Sep. 8 Readings

Although these five readings cover a variety of topics, they adhere thematically by exploring the complex exchange between the influences of technology on culture, and vise versa. David Morton introduces the problem with how this exchange has been approached in the past, suggesting that too much focus has been placed upon recorded music, rather than recorded sound in general. While music has played an important role in the history of recording technology, there are many other areas in recorded sound that warrant discussion. Morton discusses at length the use of dictation machines, and later the telephone answering machine. This recording technology had a great impact on the lives of many people, and is useful in understanding how all technology is built upon existing technologies, how people invent new uses for it over time, and finally how the dissemination of the technology creates a more democratic system within society (versus the monopoly controlled by early companies such as AT&T).

As we have discussed, technology is often invented for specific purposes
that are often distant from the end use after years of cultural integration. This is certainly the truth with the evolution of sound recording. Within the first years after Edison’s Phonograph, recording technology was largely used for ‘record keeping and transmission of information’- certainly not for the purposes we think of in the context of the modern recording industry.

By suggesting that the recording of a human voice combined both the ‘spontaneity of the human voice’, and the ‘storage capacity of writing’, a line of aesthetic discourse is born. Morton later discusses the history of the problem, whether to render the recording process ‘invisible’, or to exaggerate it by the creation of otherwise impossible sounds arises. This aesthetic question applies to many other disciplines including film theory, which is explored within the writing of Walter Benjamin. A high point would be reached in the late 1960’s within the competing works of the Beach Boys and the Beatles to create recorded musical art that reached away from the concrete formalism/ritual of the performance hall, and into the abstract depths of the human imagination. But while recorded music has been able to move away from the formalism and recreation of the performance hall, Morton explains that the important and lasting connections between high art music and recording technologies. “Despite considerable technological changes in recording technology over the last century, one of the most consistent features of the U.S. record industry has been its devotion to providing high culture music, despite the small economic rewards gained from recording and marketing it … However, during the formative years of the record industry, it was classical and other forms of highbrow music which proved surprisingly influential in fomenting technical change and shaping the practices associated with music recording studios” (8). These connections have not stopped and are not limited to the United States. When developers at Sony were working on developing the Compact Disc, they decided that the length should be 74 minutes instead of 60 so that it could hold all of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

Peters’ examination of Hemholtz as the theoretical developer, and Edison as the executor of these principles provides valuable insight into the context from which the phonograph was created. However, I was more struck by two other subjects of Peters’ writing. The first was the opening statements regarding the phenomenological difference of the human experience prior to recorded sound. The idea that before 1877 all sounds died is truly moving. As recording technology has become such an integral part of our culture, the transience of sound is extremely difficult to conceptualize for a modern thinker. The present reality of music as virtually ubiquitous is an immensely different one from that of pre 1877. Had this remained true, I would have never had the chance to hear the voice of John Lennon. The second insight Peters provides into the significance of recorded sound, is it’s unique nature relative to the preservation of other sensory input, as sound requires includes the fourth dimension of time. Peters asserts, “A captured voice forfeits its body, mortality, and authorial control.” We can see clearly how recording a human voice is a prototypical step toward the idea of the 'post-human'.

A topic discussed by Peters that came up repeatedly in this week's readings was the concept of authenticity, or as he described it, "originals versus doubles" in sound. Is listening to a live performance of Beethoven's Fifth more "authentic" than listening to a recording of the same performance the next day? In Edison's experiments people often could not tell the difference between the recorded sound and the live sound, and yet Benjamin's idea of an 'aura' (discussed below) would lead us to believe that the two could not be given equal weight. Has someone never truly heard a piece of music until they have heard it live? How might that change our perception of the music in our own lives?

Walter Benjamin’s writing investigates the potential for artistic validity within the context of mechanically reproduced media. This is not essentially about art, rather a sociological examination of the value of mechanical reproduction. Benjamin suggests that through ‘cult value’, works of art were historically created for holy places and limited adornment through ritualism (musicking). Benjamin introduces the (in my opinion somewhat vague) idea of ‘Aura’, as integral to ritualistic appreciation of artistic works. He suggests that as mechanical reproductions disembody the art from its ‘Aura’, they thus are applicable to a second type of value, ‘exhibition value’.

Sousa’s position against ‘canned music’ derives from placing ritualistic value upon music. Sousa states contempt toward the movement away from attending public performances and amateur music making in the home (both rituals in a sense). Yet as explored in Gitelman’s writing, mechanical reproductions of music democratized access to ‘high art’, creating ‘exhibition value’. Gitelman’s discussion reveals how the player piano was very much the great grandfather of Guitar Hero, creating musical ‘para-literacies’ among the masses. Sousa failed to see the potential for recordings to allow people to continue enjoying music when it is inaccessible, and it would seem more likely to wet peoples appetites for ‘the real deal’. His pleas forecast those of radio several decades down the road as those of self-defense, rather than genuine interest for society. In fact, I would contend that there is a subtext of indignation toward the public in Sousa’s writing, suggesting that people were not intelligent enough to make their own decisions. Does the ability to listen at home threaten live performance?

If one looks at the data presented by Gitelman, it can be argued that the answer to this question is undoubtedly yes. In the mid 1920s, half of all homes in the U.S. had a piano, even though it may have cost anywhere from half to twice as much as a new Ford Model T (Gitelman 205). During this time the way to enjoy music was to be able to play music (or for your daughter and/or wife to play music) on your home piano. While Sousa sounds quite alarmist and over-the-top in his 1906 article, the fact is that the emergence of the radio, television, and records did have a lasting impact on how music was enjoyed in America. Although this article may have been self-serving because he had something to lose directly from this development (money), it was, and still is, a legitimate issue. However, how many people today would argue that greater access to musical opportunities (even if they are only through listening rather than performing) is a bad thing?

Sousa does arouse sympathy with his plea for composer’s rights. It is astounding that legal arguments were strictly based upon music as a notational system, wholly different from that of the mechanical language of the player piano (again, a distant forerunner of analog/digital technology + hardware/software). As mechanical reproductions reproduce the performance of a piece of music, it is only fair that the composer be compensated for the presentation of that piece of conceptual material. However, a dangerous precipice appears here, which has reached it’s ugly extreme in modern times- copyright as a monopoly on an idea. Rather than protecting the interests of the composer as a means to ensure the safety of arts for the public, copyright holders now hold a complete monopoly upon an idea for the term of their life plus 70 years. This inherently places a stop on artistic progress, and is altogether counterproductive. Fortunately, as demonstrated through all these readings, society tends to follow its own course, and the public has clearly challenged music industry paradigms, and the experience of recorded sound interacting with culture continues to change.

Sousa's paper, while brief, touches on many different topics. He painted a picture where autonomous machines control every aspect of life, and human free will seems to disappear. When he foresaw "a marked deterioration in American music and musical taste," I found this to be strangely prophetic. I suppose there has always been popular and unpopular music, but a deterioration in musical taste really struck me and quite true. Towards the end of this essay, he discusses what, exactly, the meaning of music is. This is an interesting philosophical idea to think about to this day, as different people may have wildly different ideas as to what music is. It is a shame that his idea for copyright protecting the creators of the content has been so wildly distorted today, as copyrighted material is horded by music publishers and record labels, clinging desperately to an outmoded business model.

Sousa's image of the machine-ran world he painted reminded me of a steam-punk society with phonographs calling the shots. While he could not possibly have foreseen the advances in modern technology, specifically as it refers to portable devices that can play back music, allowing music to be played mechanically has led to a much broader community of "composers," creating music with and without traditional notation.

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