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January 30, 2004

TT: Six of one

As you know, I'm all tied up writing an essay about Kandinsky and Schoenberg for Commentary, so in lieu of something brand-new, here's a column I wrote for Fi, the now-defunct audio-and-music magazine, back in 1997. I doubt anybody who reads this blog will remember it--in fact, I doubt any of you read it in the first place! I think it's still relevant, too, though regular readers of "About Last Night" will know that I wouldn't put it quite the same way today....

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Was the invention of the phonograph a good thing for music?

This question will no doubt strike the average audiophile as a bit peculiar, if not actually bizarre: anybody prepared to shell out ten thousand bucks for a pair of speakers is by definition a true believer in the virtues of recorded sound. But as far back as John Philip Sousa, thoughtful musicians were expressing serious reservations about its possible effects on music--with good reason, as it turned out. For the phonograph completely transformed Western musical culture, and the fact that we now take this transformation for granted doesn't lessen its significance in the slightest.

It's no secret, for instance, that the rise of the phonograph basically killed off domestic music-making. My grandfather, who was born a century ago, played banjo, but neither of my parents played any instrument at all, and when I started making music, it was at school, not home; I am the sole member of my extended family who not only learned a musical instrument as a child but also continued to play as an adult. What's more, I majored in music in college, making me even less typical of my fellow baby-boomers: I have just one close friend who plays classical music on a purely amateur basis.

To be sure, I have a lot of other friends who listen to classical music, but I'm struck by how few of them go to concerts at all regularly: their participation in the culture of classical music consists mainly of buying compact discs. Indeed, I know thoroughly civilized people who actively disdain concertgoing, preferring to shovel money into the care and feeding of high-end systems. I don't mean to knock them--they love music as much as I do--but it seems to me that there is something fundamentally parasitical about their love: they reap the benefits of the musical culture without directly supporting it. This is part of what Benjamin Britten was getting at when he called the phonograph "the principal enemy of music," adding that "it is not part of true musical experience." Sitting down in your living room and throwing on a CD is not the same thing as going to a concert, much less playing for your own pleasure: though it can be intensely meaningful, it is nevertheless experience once removed.

Needless to say, this coin has two sides. Leafing through B.H. Haggin's Music in the Nation the other day, I ran across this revealing passage:

Haydn's Symphony No. 104...I heard for the first time a year ago; and several others of the London symphonies I have never heard at all; nor have I ever heard performances of a number of Haydn's clavier sonatas that are superb pieces of music. I began to attend concerts in 1914, but didn't hear Mozart's Piano Concerto K. 467 until 1934, his K. 595 until 1936, his K. 491 and K. 271 until 1937; Webster Aitken's recent performance of K. 450...was the first I had heard since 1922; and I have yet to hear a performance of K. 453.

Haggin wrote those lines fifty-eight years ago. Today they sound--well, quaint. At a time when Le Sacre du Printemps takes up a full column in the Schwann/Opus record catalogue, it's easy to forget how the phonograph made it possible for serious music lovers to do an end run around the entrenched conservatism of symphony orchestras and big-money soloists.

What was true of a lifelong New Yorker in the '30s was triply true of a small-town Missouri boy in the '60s: I lived hundreds of miles away from the nearest concert hall, and it was through the phonograph that I became part of the larger world of music. I fell in love with Stravinsky and Shostakovich because my high-school library had a well-chosen classical record collection; I bought Toscanini reissues at Wal-Mart for $2.98 a pop, not because I knew who Toscanini was but because they were cheap (and because I loved those classy Robert Hupka photos on the jackets). Nor was my youthful musical life entirely passive: I learned the Brahms D Minor Sonata as a teenage violinist solely because the local piano store happened to have a dusty copy of David Oistrakh's Angel recording in its lone classical bin, and I taught myself the rudiments of jazz bass by listening to my father's battered copies of In a Mellotone and Jazz Goes to College, thereby taking my place in a line of descent that started with Bix Beiderbecke, who taught himself cornet by playing along with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band's earliest 78s. Without the phonograph, jazz might well have vanished into the humid night air of New Orleans, to be remembered only by those who first played and heard it; instead, it became America's principal contribution to twentieth-century music, known around the world.

It may well be that the most important thing about the phonograph is its unique capacity to reproduce and disseminate those aspects of musical performance which cannot be notated. (If you doubt this, take a moment to reflect on the difference between reading about The Who and listening to Live at Leeds.) This capacity is not without its disadvantages. For one thing, it has caused us to grossly overemphasize the role of execution in musical experience: veteran record collectors habitually spend far too much time talking about whose recording of the Bartók Violin Concerto is best, and not nearly enough talking about the Bartók Violin Concerto itself. But it has also made it possible for us to re-experience great performances of the past--including, among many other things, the world premiere of the Bartók Violin Concerto. I've been listening to old records for well over half my lifetime, and yet it never quite ceases to amaze me that simply by pushing a button, I can hear Joseph Joachim playing Bach, or Louis Armstrong rapping out that golden introduction to "West End Blues."

As this example suggests, collectors of historical recordings are perhaps most vividly aware of the power of the phonograph to take the evanescent and make it permanent. But there is a sense in which all recordings are historical, no matter how recently they were made. I've recently spent several blissful hours listening to Turn Out the Stars, an extraordinary six-CD set of previously unreleased recordings made by Bill Evans at the Village Vanguard in 1980, just three months before he died. These performances may not be "historical" in the same way that, say, Percy Grainger's 1925 recording of the Chopin B Minor Sonata is "historical," but they've certainly changed my understanding of Bill Evans' artistic development--I had no idea how brilliantly he was playing at the very end of his life--and I suspect they will have a powerful effect on the way jazz historians of the future write about Evans. Yet we wouldn't have known the difference had these performances not been recorded (and, just as important, released).

As it happens, I never heard Bill Evans play in person: he died before I moved to Manhattan. Thus, my whole knowledge of his playing derives from his recordings. In fact, I suspect most of the really important musical experiences of my life (not counting the ones in which I was a participant) have come to me not in the flesh but through the medium of recorded sound. Since I moved to New York, I've attended my fair share of live musical performances of all kinds. But even during that time, there has been no shortage of important artists whom I first heard on record. Four who come immediately to mind are Anne Sofie von Otter, Diana Krall, Alison Krauss and Liz Phair, all of whom are now central to my listening life, both on record and in concert; had the phonograph not been invented, I might never have heard any of them.

It is for this reason that I find it difficult to wave the Luddite banner with any real enthusiasm. Of course recorded sound is a mixed blessing: we pay a price for its ubiquity, and that price is getting steeper. But all blessings are mixed, and it is up to us to make the best of them. If I had to choose between the continued survival of the Podunk Philharmonic and the existence of the recordings of Louis Armstrong, I'd probably take a deep breath and vote for Louis--but it's our job as music lovers to make sure that such choices never become necessary. You might think about that the next time you decide to blow ten thousand bucks on a pair of speakers instead of buying a subscription to your local opera company.

Posted January 30, 2004 12:02 PM

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