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For some, however, the absence of an audience may be welcome, providing respite from the stress and distractions of concert performance. In a classical concert, coughing, snoring, talking, program rustling, and candy-wrapper crinkling may fluster or irritate the performer; at a pop concert audiences may in fact be louder than the performers, and can distract the musicians in any number of other ways. Removing the audience may therefore permit a sharper focus on making music to the artist’s own satisfaction. Violinist Yehudi Menuhin, for one, valued recording for allowing him a “monastic dedication which is oblivious of audience.”50 As with every aspect of recording, the mutual invisibility of performer and listener offers both drawbacks and benefits, though in all cases it presents challenges to which both parties must respond.


Sing a single note. Now try to recreate that sound exactly—not simply its pitch, but its precise volume, length, intensity, timbre, attack, and decay. Now imagine trying to repeat an entire song in this way, down to the smallest detail. It simply cannot be done. The impossibility of such an exercise reveals what is perhaps the most unbridgeable difference between live and recorded music: live performances are unique, while recordings are repeatable.

This statement deserves further explanation. Live music is in fact repeatable, but in the form of works, not performances.51 That is, any orchestra can play Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony many times; each performance, however, will necessarily be different. Second, to say that a recorded performance is repeated without change is not to deny that a listener may 24 CAUS E S experience a recording differently from one hearing to another, whether by adjusting the playback equipment or by focusing on different aspects of the music. I mean only that the actions that created the sound one hears on a recording are fixed, and do not change when the recording is replayed.

This difference between live and recorded music may not seem especially momentous, but in fact it may have the most complex and far-reaching consequences of any of the technology’s attributes discussed in this chapter. Given this complexity, it would be helpful to approach the influence of repeatability from three different perspectives: that of listening, that of performing, and that of composing.

For listeners, repetition raises expectations. This is true in live performance; once we’ve heard Beethoven’s Fifth in concert, we assume it will start with the same famous four notes the next time we hear it. But with recordings, we can also come to expect features that are unique to a particular performance—that a certain note will be out of tune, say. With sufficient repetition, listeners may normalize interpretive features of a performance or even mistakes, regarding them as integral not only to the performance but to the music. In other words, listeners may come to think of an interpretation as the work itself. When I was young, for example, I was particularly fond of Pablo de Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen, one of the flashier showpieces in the violin repertoire. I came to know the piece through Jascha Heifetz’s 1951 recording, which I listened to obsessively until every nuance of the performance was ingrained in my musical memory.52 One such nuance was actually an error: in m. 9 of the first movement (0:34 in the recording), the violinist accidentally plucks his open E string.

Though I knew the plucked E to be a mistake, I came to expect it not only when listening to Heifetz’s recording but whenever hearing the work, even in concert. In fact, I would be a bit surprised and even disappointed when I did not hear that E. Though I knew better, on a certain level I regarded that wayward note to be part of the piece.

Expectations can also be raised by sounds that originate not from a performance at all, but from defects in playback equipment or individual recordings. Anthropologist Thomas Porcello tells of the intense expectancy he experienced when listening to recordings afflicted with print-through—

a defect in the recording process that results in a faint pre-echo:

–  –  –

However arbitrary or incidental, such sonic artifacts can and do affect the listening experience, and do so by virtue of their repetition. If these two examples of raised expectations seem somewhat arbitrary, we can be sure that they stand in for countless experiences of listeners who may not even realize the power of repetition.

The repeatability of recorded sound has affected listeners’ expectations on a much broader scope as well. When the phonograph was invented, the goal for any recording was to simulate a live performance, to approach reality as closely as possible. Over the decades, expectations have changed.

For many—perhaps most—listeners, music is now primarily a technologically mediated experience. Concerts must therefore live up to recordings. Given that live music had for millennia been the only type of music, it is amazing to see how quickly it has been supplanted as model and ideal.

The impact of recording’s repeatability on performers is no less significant. In concert the artist is typically concerned with the first—and only— impression, but with recordings, “shelf life” must be considered. Professional musicians have long been aware of these differences, and have often felt the need to minimize errors and even otherwise acceptable mannerisms when recording, for such “deviations” may become distracting with unchanging repetition. David Soyer, cellist for the Guarneri Quartet, has made this point: “Recordings have a tendency to iron out the eccentric, idiosyncratic, personal things that happen in a concert hall.”54 But what happens when listeners are repeatedly exposed to note-perfect recordings?

Do they then expect and demand similar performances? And do performers then feel the need to meet such expectations? Undoubtedly, such feedback loops are created, with performers striving to recreate their recordings.

Critic and historian Joseph Horowitz observed this in a concert performance of Brahms’s Symphony no. 1, which he described as “machine-like” 26 CAUS E S and “precision-tooled,” concluding that the Chicago Symphony had perfectly imitated the sound of an orchestra “fed through giant speakers.” In other words, “they sounded like a phonograph record.”55 At least they were actually playing. Many pop stars, and even some classical musicians, have been known to lip-synch to their own recordings. (The Milli Vanilli case was unusual only in that they were pretending to sing to someone else’s recordings.) But such phonograph effects are certainly not a necessary consequence of recording. Witness what appears to be the increasing popularity of live recordings—the recent releases by classical violinist AnneSophie Mutter and rock group Pearl Jam being two very different examples—which preserve spontaneous, idiosyncratic, even messy performances. These offerings, which seem to represent a reaction against overproduced recordings, suggest that the unique qualities of the live performance are still highly valued.

Repeatability has also affected musicians in their capacity as listeners.

With recordings, performers can study, emulate, or imitate performances in a way never before possible. In the early days of recording, this possibility was trumpeted as a gift to all musicians, who could learn from the world’s great masters by studying their discs.56 For performers of popular music, recordings have been especially valuable learning aids. The available scores do not always represent performances adequately, and they cannot easily indicate the timbres and sonic effects that musicians seek to develop. An aspiring rock guitarist once explained why he studied recordings instead of scores: “I want to hear what the thing sounds like, and there ain’t no way a sheet of paper sounds like Jimi Hendrix.”57 As I will explain in chapter 3, the study of recordings is also crucial to the development of jazz musicianship, and has been for generations.

On the other hand, some have worried that repeatability may lead performers to mimic great artists without emulating their spirit, or to create bland patchwork interpretations based on their favorite recordings. The violinist Miha Pogacnik told of visiting a colleague who was preparing the Brahms Violin Concerto by listening to twenty different LPs of the work.

“This was reflected in his playing,” Pogacnik lamented: “two measures of poor Milstein here, four measures of second-rate Oistrakh and Szeryng there.”58 Performers exploit repeatability by studying not only the recordings of


other musicians, but their own as well. In 1905 soprano Adelina Patti was finally persuaded to commit her famous voice to wax. After singing a short selection, she heard her recorded voice for the first time. “My God!” she reportedly exclaimed, “now I understand why I am Patti! What a voice!

What an artist!”59 While most of those hearing themselves for the first time are probably less enchanted, surprise seems to be the universal reaction.

Soprano Joan Morris, for example, “practically had a cow” upon hearing herself for the first time.60 Once over this initial shock, however, performers often find recording quite useful in allowing them to assess their work at a temporal and spatial distance—an impossibility before the invention of the repeatable recording.61 In listening to themselves musicians may hear mistakes—unnoticed during a performance—which can then be corrected. Sometimes, however, what performers notice is not errors, but aspects of style or interpretation. What may have felt right in the heat of performance may in retrospect sound overdone and contrived or, at the other extreme, flat and lifeless. Probably all recording artists modify their playing to a certain extent when a desired sound is not heard. Soprano Martina Arroyo has suggested how this process might work. “There are some... who say, ‘Oh no, I do exactly the same thing in recording as in live performance.’ But what happens is that... when you hear [yourself ] you adjust without even knowing, because you say ‘Ah, that’s not exactly the way I want to sound.’ And you adjust, perhaps without being aware that in a performance you wouldn’t have made that adjustment.”62 Consider also the testimony of French composer and pianist Camille Saint-Saëns, who made his first recording in 1900. “While the phonograph was repeating what I had played,” he reported, “I listened with much curiosity and interest. I at once saw, or rather heard, two grave mistakes that I had made. In one part the music was more quick than I had intended, and in another the rhythm was faulty. These mistakes I subsequently corrected.”63 But what was Saint-Saëns really hearing? Perhaps what he described was not so much an error but the type of rhythmic inflection typical of early-twentieth-century performance as documented on countless recordings of the time. Such inflections probably passed unnoticed during the performance, but heard in retrospect may well have seemed objectionable, even wrong. I would speculate that as classical performers became accustomed to making and hearing repeatable performances, they 28 CAUS E S gradually began to correct certain rhythmic “errors,” by minimizing smallscale tempo fluctuations and curbing the once common habit of altering the length and placement of notes. I believe that this response to repeatability, in conjunction with the “tightening” of tempo I mentioned earlier, has led to a striking change in the way modern classical performers approach musical time.64 For performers, repeatability is thus a double-edged sword, equally capable of enriching and burdening their work. Its impact may also be more subtle and far-reaching, for if control and precision have become central values in classical performance due in part to this trait of the technology, then recording affects not only technique, but aesthetics.

Like performers, composers have also had an ambivalent relationship with the repeatability of recordings. Some have seen it as an advantage.

Expressing an oft-repeated sentiment, George Gershwin wrote in 1933 that “the composer, in my estimation, has been helped a great deal by the mechanical reproduction of music.... Music is written to be heard, and any instrument that tends to help it be heard more frequently and by great numbers is advantageous to the person who writes it.”65 Yet repeatability can also have a negative side for composers. Second-rate concert performances fade away, but inferior recordings live on to distort or misrepresent a composer’s music every time they are replayed. In a 1937 essay, Béla Bartók described the musical work as a living, evolving entity, suggesting that even composers’ own recordings may ill serve their music.

Aaron Copland agreed, writing that the “unpredictable element, so essential in keeping music truly alive... dies with the second playing of a record.”66 Phonographic repetition has deeply affected the ways in which composers’ works are circulated and received by listeners. Some have speculated that repeatability may have even greater power, influencing the compositional process itself. Jonathan Kramer has suggested that certain early-twentieth-century composers, particularly Arnold Schoenberg, responded to the nature of the medium by minimizing repetition in their works: “It seems as if composers realized subconsciously that their music would be recorded and thus available to listeners for repeated hearings.”67 The connection Kramer proposes is provocative, but unlikely. Schoenberg had only the barest interaction with the medium. None of his composiCAUS E S tions appeared on disc until well into his career, and he did not make his first studio recording until he was in his sixties. Moreover, Schoenberg showed little enthusiasm for the phonograph. As he wrote in 1926, he saw “no advantage” in the mechanization of music.68 Given his sparse recording activity and ambivalence toward the medium, it seems doubtful that he would have altered his compositional technique, even subconsciously, in response to the repeatability of recording.69 Nevertheless, I agree with Kramer that repeatability may influence the work of composers. Yet the effect is quite the opposite: recording has begotten whole genres whose identity is fundamentally connected to repetition.

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