Recorded Music: Philosophical and Critical Reflections

June 18, 2009

It was John Philip Sousa, the American composer and band conductor, who in Appleton's Magazine in 1906 coined the term "canned music".

Like so many of Sousa's utterances, it was grumpy and off-the-cuff. He aimed it not at what we now otherwise refer to as "background music", but at the phenomenon of phonographic recording, which was capturing great attention in America at that time. He refused to conduct his own band in recordings, delegating the role to his gifted assistant Arthur Pryor - until it became clear that the phonograph held the key to new realms of fame and fortune, two things to which Sousa was hopelessly addicted.

Despite its subsequent cliche-ridden imprecision, "canned music" was a term prescient of some of the debates that recorded music was to summon: performance fixed to permanence by mechanical means and devoid of the exciting realism of the live event. Recording has underpinned, extended and enriched the infrastructure of the global music industry, provided easy access to great performances and prompted the very existence of some segments of the business. Yet critics and philosophers have identified it as the source of a range of problems, each inviting intricate discursive treatment.

Put simplistically, recordings facilitated aural documentation for the first time. They allowed musicians and others the ability to repeat a listening experience at will: sounds became captured and repeatedly re-revealed for contemplation, scrutiny, delight, transcription and transportation into any spatial environment where appropriate facilities could be arranged.

For the musical world, this was cataclysmic. It was not just a question of the existence and permanence of the documenting of sound: the effect of recording has been neutral for neither performers nor those who listen to them. The age of recording changed the way singers sing, players play, composers write and audiences (of any type) listen.

Such considerations are at the heart of Mine Dogantan-Dack's interesting and generally well-assembled volume, but she and her contributors also reveal other complexities. The range of questions merits the multi-dimensional interrogation that this book offers, and the claim that it breaks new ground by doing so has some truth to it.

The questions are often fundamentally practical as well as theoretical, and they impinge on key issues to do with the phenomenon of recording and the various parties who interact with it. If some contributors make heavy weather of relatively simple matters, there are others who succeed in shedding light on issues of genuine complexity.

There are also recurrent themes that are especially pertinent to current musicology. Paramount, perhaps, is the questioning of the idea, present for the best part of a century in the scholarship of classical music, that musical texts constitute the true embodiment of "the work". The rise of a scholarly interest in recordings is not the only factor that questioned this idea, but it did give it something of an edge.

The shift to the more interrogative approach of performance studies gave rise to the notion that the text is but a set of instructions, a sort of script that reveals and manifests the work only in the moments of its sounding. However, a recording creates a singularity: a performance frozen in time and space that changes only because of the circumstances of its reception. This problem fades somewhat in musical traditions where written texts carry much less significance, but here a different set of considerations arises.

The 17 chapters of the book are placed in five broadly defined sections of varying length and scope: "Questions of ontology and aesthetics" gets six, while Robert Reigle's interesting "Humanistic motivations in ethnomusicological recordings" sits solitarily and awkwardly in a section appropriately titled "An ethnomusicological interlude". Leaving aside the occasional over-indulgence in incomprehensibility, most chapters are interesting and some are compelling.

As well as the ontological offerings, there are absorbing pieces on the fidelity of recordings, their value as musicological sources, the challenges they present to performers in various styles, their impact on the reception of music, and some close examination of well-chosen case studies.

Multi-authored books always provide challenges for readers as well as editors (and reviewers, too), but Dogantan-Dack has done a good job. The book deals with real critical and practical problems, using exemplars that reveal much about the full force and impact of the phonograph and its later manifestations.

In her introduction, she mentions Thomas Edison's speculations in 1878 about the uses to which his invention might be put. Conveying musical performance was not at the top of his list, but as Dogantan-Dack points out, what became the age of recording causes us to question the historical continuity between it and that which preceded it. This book reminds us of the full weight of the idea.

Recorded Music: Philosophical and Critical Reflections

Edited by Mine Dogantan-Dack. Middlesex University Press. 400pp, £30.00. ISBN 97819047507. Published 1 September 2008

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