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Recordings are now the primary way we hear classical music, especially the more abstract styles of “absolute” instrumental music. In this original, provocative book, Arved Ashby argues that recording technology has transformed our understanding of art music. Ashby sees recordings as socially progressive and as instruments of a musical vernacular but also finds that recording and absolute music actually involve similar notions of removing sound from context. He takes stock of technology's impact on classical music, addressing the questions at the heart of the issue: How have recording, digital copying, and remastering changed concepts of performance and ideas of music as text? Does literal repetition corrupt the meaning of a musical work or enable new meanings? Is music a product or a service, and how are notions of access and ownership being changed by converging media? This erudite yet concise study reveals how mechanical reproduction has transformed classical musical culture and the very act of listening, breaking down aesthetic and generational barriers and mixing classical music into the soundtrack of everyday life.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Displays an acute sensitivity to the parallels between the evolution of compositional processes since late Beethoven and the evolution of 'musical life' from... early nineteenth-century Vienna to the 'digital age'"—Musical Times

"In Ashby's refreshing reading, [recordings' displacement of composers' texts] is neither a doomsday moment nor bland techno-utopianism: it's a chance to re-engage with classical music in the vernacular."—Times Literary Supplement

"Ashby raises crucial and often agonising issues for those who care about the marginalisation of classical music."—The Wire

"This formidable work of scholarship . . . has the capacity dramatically to change thinking."—Classical Music Magazine

"Ashby really stakes out the place of instrumental art music in a digital world, never backing away from hard questions that make us examine the very nature of musical performance itself."—Journal Aesthetics & Art Criticism

Times Literary Supplement

In Ashby's refreshing reading, [recordings' displacement of composers' texts] is neither a doomsday moment nor bland techno-utopianism: it's a chance to re-engage with classical music in the vernacular.”
The Wire
"Ashby raises crucial and often agonising issues for those who care about the marginalisation of classical music."
Classical Music Magazine - Andrew Green
"This formidable work of scholarship . . . has the capacity dramatically to change thinking."
Journal Aesthetics & Art Criticism
“Ashby really stakes out the place of instrumental art music in a digital world, never backing away from hard questions that make us examine the very nature of musical performance itself."
CRITICISM - Gustavus Stadler
“Compelling, insightful, [and] occasionally head-spinning. . . . [Ashby’s] move between philosophy and cultural history is deft. . . . Immensely useful.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520264793
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 6/7/2010
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Arved Ashby is Professor of Music at the Ohio State University. He is the editor of The Pleasure of Modernist Music, and has published articles on twelve-tone composition, film music, minimalism, and Frank Zappa. He was an American Musicological Society (AMS) 50 Dissertation Fellow, and won the AMS Alfred Einstein Award in 1996.

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Read an Excerpt

Absolute Music, Mechanical Reproduction

By Arved Ashby


Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94569-2


The Recorded Musical Text

Just what is a musical performance? This is a difficult question, one that music scholars have been slow to ask and even slower to answer. We could begin our definition by saying a performance of Western art music transpires with a reading that is more or less normative and executed according to the composer's instructions. But such a description comes up short because it makes no room for interpretation and variance, leaving Furtwängler's view of Beethoven's Third Symphony much the same as Toscanini's, for example, while it is those very different approaches that make the "Eroica" the "Eroica," that make it so enticingly performable in the first place.

Drawing on ideas of Edward Said and Peter Kivy, Peter Johnson concludes that performances are important for what they do above and beyond the notated music. The observation has not been widely shared by scholars of Western art music, who, as Nicholas Cook observes, have been so intent on "locating the aesthetic centre of music in the written text"—in other words, on isolating musical invariance—that they have taken little notice of the variance that defines performance. Johnson goes further to say that a performance, when heard as an aesthetic whole, in fact embodies "necessary otherness": it emerges as a function of the score only to the extent that it presents the right pitches at the right time and supplies appropriate articulations and dynamics. Its fidelity to the printed page might well enhance its value qua performance but by no necessity establishes such value. I would add that the sounding rendition is "other" in that it can never be wholly comprised or predicted by the inner ear and the mind's eye: we are rarely surprised by a third or fifth visual, silent reading of a printed score in any circumstances, but acoustic happenstance or other unforeseen factors can have a considerable effect when we hear the same score in performance. Unanticipated vibrato, variation of tempo, a reverberant performance space, or simply too much coffee are more likely to change our impressions of a work than would irregularities of paper, ink, or notation in a score.

If these thoughts get us a bit closer to understanding musical performance, the even more vexing questions remain: Just what is a recording, and what is its relationship to the performance it contains? Is it a transparent vehicle, or a medium that recontextualizes or even transforms performance? Does it work for or against performers' concerns, or is it a neutral conduit for interpretive thought? In the next chapter, we will address the fate of a performance's "necessary otherness" when that particular foreignness can be repeated—and therefore familiarized—ad infinitum. In this chapter, I address performance of art music as a phenomenon unto itself, and one that stands transformed when inscribed into permanency. But there are also important questions to ask regarding the ontological role of recordings vis-à-vis performance: Does the recorded performance supplant the musical work any more or less than the live performance, whether it is understood as a sounding entity ("Menuhin recorded a beautiful Beethoven concerto") or as a physical or commercial object ("Menuhin's Beethoven concerto is out of print and getting expensive on eBay")? Or does the recording have the function of performing the performance? And how useful is the conventional notion of recording as documentation of a particular musical "interpretation," at least in the basic sense that interpretation involves rendering a thought from one language to another?


Without referring to recordings, Peter Kivy emphasizes the permanence of art music performance. He does this by describing the musical performance itself as a work, explaining, for example, that Artur Schnabel's rendition of Beethoven's "Waldstein" Sonata or Rudolf Kempe's particular actualization of Brahms's Fourth Symphony is an aesthetic object that endures through time much like the sonata or the symphony itself. But how would such a performance-work relate to the composition-work that is being performed? Adopting ideas from Paul Thom, Kivy says that the performance in essence "quotes" the work in an act of musical and declarative assertion. It is because he emphasizes the work aspect of performance that Kivy must invoke quotation rather than interpretation or rendering. The former falls in line with the inviolate character of works in that it entails no added nuance: a person quotes an earlier statement not in order to elucidate that statement, but as an attempt to clarify the present in light of the past. If Kivy had emphasized the interpretation aspect, he would have had to acknowledge the fact—problematic given his premise—that performance is a function of the aesthetic value of the composition being performed. No other art form comes to mind, except perhaps acting, where a performance-as-work would have such a deeply contingent relationship with a written work.

Kivy points out a basic uncertainty in our understanding of art music performance, namely: where does the work's inviolate work-quality end and the enduring, even replicable, aspect of a performance—what we might, in line with Kivy's thinking, call the work-quality of a performance—begin? Two answers, two different conceptions of the performance-text, are possible. The first is suggested by Eric Clarke, who tells us that a performance is necessarily self-enclosed and self-defined in that it presumes to supplant or subsume the work at the moment of performance. Clarke writes: "Whether listeners believe they are listening to performance or to 'the work itself,' there is no escaping the reality that it is a performance (or recording) that they hear." Kivy's notion of performance-as-work suggests a second conception, one stemming from the performance's reproducibility, its identifiable quality—whether by virtue of interpretive color, narrative posture, or personalized articulation—above and beyond "the work itself." The second, Kivyesque understanding allows separation of musical work from performance-text. The first, Clarkean notion takes the work and performance-as-text together as one organic, inviolate experience. As I will argue in this chapter, the differences between these two views stem from basic textual-ontological differences and allow for contrasting performance styles.

In the final analysis, the work concept is not very useful as a representation of performance because it is too restrictive a notion, too monopolistic, too caught up in authorship and intention. We might better understand the performance, to turn to a related but more fluid and synergistic concept, as a kind of text—a system of signs, an organism of interconnected meanings. The notion of a text is indeed so adaptable that it has taken on various, even contradictory, meanings. Over time there have been two basic understandings, with the second, inclusive, poststructuralist sense coming to dominate: (1) the means by which the work is transmitted, as demonstrated in the phrase "the printed text"; and (2) any system of meaning that asks to be "read," as in the idiosyncratic visual text of Citizen Kane. These two senses come together in old- fashioned textual analysis: Beethoven's autograph manuscript of his Second Symphony, for example, is the source for all we know specifically musically about that composition, but it needs analysis and interrogation whenever it refuses to answer our musical and paleographical questions. Less commonly acknowledged is the fact that recordings of that symphony also represent texts in both these senses: they have replaced concert performance as the dominant means for hearing this music, and they require a particular form of attending-to, a singular manner of "reading."

As already mentioned, recordings embody certain aspects of both written and oral texts. They are readable texts, first, because they are coded entities requiring a specific form of literacy above and beyond taking in the performance in the concert hall, aurally, without mediation. Much of this phonographic literacy lies with the ability to enjoy music away from the place and perpetrators of its performance, a culturally instilled skill that the San people of Namibia, say, have had no real reason to develop. The most influential recording artists—Glenn Gould, Herbert von Karajan, and Leopold Stokowski serving as key examples—have understood this phonographic literacy, savoring it and developing it.

Even beyond basic aspects of phonographic literacy, recordings are texts in that they are closed, circumscribed, structured, posed, edited, and otherwise mediated in a way that requires "reading" as well as listening. They are discrete commercial products, booklike in that they are designed to be read and reread. In discussing the differences between live performances and studio recordings, Alfred Brendel associates the latter with certain practices and states of mind that I would say are redolent of written texts and the reading of them: he mentions the need for "control over a mosaic" rather than the "broad sweep" of the concert; the search for "an interpretation that will bear frequent hearing" instead of acoustic projection; the capacity for immediate listening and feedback offered to the performer rather than the demand placed upon her in concert for simultaneous musical imagining, playing, projecting, and listening; and "critical awareness" in place of spontaneity and adrenaline. Acuteness of reception, presumed repetition, attention to detail, scattered modes of awareness—these all presume an ever-present critical distance, an interposed subjectivity involving mediation and anthologization of experience rather than experience itself. This is the general poststructural idea of something we could call textuality—an experience that asks the reader to "produce a text," as literary critic Michael Riffaterre puts it.

Or we could define the text more broadly yet as a cultural nexus, a center of discourse: something is textual in this sense when it represents a coming-together of negotiated imaginings and estimations. Recorded performances are perhaps more textual than worklike in that they are crafted through cooperative authorship, at least in comparison with the concert performance. Studio recordings are collaborative not only by way of the musical performance itself, which can be influenced by internalized dialogues the performer might have had with, say, a teacher or a colleague, but also through the intercession of other sensibilities by way of microphone design, mixing, editing, and burning onto disc, even sleeve design. With the live performance we might hear the collaboration of a piano tuner and the acoustician who designed the concert hall, but those subjectivities are not involved in moment-to-moment negotiations between music and musician. More immediate negotiations and renegotiations are audible in the balance engineer's microphone setup, the editor's skills, and perhaps something of the producer's advice to the pianist and verdicts on individual takes. Because of the lingering Romantic legacy of the single and singular artist, however, these agencies of discourse tend to hide behind the textuality of one performance: people habitually refer to "Schnabel's 'Appassionata'" and not to "Beethoven, Schnabel, Fred Gaisberg, and Edward Fowler's 'Appassionata.'" The performer, as the one who usually holds final veto power, can also effectively reduce an authorial multiplicity to one by rejecting the recording for release until she feels it accurately reflects her sensibility.

While some recordings have multiple authors, most are eminently "readerly" texts in that their worth, meaning, and even function are ultimately decided not by their makers but by the people who listen to them. They are objects to be used as well as read, and those two processes become one and the same. While some novels and films have had double lives as public failures and critical successes, saved from oblivion by critical opinion, this is rare with art music recordings. With decades of experience in the world's great opera houses, James Levine must have had very good reason for taking such slow tempos in his two Parsifal recordings; but critical reception has declared them too slow, and there the matter rests. When the Benedictine monks of Santo Domingo de Silos recorded the Roman Christmas Mass for Spanish EMI in 1973, they could not have foreseen how an international 1994 CD reissue would sell some six million copies, and how their particular singing style would go beyond defining spirituality for many mid-1990s listeners to create a new commercial franchise for aural monasticism. The ultimate meaning of both these texts sits not with the author/performer but with the reader/listener. Perhaps it is simply the commodity aspect of recordings—the fact that they are bought and sold—that makes them readerly texts? That cannot be the only reason, for some readerly texts are not commercial: William M. Schniedewind remarks how "meaning has reflected its readers more than its writers" in the case of two other communal and nonauthorial but not really pur chas able texts, specifically the Bible and the United States Constitution. Conversely, not all commercial texts are readerly: readers are not interested in Agatha Christie, John Grisham, and J. K. Rowling for life lessons but read them to be entertained, distracted, and indeed transported outside of themselves.

As agents of cultural and religious authority, writing and orality have competed with each other throughout history. Such competition is clearly visible with recorded per for mances: as recordings divide listeners more and more categorically from performers—the former increasingly alienated from the act of making music and the latter more and more stringently acculturated into the same activity—the printed musical text becomes less and less important in the grand scheme of things, irrelevant to most listeners and something of an obstacle to promoting many performers in the marketplace. Such a situation would seem to demand, by way of compensation, an increasingly specific semiotics of per for mance, an increase in the interpreter's aesthetic and ontological authority. One could also describe the situation in terms of literacies: art music involves two literacies, a literacy in per for mance and a literacy in hearing, with the former presuming the latter but the latter not necessarily involving the former. In this context, we could say art music has become a unique cultural phenomenon in that the two texts it involves—the means of transmitting the work, and the musical countenance immediately presented to the listener—have drifted farther and farther apart as musical literacy has changed. And rushing in to close that gap, that growing disconnectedness, are types of meaning—for example cinematic, commercial, and ethnic—that were once thought antithetical to music embodying the l'art pour l'art aesthetic.

The recordings by Artur Schnabel and Glenn Gould would help flesh out these contrasting forms of textuality as well as the recording's different possibilities for cultural import. Discussions of Schnabelian and Gouldian manners of interpretation soon degenerate into tired and ultimately irrelevant contrasts between Schnabel's "faithfulness" and Gould's "eccentricity" or even "obstruction" of a work. A readerly perspective would be more fruitful, for reasons given above. We could pattern such a point of view on the "birth of the reader" that Roland Barthes proposed in opposition to age- old authorial impulses "to impose a limit on [the] text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing." So we should speak not of interpretation, but of Schnabelian and Gouldian conceptions of text, as based on their own predilections as readers—traits that Schnabel's and Gould's fans necessarily share with their favored pianist, since a musician can only connect with a listener who shares her textual beliefs. Those Schnabel and Gould textual perspectives are so different that we can never hope to hear the same musical work in their respective recordings of, say, Beethoven's Sonata op. 109—unless, that is, we take into account the varieties of textuality that Barthes and other literary theorists opened up in the 1960s and 1970s.


Excerpted from Absolute Music, Mechanical Reproduction by Arved Ashby. Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction 1

1 The recorded musical text 27

2 Recording, Repetition, And Memory in Absolute Music 60

3 Schnabel's Rationalism, Gould's pragmatism 91

4 Digital Mythologies 123

5 Beethoven and the Ipod Nation 162

6 Photo/Phono/Porno 194

7 Mahler As Imagist 221

Notes 253

Selected Bibliography 299

Index 309

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