may have in terms of thoughts, images, feelings or earworms, occurs solely in the mind.

This is not always seen as a positive attribute. Indeed, on some level, the desire to record music—both on paper and in audio files—reflects discomfort with the art form’s evanescence. As a rule, human beings are averse to impermanence and all the insecurity, unease and futility it implies. But the reality is that nothing lasts forever. From the moment a thing comes into being, it is in a state of decay. So we invent afterlife scenarios and gods that live forever. We think of truth and wisdom as eternal forces. We publish ideas, film events, build monuments, and make musical time capsules (notation and recordings). We fabricate fixity for fleeting forms.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Sound in Wax

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The earliest wax cylinder phonographs—the first commercial medium for recording and reproducing sound—were entirely mechanical. They were hand-cranked and needed no electrical power. All that was required was a lathe, a waxy surface, a sharp point for a stylus, and a resonating table. To impress sound waves onto wax, the voice or instrument was positioned closely to the large end of a horn. The vibrations moved a needle, which carved a groove on the rotating wax. According to Walter Murch, an acclaimed film editor and sound designer, everything used in these early machines was available to the ancient Greeks and Egyptians. But it took until the middle of the nineteenth century, and the genius of Thomas Edison and his team, to execute the recording process.

Why did it take so long to capture sound? Musician David Byrne has informally speculated that maybe it didn’t. Perhaps someone in antiquity invented a similar device and later abandoned it; or perhaps the device itself was simply demolished in the ruins of history. While conceivable on a technological level, this hypothesis is unlikely considering the prevailing ethos of the ancient world. The ephemerality of sound was part of its attraction: it was momentary, mysterious, transient and transcendent. As this fleetingness was highly valued, there was little or no inclination to record. Murch puts it this way: “Poetically, the beauty of music and the human voice was used as a symbol of all that’s evanescent. So the idea that you could trap it in any physical medium never occurred to [them] . . .”

This contrasts with the rush to develop written systems that enshrined language. The ancients recognized that certain things should be documented, like governmental records, priestly decrees, royal chronicles, philosophical treatises, etc. What these shared in common was a silent beginning: they were soundless thoughts committed to paper (or papyrus or parchment or tablets or wood). Writing gave concrete form to facts and concepts that, while often referencing observable phenomena, had no tangibility of their own. In contrast, sound was understood as being completely formed. It was received sensually, experienced kinesthetically, and processed emotionally. It existed in the moment it was made.

It is worth noting that Edison first thought of wax cylinder recorders as dictation machines. They were to record the owners’ ideas and messages and, ideally, preserve the great speeches of the day. This limited purpose reflected the limitations of the early devices: they were too crude and imprecise to capture the nuances of musical performance. True, music recording and playback were in Edison’s long-term plan, and they became major functions as the machines advanced. But it is feasible to consider that Edison’s initial goal of preserving dictation was—and arguably still is—a worthier and more practical goal than detaining music.

Musicians commonly lament that they are slaves to their own recordings. The version that appears on an album is the version that fans want to hear, and deviations are typically received as imperfections, inaccuracies or unwanted departures from the “authoritative” source.  Some improvising musicians even feel obliged to give their audiences note-for-note reproductions of recorded solos. This is not to negate the enormous benefits and incalculable cultural impact of musical recordings. Our understanding of music as a diverse human enterprise owes mightily to the proliferation of recorded sounds, and musical creativity thrives when there is access to other music. But something of music’s temporality is lost in recording. Imprinting sound in wax or digital audio creates the illusion of permanence.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.