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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.15 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.”16 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 striking effect of the new medium was that it seemed to facilitate 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.17 It has also been reported that when new gamelans are made nowadays they are often tuned to match a frequently recorded gamelan.18 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 the 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.”19 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, 14 CAUS E S 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 picó of modern-day Cartagena, Colombia.20 A picó is a large, elaborately designed sound system used to supply music for dance parties. Owners take great pride in their fancifully adorned picós, 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 picó 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 Colombia. 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 picó culture. As the picó 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.

Globetrotting recordings have also been deeply meaningful to composers, and have changed, even started, many careers. For the bandleader and composer Alton Adams (1889–1987), hearing 78s of John Philip Sousa was a formative experience. As a young man living in the Virgin Islands, he had no other access to this music. “How well do I recall,” he wrote late in his life, “the many hours spent in rhapsodic ecstasy, listening outside the residence of a devotee of the art to the recordings of beautiful music— orchestral and band selections, operatic arias, and so forth, but particularly... the marches of Sousa.... After each of these musical experiences, stretched on my bed, I would then imaginatively conduct a Sousa’s band in one of my own compositions.”21 Adams, a black composer living in a black society, was influenced by the recordings of a white musician. Darius Milhaud, a white European, found great value in the discs of black jazz musicians. “Thanks to the phonograph,” he wrote in 1924, “I will be able to play the discs of black music—recorded and published by blacks—that I brought back from the United States. It is truly very precious to be able to study the folklore of all the world thanks to this machine.”22 Records,


and with them musical influence, traveled not only from north to south and west to east, but from east to west as well. Hearing discs of Balinese gamelan music in 1929 proved decisive to the career of Canadian Colin McPhee, leading to his move to Bali in 1931 and immersion in its music and culture.23 Steve Reich’s exposure to recordings of African music in the 1950s made a similar impression, and indirectly led to his visit to Ghana and to his 1971 work Drumming.24 Even when recordings aren’t winging their way across continents, they can move easily within our daily lives, detaching music from its traditional times, venues, and rituals. While hardly noteworthy today, such possibilities were once considered radical. In 1923 British writer Orlo Williams made what would today seem an oddly superfluous argument: that it should be perfectly acceptable to listen to recorded music at any time of the day. He offered a scenario involving a wealthy bachelor, and intercut his description with the imagined responses of a hidebound reader.

He comes down to breakfast at half-past nine: he skims the headlines of his paper over the kidneys and reads the feuilleton over his marmalade. Then, if I am right, he lights a large but mild cigar, sinks into an armchair, and rings for the butler to set the gramophone going. “My dear fellow...” you say in expostulation, “how absurd... how could anybody... I mean... can’t you see?” I apologise. Imagination, yours at any rate, boggles at the thought: yet what I see in alluring clearness, is a gentleman tastefully attired, smoking in an easy but not too soft a chair, while at ten o’clock on a sunny morning, he listens to the voice of Caruso issuing from a little cupboard in a mahogany cabinet.

It seems hard to believe that anyone would be shocked by such a scene.

Yet because it had never been customary, morning music—especially opera—must have disrupted the fabric of daily life. “Here,” Williams explained, “we touch one of the ingrained superstitions of the Englishman, that music, except for the purpose of scales and exercises, is not decent at such an early part of the day.” But its “indecency,” he argued, was merely a function of its previous impracticality. There should be no reason, he concluded, to avoid listening to music in certain ways simply because they only recently became possible.25 Today, of course, the morning listener raises no eyebrows; in fact, listening to the radio or recordings during breakCAUS E S fast is for some as ingrained a habit as breakfasting in silence must have been for people of earlier eras.

The portability of recordings has also allowed listeners to determine not only when and where they hear music, but with whom they listen. Solitary listening, widespread today, has been an important manifestation of this possibility. The practice, however, has not always been common. In the 1923 article just cited, Orlo Williams wondered how one might react upon walking in on a friend who is listening to recorded music... alone. His answer illustrates the puzzlement that may once have met solitary listening.

You would think it odd, would you not? You would endeavour to dissemble your surprise: you would look twice to see whether some other person were not hidden in some corner of the room, and if you found no such one would painfully blush, as if you had discovered your friend sniffing cocaine, emptying a bottle of whisky, or plaiting straws in his hair. People, we think, should not do things “to themselves,” however much they may enjoy doing them in company: they may not even talk to themselves without incurring grave suspicion. And I fear that if I were discovered listening to the Fifth Symphony without a chaperon to guarantee my sanity, my friends would fall away with grievous shaking of the head.26 Even if a bit melodramatic, Williams’s remarks remind us that before the advent of recording, listening to music had always been a communal activity. In prephonographic times it had been for the most part neither practical nor possible to hear music alone. Listening was a culturally significant activity, for music accompanied central communal events, including birth or death rites, weddings, and religious festivals. Solitary listening, then, contradicted centuries of tradition. Nevertheless, the practice came to be accepted. In 1931, one writer touted its advantages: “Alone with the phonograph, all the unpleasant externals are removed: the interpreter has been disposed of; the audience has been disposed of; the uncomfortable concert hall has been disposed of. You are alone with the composer and his music. Surely no more ideal circumstances could be imagined.”27 Today, solitary listeners are everywhere, in living rooms, dorm rooms, bathrooms, offices, cars, and anywhere they might take a portable player. But there is still something strange about seeing people in public places, plugged into the earphones of the players they tote around as an emphysemic might


carry an oxygen tank. (For many, in fact, music is as necessary as oxygen.) Journalist Paul Fahri wonderfully captured that strangeness, evoking images from the classic horror movie Night of the Living Dead: “It is so familiar now that we don’t see or hear it anymore. It is the look and sound of the Walkman dead: the head cocked at a slight angle, the mouth gently lolling. From about the skull comes a tinny low buzzing sound, like metallic bees. The eyes flicker with consciousness, but they don’t see. They’re somewhere else.”28 Perhaps we should not wonder that solitary listening was once considered unusual, but rather that it should have come to be so widely, unremarkably practiced. The same is true for the act of listening to music far removed from one’s home or culture or of experiencing music whenever and with whomever one wishes. In each case, the portability of recording has made the once unimaginable commonplace.

(I N)VISI B I LITY Imagine that it is 1916 and you are shopping for records. Upon entering a store you are invited to take what is called “The Edison Realism Test.” You are led to a quiet spot where you find a phonograph, a chair, and a scrapbook, and are handed a sheet of paper with a set of six instructions.

First, you are to choose the type of music you would like to hear. Next you are asked to sit facing away from the phonograph while looking at a scrapbook of concert reviews and photographs of musicians (all Edison recording artists, naturally). Then you are directed to remember the last time you witnessed a performance of the music you have chosen to hear.

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