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It is often forgotten that minimalism—whose most salient trait is the repetition and gradual development of brief musical cells—was indelibly shaped by recording technology. Steve Reich’s early minimalist works came out of his experiments in the mid-1960s with tape loops. A tape loop is a length of recorded magnetic tape with its ends connected, so that when played on a reel-to-reel machine (the available technology at the time), the music repeats indefinitely. Purely by accident, Reich discovered that when trying to play two copies of the same loop simultaneously on different machines, the loops very slowly went in and out of synch, creating a type of musical process that he called phase shifting. Reich explored phase shifting in his tape works It’s Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966), which he described as “realizations of an idea that was indigenous to machines.”70 He later applied the idea to non-tape works such as Piano Phase (1967) and Clapping Music (1972), demonstrating the deep influence of recording technology on his writing. It is interesting to note that minimalism is often derogated as “broken-record music.” Flutist and conductor Ransom Wilson, who later came to perform the minimalist works of Philip Glass,

initially had this reaction to Glass’s five-hour opera Einstein on the Beach:

“The music seemed to have no direction, almost giving the impression of a gigantic phonograph with a stuck needle.”71 Despite the dismissive tone of such statements, the link to recording technology is apt. And although it may just be coincidence, it is worth noting that the repeated motives heard in many minimalist works are often about two seconds long, the same time it takes an LP to complete a single rotation.

A decade after Steve Reich was experimenting with tape loops in San Francisco, hip-hop DJs in the Bronx found that a fragment of music could 30 CAUS E S be repeated indefinitely by switching back and forth between two copies of the same LP, each on its own turntable. (See chapter 6 for a fuller account of what came to be known as turntablism.) These repeated musical fragments were also called loops, and became the basic structural unit in the instrumental accompaniment in rap. Even in the digital age, loops persist; listen to any rap song today and you are likely to hear an instrumental foundation of loops, though now the fragments are sampled and are no longer repeated manually. Although hip-hop and minimalism are rarely uttered in the same sentence—they share little by way of sound or audience—we find an unexpected kinship in their mutual reliance on mechanical repetition.

Repeatability is perhaps the most complex of recording’s traits. It will arise in nearly every chapter of this book, and figures prominently in the discussion of jazz improvisation, classical violin playing, the computer music of Paul Lansky, and the hip-hop of Public Enemy. If nothing else, the diversity of responses to repeatability should dispel any notion of strict technological determinism, for such wildly disparate phonograph effects demonstrate that there can be no simple cause-effect relationship between recording technology and the activities of its users.


With the advent of sound recording, a new rigidity was introduced into the world of music, one imposed not by performers or audiences, but by a machine. Although over the decades the time limitation has become less severe, for the seventy-one years between the invention of the phonograph and the introduction of the long-playing disc (1877 to 1948) recordings could play no more than about four and one-half minutes of music continuously.72 Thus, for more than seven decades, listeners, performers, and composers had to live and work with a severe and arbitrary restriction, one that constantly impinged on their activities.

For listeners living in the pre-LP era, the brevity of recordings was, most superficially, a nuisance. Blues singer Son House recalled the trials of the phonograph owner in the 1920s: these included “gettin’ up, settin’ it back, turnin’ it around, crankin’ the crank, primin’ it up, and lettin’ the horn down,” all to be repeated every few minutes.73 Of greater consequence,

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My father has long held that Brahms wrote weak transitions, a position I simply couldn’t fathom. One day, we were listening to the finale of the 1st symphony, just at the point of the syncopated climax preceding the continued recap [mm. 289–301] and Dad said, “Here comes one of those bad transitions.” After the recap got under way, he allowed as how it was not a weak transition, but that he remembered it as such. I asked him how he had first gotten to know the work, and he said it was through a stack of 78 RPM discs. I asked if the passage in question marked one of the side breaks, and he said, somewhat surprised, that it did.74 The elder Mead’s experience recalls Theodor Adorno’s concept of “atomized listening.” Atomized listening, which Adorno linked directly to both recording and radio, privileges the perception of works as collections of seemingly disconnected moments rather than unified compositions.75 It is impossible to know how common this phonograph effect may have been—information on it can only be collected anecdotally—but given that generations of listeners grew up with cylinders and 78s, the phenomenon must have been pervasive. Moreover, I would speculate that the persistence of the three-minute pop song (more on which later) in an age when song lengths are no longer dictated by the capacity of 78s and 45s may well be a manifestation of atomized listening. The repetition of short pop songs over the decades almost certainly created a feedback loop in which listeners have come to expect works to be of a certain length and in which performers strive (or are pressured) to meet that expectation.

For performers, the impact of the technologically imposed time limitation is clearer. Most obviously, the four-minute limit affected repertoire.

In theory, any piece, no matter how long, could have been recorded by breaking it into segments, and even whole operas were released in the era of the 78-rpm disc. Practically speaking, however, the time limitation 32 CAUS E S encouraged performers to record shorter pieces. Any survey of record catalogs from the early part of the century will reveal the dominance of character pieces, arias, marches, and brief popular song and dance numbers, while a similar study of concert programs would show that longer works— sonatas, concertos, symphonies, musicals, and operas—were quite common. It was not long before the time limitation affected not only what musicians recorded but also what they performed in public. We see a striking example of this influence in violinist Maud Powell’s Carnegie Hall “Record Recital” of 1917. Part publicity stunt, part serious venture, the concert consisted of seventeen works chosen by the public from her recorded catalog. While typical violin recitals of the time would have offered a combination of shorter and longer works of various genres, Powell’s featured mostly character pieces, and all of them—by necessity— were brief.76 In the 1950s, violin recital programs began to change, comprising fewer but longer works (mostly sonatas); not coincidentally, I believe, the new format arose only after the introduction of the long-playing record, an innovation that made it easier to commit such larger-scale works to disc.

The various characteristics of recording technology affect musicians of all types, and the same is true for the time limitation. Returning to the example of Hindustani music, Suman Ghosh has pointed out that while on disc whole pieces are compressed into just a few minutes, in a live setting “the performance of the raaga, the melodic structure of Hindustani music, has rarely taken less than an hour, and it often stretched well beyond two or three hours.”77 In Algerian raï, the length of performances is traditionally determined by the amount of money listeners are willing to pay to keep the musicians playing a favorite song, or alternatively, the amount of money competing audience members will pay to hear a different song.

“In raï,” scholar Marc Schade-Poulesen explains, “a song rarely had a ‘full length,’ [for] the music was embedded in a social relation which began and ended according to the money involved.”78 In the recording studio, however, the amount of tape available determines when raï begins and ends.

And as I will explain further in chapter 3, the same was true with early jazz performers, who often stretched pieces out in concert well beyond three or four minutes, but had to plan their music making quite differently upon entering the studio. These examples should not surprise us, for much of


the world’s music exists in the oral tradition, with the length of performances fixed almost solely by the dictates of performers and listeners.

Before leaving the subject of performance length, I want to address a common misconception. It is often said that in the early 1900s Western classical musicians played faster in the studio than they would have in concert in order to stay within the time allotted by the 78-rpm disc. Although it may have happened on occasion, there is little evidence to suggest such a trend. If that had been the case, we would expect, for example, that the LP recordings Jascha Heifetz and Yehudi Menuhin made of the Beethoven Violin Concerto in the 1950s would be slower than their 78-rpm recordings of the work from the 1940s; yet both of their later recordings are faster, not slower, than the earlier ones.79 More conclusively, José Bowen’s study of tempo and duration in hundreds of twentieth-century orchestral recordings shows no decisive change in tempo over the course of the century. In fact, some works have gotten faster over the decades.80 Rather than rushing through a piece, performers were more inclined to accommodate the time limitation by cutting music. This was very common, as I have found in my own study of early-twentieth-century violin recordings.81 Many of the concerto and sonata recordings from the 78 era had significant cuts. Even shorter pieces were sometimes truncated. For example, Mischa Elman’s 1910 recording of the violin-piano transcription of Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat omits fully one-quarter of the piece.82 While the nocturne can be played in its entirety on a ten-inch 78, Elman’s redaction allowed him to take a quite leisurely pace. In fact, in comparing works recorded over the course of the century, I found the slowest tempos most frequently on the earlier recordings. For Elman, and the countless others who recorded abbreviated works, it would seem that playing at a desired tempo was more important than playing all the notes. Apparently, there are certain changes performers are not willing to make, regardless of the limitations of the technology.

Perhaps surprisingly, however, composers were often willing to cut their own music. Edward Elgar, for example, was merciless in editing his works for the studio. For a 1916 recording of his Violin Concerto he reduced the score so that the performance would take only four record sides. Modern recordings of the work usually fill fifty minutes or more; Elgar’s lasts about twenty.83 Fritz Kreisler’s Caprice viennois shows another approach. The 34 CAUS E S sketches for this violin showpiece reveal that the work originally ended with a varied repetition of an earlier section (the presto in 3/8).84 Kreisler cut that section before recording it in 1910; had it remained, the work would have been too long for even a twelve-inch disc. (His several recordings of the piece average about 3:25.) Kreisler often recorded his works shortly after writing them, so he may have composed with the limitations of the medium in mind. Indeed, fellow violinist Carl Flesch noted that Kreisler’s short pieces were “put together with a watch in the hand. They were intended first and foremost for the gramophone.”85 A number of composers wrote works specifically for the length of the

78. In 1934, Roy Harris composed a four-minute-twenty-second-long work for flute and string quartet that he called, appropriately enough, Four Minutes-20 Seconds. The title and its duration are significant to the work’s origins, for Harris composed it to accompany the set of discs on which his Symphony no. 1 was recorded.86 The symphony took up seven record sides, leaving the last side of the fourth disc blank. Harris was asked to provide a piece to fill out the set. Harris was hardly alone in tailoring a work to fit on one side of a 78-rpm record: eminent composers such as Edward Elgar, Gabriel Fauré, Paul Hindemith, Vincent d’Indy, Fritz Kreisler, Ruggero Leoncavallo, Gabriel Pierné, Kurt Weill, and, as we know from the introduction, Igor Stravinsky, did the same, whether to accompany a composition that filled an odd number of sides, or on commission by a phonograph company.87 The time limitation affected popular music even more deeply. Martin Williams suggested that some early blues singers crafted the narrative structure of their songs specifically to fit the playing time of the 78, while Gunther Schuller has pointed out that Duke Ellington’s mastery of the small form was born out of the same technologically imposed necessity.88 The three-minute pop song itself may be considered a phonograph effect.

In the late 1940s, RCA Victor introduced the 45-rpm record as an alternative to the 33⅓-rpm long-playing format that Columbia had developed.

Because of its limited playing time—about the same as a 78—the 45 could not compete with the LP for recording classical music. Instead, it became the standard format for pop, and remained so for decades. Although popular music was sometimes released on LPs beginning in the 1950s, few musicians took advantage of the possibility to record longer works.89 The rea

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Joel is making a bitter and thinly veiled reference to his 1973 song “Piano Man,” which stands at 5:37 on the album but was cut nearly in half for radio play, much to his obvious displeasure.

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