Sunday, June 05, 2005

Recording Technology And Music

An extremely interesting article from Alex Ross in The New Yorker here, examining the results of the proliferation of music recording and recording technologies over the past century.

He begins by setting up a dichotomy between "the party of doom" and the "technological utopians." The former are exemplified by John Philip Sousa, who made this forecast in 1906:
“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.”
Ross goes on:
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.”
The problem, of course, is that this really isn't a dichotomy -- both sides of the issue are valid, perhaps equally valid. The place of live music in the home has been completely usurped by recorded. Most homes don't have pianos, and if they do they may not have anyone who can play it. That is a loss. On the other hand, the ability to easily listen to a piece of music at will brings a depth of understanding and familiarity that was simply not available before the advent of recorded music. That is undoubtedly a gain.

Ross' article delves into many other facets of the results of recorded music -- a must read.


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