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Capturing SoundHow Technology Has Changed Music
By Mark Katz
The University of California PressCopyright © 2004 Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.
Anytown, U.S.A., 1905: a family and several neighbors stand in the parlor of a modest home, staring with equal parts curiosity and skepticism at one of the technological marvels of the day. Staring back at them is the unblinking eye of a megaphone-shaped brass horn. It protrudes about two feet from a small wooden cabinet with a crank on one side and a felt-covered metal plate on top. The marvel is a phonograph, or "talking machine," as it was commonly called.
The gentleman of the house takes a heavy black disc, grooved on one side and smooth on the other, and places it over the spindle with the label facing up. He turns the crank several times, gingerly sets the needle on the outermost groove, and hurries back to his chair. Everyone stares at the phonograph in eager anticipation. The disc spins quickly, and above the whooshing and crackling the machine begins to sing. It sounds to them like actual voices and instruments, albeit in miniature. It is hard to believe that little more than a needle and a record can bring the performers to life, just as if they were right there in the parlor.
After three minutes of rapt attention, the small audiencebreaks into spontaneous, unselfconscious applause and calls for more. Before the man can replay the record, a small child runs to the machine, peering under the table and jumping up to look into the horn. Everyone laughs when it becomes clear that the boy is looking for the musicians! After each record is played several times, the crowd disperses, with everyone wondering if wonders will never cease.
This quaint vignette may seem unremarkable, but it reveals a revolution in the making. Those gathered around the phonograph were experiencing music in ways unimaginable not so many years before. They were hearing performers they could not see and music they could not normally bring into their homes. They could listen to the same pieces over and again without change. And they ultimately decided what they were to hear, and when, where, and with whom. All of this was made possible by the distinctive characteristics of sound recording technology. This is a crucial point, for as I explained in the introduction, if we understand the nature of recording, we can understand how users have adapted to, compensated for, and exploited the technology. It is in these actions that we discover the influence of recording; it is here that we find phonograph effects.
Each of the following seven sections examines a distinctive and defining trait of sound recording technology. This chapter is intentionally broad, moving quickly and often between written and oral musical cultures, East and West, popular and classical, the late nineteenth century and the early twenty-first. Such breadth is imperative, for the impact of recording is strongly shaped by the time, place, and context in which the technology is used. As we will see, phonograph effects are not simply technological phenomena.
Before even setting needle to groove, the operator of the phonograph in that Anytown parlor encountered one of the most remarkable characteristics of recorded sound: its tangibility. Taking the disc out of its paper sleeve, he held the frozen sound in his hands, felt the heft of the shellac, saw the play of light on the disc's lined, black surface. He was holding a radically new type of musical object, for whereas scores prescribe or describe music, and instruments generate music, recordings preserve actual sounds.
This tangibility has allowed extraordinary changes in the way music can be experienced. Prior to the invention of the phonograph, Karl Marx observed what must have seemed to be an unchangeable truth about music. "The service a singer performs for me," he noted, "satisfies my aesthetic need, but what I consume exists only in an action inseparable from the singer, and as soon as the singing is over, so too is my consumption." When sound is recorded and preserved in a physical medium, however, the listener's consumption need not end when the singing is over, for the music can be separated from the performer and be replayed without the artist's consent. Indeed, the portability and repeatability of recorded sound-two of the technology's crucial attributes to be discussed in this chapter-derive from its tangibility. Yet tangibility is not simply a "meta-trait." In itself the material preservation of sound-"the stockpiling of music," in Jacques Attali's arresting phrase-deeply influences the consumption and production of music. To illustrate this point I want to explore briefly the impact of recording's tangibility as revealed in, first, record collecting and, second, the physical characteristics of cassettes and compact discs.
As Evan Eisenberg has pointed out, "For the listening public at large, in every century but this one [now two], there was no such thing as collecting music." Certainly, enthusiasts sought out instruments, manuscripts, program books, autographs, and the like. Record collecting, however, represents a new relationship with music, for these collectors seek neither the means to create sound nor mementos of it, but sound itself.
This new relationship is most vividly illuminated in its pathological extremes. Record collecting has long been described (affectionately, for the most part) as an illness or addiction. In 1924 the British magazine Gramophone playfully warned of "gramomania," alerting readers to its "insidious approach, its baneful effects, its ability to destroy human delights." Two years later, on the other side of the Atlantic, the Phonograph Monthly Review asked readers to recount their most dire sacrifices in the name of grooved shellac. One contestant, with the self-deprecating pseudonym "Adam Pfuhl," spun a woeful tale of spending all the money for his family's Christmas presents on records; another told of literally selling his shirt to support his habit. Appropriately-or perhaps not-the winning contestants received gift certificates for records. Nick Hornby's 1995 novel High Fidelity demonstrates that the disease is far from eradicated. Rob, the owner of a second-hand record shop and a passionate collector of pop music discs, sympathetically observes the habits of his more obsessive customers:
You can spot the vinyl addicts because after a while they get fed up with the rack they are flicking through, march over to a completely different section of the shop, pull out a sleeve from the middle somewhere, and come over to the counter; this is because they ... suddenly sicken themselves with the amount of time they have wasted looking for something they don't really want. I know that feeling well: ... it is a prickly, clammy, panicky sensation, and you go out of the shop reeling. You walk much more quickly afterward, trying to recapture the part of the day that has escaped.
In the world of hip-hop, hunting for LPs is known as "digging in the crates," a reference to the way in which discs are typically stored and displayed in second-hand stores and thrift shops. As we will see in chapter 6, digging is a way of life among hip-hop DJs, for their creativity is judged in part on their ability to find rare, unusual, and catchy tracks. The 1992 rap song "Diggin' in the Crates" by Showbiz and A.G., makes it clear that this activity is as addictive as any form of collecting: "Buying old records is a habit/You know I've got to have it." The darker side of this addiction comes out in Pearl Jam's 1994 rocker "Spin the Black Circle," in which a phonograph stylus is like a hypodermic needle and the act of playing an LP parallels the ritual of shooting up heroin.
Such addictions are directly connected to the materiality of recorded music, for it is often the physical artifacts themselves, more than the sound of the music, that collectors find meaningful. In speaking of his records, High Fidelity's Rob explains: "This is my life, and it's nice to be able to wade in it, immerse your arms in it, touch it." To be sure, record collecting involves more than music. Collecting is about the thrill of the hunt, the accumulation of expertise, the display of wealth, the synesthetic allure of touching and seeing sound, the creation and cataloging of memories, and the pleasures (and dangers) of ritual. Record collecting represents a relationship with music that helps us, in some part small or large, to articulate and, indeed, shape who we are.
The relative affordability of these musical objects is also significant, and has affected all types of listeners, whether the sweaty-palmed disc junkie or the casual consumer. Recordings are often (though not always) cheaper than tickets for concerts of the same fare, and their affordability may affect listeners' access to music. As the next chapter will show, the inexpensive disc was hailed as one of the keys to helping America become a more "musical" nation in the first decades of the twentieth century, for cheap records of the classics meant that access to "good music" need not be the exclusive domain of the rich. And one of the crucial issues in the debate over file-sharing-which I explore in the book's final chapter-is that these sound files are being collected by the millions free of charge, much to the delight of many listeners and to the outrage of the recording industry. But as we will see, MP3s and the like are a special case, for they are not tangible in the way traditional media are.
To understand the full significance of the tangibility of recorded sound, we must know something about the specific physical characteristics of the various media, and the differences among them. Consider, for example, the cassette tape. Developed in 1963 by the Dutch company Philips, the small plastic cassette was markedly different from its predecessor, the long-playing record. Perhaps most important was that its physical characteristics made recording and duplication much easier and cheaper than had been possible in the LP era. As Peter Manuel asserts in his 1993 book Cassette Culture, these attributes have led to enormous changes in music and musical life. One compelling case in point, the focus of Manuel's research, is North Indian popular music. Before 1978 cassettes were rare in India (LPs being dominant), and a single entity, the Gramophone Company of India (GCI), controlled the nation's recorded music. GCI's monopoly led to an extreme concentration of performers and styles. Most of its releases were of a particular type of love song, an adaptation of the classical ghazal form, updated for use in films; moreover, nearly all of the tens of thousands of songs-which even to fans tended to sound similar-were recorded by just a handful of long-lived singers. The resulting homogenization of Indian popular music is hard to comprehend. Imagine that for the past fifty years popular music in the United States has consisted of several thousand slight variations on "I Will Always Love You," (featured in the movie The Bodyguard), all sung by Whitney Houston. (Now imagine that you don't like Whitney Houston.) When one critic quoted by Manuel complained of "the crushing power of the monotony of musical soundscape" in India, we should not take this to be hyperbole.
In the 1980s, with relaxed government regulation on their importation, cassettes quickly came to account for 95 percent of all commercial recordings in India. The arrival of the cassette utterly changed the pop scene. The less complex, cheaper medium allowed smaller labels and even individuals to create and distribute recordings, ending GCI's stranglehold on the market. This diversification brought new perspectives, giving rise to new stars, even new musical genres. And it was precisely the physical characteristics of the cassette, tangibly different from the LP, that helped prepare the ground for this revolution.
We may see a parallel phenomenon with the compact disc, though the early years of the CD suggested a return to the "one-way, monopolistic, homogenizing tendencies" of the LP that Manuel has pointed out. Yet in the 1990s it became much easier and cheaper to create CDs, and today most personal computers come with CD burners, making any home with a PC a potential pressing plant. With the advancement of CD production technology, many performers have decided to go into business for themselves. When the San Francisco Symphony could not get a contract with one of the major labels, they created their own; alternative pop musician Ani DiFranco, never interested in working with one of the majors, established Righteous Babe Records; and cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han created ArtistLed, "Classical Music's first Internet recording company," in order to "produce recordings in an environment free from constraints."
We must be careful, however, not to assume that ease of production necessarily leads to diversification. Remarkably, the cassette seems to have had very nearly the opposite effect on the gamelan tradition of Java. Traditionally, each gamelan is a unique and matched collection of largely brass and bronze percussion instruments, with each ensemble having its own distinctive tuning. Although gamelan recordings date to the early twentieth century, it was not until cassettes came ashore in the late 1960s that gamelan recordings circulated widely across the island, and this was precisely because they were so simple to produce and disseminate. One of the striking effects of the new medium is that it seems to have facilitated a certain standardization within the world of gamelan performance practice. In his fieldwork in Java, ethnomusicologist Anderson Sutton observed gamelan teachers changing the patterns and structures of certain pieces to match what they had heard on cassettes by prominent ensembles. It has also been reported that when new gamelans are made nowadays they are often tuned to match a frequently recorded gamelan.
Thus, whereas the advent of the cassette led to musical diversification in North India, it has encouraged musical homogenization in Java. One reason for this difference is fairly clear: where the Indian music industry was monopolized by a single, giant corporate entity, no such market concentration existed in Java. The contrast between these "cassette cultures" illustrates a point I have already made, but one that bears repeating: phonograph effects are not dictated solely by the traits of the technology, but arise out of broader contexts, whether economic, cultural, or aesthetic. Yet despite their differences, both cassette cultures illustrate how a very basic difference between recordings and live performance can have a profound impact on music and they way we interact with it.
When music becomes a thing it gains an unprecedented freedom to travel. Of course, live and recorded music are both portable, but in different ways. The portability of live music depends on the size of instruments and the number of musicians needed to perform a work. Minstrels and marching bands move easily; orchestras and anvil choruses less so. With recording, however, all music is more or less equally portable, from harmonica solos to the massive works of Mahler.
Furthermore, when music is recorded and replayed, it is removed from its original setting, losing its unique spatial and temporal identity. This loss was the subject of Walter Benjamin's famous 1936 essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." While the visual arts concerned Benjamin most, his ideas are relevant here. "Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art," he maintained, "is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be." Reproductions, therefore, lack what Benjamin called the "aura" of the artwork. From Benjamin's standpoint this absence is to be lamented. He speaks of the withering of the aura, the depreciation of the artwork, the loss of authenticity, and the shattering of tradition. Benjamin, however, missed half of the equation. True, mass-reproduced art does lack temporal and physical uniqueness, yet reproductions, no longer bound to the circumstances of their creation, may encourage new experiences and generate new traditions, wherever they happen to be.
Consider the pico of modern-day Cartagena, Columbia. A pico is a large, elaborately designed sound system used to supply music for dance parties. Owners take great pride in their fancifully adorned picos, which they often tote through their communities in the back of pick-up trucks, competing with one another for the loudest, most extravagant system. While the pico is native to Cartagena, the music they play is not. The records, having arrived with traveling sailors, are mostly of African and Afro-Caribbean genres whose sound and language are foreign to coastal Columbia. Listeners do not typically understand the lyrics, and any dances originally connected with those genres are severed from the music. Yet the music is deeply meaningful to Cartagenos, and is central to the pleasures and experiences of pico culture. As the pico demonstrates, while recorded music is often decoupled from its origins in space and time, this "loss" begets a contextual promiscuity that allows music to accrue new, rich, and unexpected meanings.
Excerpted from Capturing Sound by Mark Katz Copyright © 2004 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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