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Perhaps Joel is an exception, but there is reason to think otherwise. Rock musicians often extend their performances considerably in concert, where there is less concern about the salability or “radio friendliness” of the performances. To offer just a few examples, consider Eric Clapton’s “Blues Power” and “Cocaine”—the studio recordings are 3:06 and 3:35, while the recorded concert performances are more than twice as long at 7:21 and 7:24.91 Or compare Jimi Hendrix’s live performances of “Killing Floor” and “Hey Joe” in 1967, which come in at 8:05 and 6:44, to the earlier studio versions, much briefer at 2:27 and 3:23.92 Clearly, not all pop musicians are satisfied with the customary 180 seconds allotted them.

What determines the length of a live performance? Any of a thousand factors, whether the length of a written composition, the inspiration of a performer, the time it takes for a bride to march down the aisle, or the desire of dancers to keep shimmying. Yet of these countless possibilities, few of them fix with any great specificity or regularity the length of performances. Recording, however, parcels performances into fixed segments, regardless of the inclinations of artists or audiences. While this might seem solely a disservice to music, listeners, performers, and composers have, as we’ve seen, adapted in varied and remarkable ways to this fact of modern musical life.


The room was usually small, windowless, overheated, and empty, save for a large megaphone-shaped horn and a small red light or perhaps a buzzer attached to one wall. No vast stage, no ornate hall, no warm applause greeted the performer’s entrance into this, a typical early-twentiethcentury recording studio. A session began not with a performance, but with a series of tests. These tests established the type of recording horn and stylus to be used, the optimal distance between performer and horn, and the dynamic range allowed by the equipment. When all the tests were complete, the performance could start, but not at the artist’s discretion.

The red light would flash, the buzzer would sound, or an engineer would gesture, and the performer would begin. During the performance, musicians had to be careful not to make extraneous, recordable noises, not to gesture unduly (lest they knock the equipment over), and not to sing or play too loudly or too softly. After the performance was finished, total silence was necessary—any exclamation of relief, joy, or disappointment would ruin the recording. Thus ended the first take. (See Figure 1.) g i F Fast-forward nearly a century. A great deal has changed, and the performer entering a modern studio encounters not an oversized horn, but a multitude of microphones that can pick up any sound in the range of human hearing. Yet despite all the changes in recording technology, one constant remains: no recording equipment, from the simplest acoustic horn to the most sophisticated microphone, is sensitive to sound in the same way as the human ear. The earliest technology was far inferior to its biological model; the latest is in some ways more sensitive. Yet for more than a hundred years recording artists have had to adjust to the special nature of these devices, whether insensitive or hypersensitive.

Before the introduction of microphones in the mid-1920s, all recordings were made using the acoustic, or mechanical, process. Musicians sang or played into a recording horn, which funneled the sound to a narrow opening covered with a flexible membrane (often of mica or glass); the diaphragm, as it was called, transferred the vibrations to a stylus, which in turn engraved a cylinder or disc. No electricity was involved.

The demands this system placed on performers were tremendous. Soft

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and loud notes, for instance, demanded drastically different techniques.

A vocalist might literally stick her head inside the horn to ensure that her pianissimo would be heard, but then, with the timing of a lion tamer, quickly withdraw for her fortissimo, so as to avoid “blasting” the engraving needle out of its groove. Alternatively, studio assistants would push the artists toward the horn or pull them away according to the changing dynamics of the music. German soprano Lotte Lehmann once quipped that in her early recording sessions she not only sang but danced as well, her partner being the “pusher,” as this studio flunky was typically called.93 Experienced recording musicians, however, could dispense with their dancing partners. In 1916 Yvonne De Treville, an American soprano, reported one musician’s creative solution. At her first orchestral session she could hardly contain her laughter upon seeing the first violinist. He was, as she reported, “seated astride a little, low, rolling box, for all the world like the 38 CAUS E S push cart of the beggar who has had his legs cut off and propels himself around Fifth Avenue, selling matches and shoelaces.”94 Many performers learned to internalize the necessary adjustments by

controlling their singing or playing to suit the limitations of the technology. In 1913 a British sound engineer stressed the importance of understanding the nature of recording equipment, particularly the diaphragm:

“Much depends on the manner in which the musician sings or plays in intelligent rapport with the diaphragm before him, and by a little practice it is comparatively easy... to manipulate it for the production of firstclass effects.”95 Sometimes adjustments in performance were simply not enough, and certain instruments were replaced or modified for studio use.

Brass instruments often took the place of strings, for they could play louder and their sound was more easily directed toward the recording horn. In the case of the Stroh violin, string and brass merged. This contraption consisted of a violin fingerboard, bridge, and chin rest, but substituting for the traditional hollow wooden body was a conical aluminum horn with a flared bell. One Stroh could replace an entire section of fiddlers, and the sound was deemed sufficiently similar to the original.96 (Notice the man playing the Stroh violin in the right foreground of Figure 1.) It was not only the classical tradition that was affected in this regard.

Consider the case of klezmer music. Before the twentieth century, one of the core instruments of any klezmer ensemble was the tsimbl, a gentlesounding hammered dulcimer. Yet the tsimbl is rarely heard on earlytwentieth-century recordings; it did not register strongly on acoustic machines, and its sound would have been lost in recordings of larger ensembles.97 The tsimbl largely disappeared from the music, particularly in America where most klezmer discs were made. Its unsuitability in the studio was almost certainly a contributing factor. While the tsimbl recorded poorly, the piercing tone of the clarinet transferred well, and its growing prominence might also be linked to the phonograph. Jazz, too, saw similar changes in performance practice (as we will see more thoroughly in chapter 3). In early recordings, the double bass was often replaced by the tuba, and drummers were apt to eschew the skins for the more focused sound of woodblocks and cowbells. Some of the most distinctive aspects of klezmer and jazz sound, therefore, arose not within isolated musical worlds, but from their interaction with a recording technology.


An “intelligent rapport” was required not only with horns and diaphragms. Microphones, used since the mid-1920s, are much more sensitive than their predecessors, but have their own demands. Because the microphone was generally placed only inches from the performer, the dynamic range appropriate in a hall or club was generally too great for the recording studio. Performing for the microphone, therefore, required moderating one’s technique in a variety of ways. Martina Arroyo has described the restraint she exercised for the microphone: “There are certain sounds that you do on stage when, for example, in Ritorna vincitor! Aida says, ‘affranto!’ (Rolls the r violently) like that. You can do that on stage, but it can be picked up by the microphone in a rather ugly fashion. So you try to give the same intensity but with an amount of sound that will allow the machinery to record without distortion.”98 Like Arroyo, John Lennon was keenly aware of the need for special techniques, often singing into the side or back of the microphone to get a desired effect or waving his hand in front of his mouth to soften the sibilants that microphones tend to exaggerate and distort.99 Instrumentalists, too, must be aware of the sensitivity of microphones.

In concert, the guitarist’s left hand sliding up and down the strings or the clicking of the saxophonist’s keys are rarely heard. Yet such incidental sounds are picked up in the studio, and although performers may not always want to eliminate the noises, they must be conscious of their presence. In 1932 the Czech pianist Josef Jiránek noted that when recording he was instructed not to use the sustain pedal—a crucial expressive device in much of the repertoire—presumably because the noise of the mechanism itself would be picked up by the microphone.100 The sensitivity of the microphone also provided the means for new sounds and performance practices. Consider “crooning,” the soft, restrained vocal style popular from the 1920s to the 1950s, heard in the singing of Rudy Vallee, Bing Crosby, Perry Como, and Frank Sinatra. Crooning was only possible with the microphone, for without amplification such singing would be expressively flat and nearly inaudible. Yet the technique achieved a remarkable effect. Crooning is akin to whispering, which under normal circumstances can be heard only when one is physically very close to the speaker; crooning thus provides a sense of intimacy between artist and audience, collapsing the technologically imposed distance that would 40 CAUS E S seem to preclude such a relationship. No wonder the only moderately prepossessing Vallee was hailed as “God’s gift to us girls.”101 As I hope is clear, although all recording machines require an “intelligent rapport,” the ways in which the technology is accommodated may both limit and expand the possibilities of musical performance.


Listen to most early-twentieth-century recordings and you will hear a performance in the traditional sense. That is, you are hearing a single and complete take, in which the beginning, middle, and end of the piece were recorded in that order on the same day, in the same place, and by the same performer or group. This was hardly out of a desire for authenticity; it was a product of necessity. However, since the introduction of magnetic tape (in the late 1940s) and digital recording (in the late 1970s), it has been possible to offer the illusion of a traditional performance as well as to create “performances” that could never have existed. With the ability to manipulate sound through such technology, musicians have been able to transcend time, space, and human limitations, and in the process have created wholly new sounds, works, genres, and performance traditions.

One of the most basic manipulations is splicing, in which passages recorded at different times are joined together. The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” (1967) provides a famous example. The Beatles did over two dozen takes of the song, none of which completely satisfied John Lennon. But he did like the first half of Take 7 and the second half of Take 26. So he asked George Martin, their producer, to put the two together. Unfortunately, they were in different keys and tempos. The two takes, however, were related in such a way that when one was sped up and the other slowed down so that the tempos matched, the pitches also matched. Thus the two takes could be joined, the splice occurring at about 0:59 on the word going in “Let me take you down ’cause I’m going to Strawberry Fields.”102 Although the splice is nearly undetectable, the slightly altered speed of Lennon’s voice helps give the song its distinctively dreamlike quality.

Pianist Glenn Gould, a passionate champion of splicing, recounted a similar experience, but with a very different repertoire. In recording the A minor fugue from the first book of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, he and


his producer decided that the best of several takes were numbers 6 and 8.

Neither, however, was acceptable on its own: “It was agreed that neither the Teutonic severity of Take 6 nor the unwarranted jubilation of Take 8 could be permitted to represent our best thoughts on the fugue.” So they decided to combine them, opening and closing with Take 6 and splicing the middle of Take 8 in between. The result, Gould felt, was “far superior” to any single, real-time performance, and he declared that the technology had allowed him to “transcend the limitations that performance imposes upon the imagination.”103 While the Beatles and Glenn Gould created “performances” that were theoretically possible but never actually took place, other performers have taken advantage of the technology to make recordings that could never have existed as performances. In 1946 Jascha Heifetz released a disc on which he is heard simultaneously playing both solo parts of Bach’s Concerto in D Minor for two violins.104 In 1991 Natalie Cole recorded the duet “Unforgettable” with her late father, Nat King Cole, whose contribution to the song had been made decades earlier and preserved on tape.105 These documents could only have been created by overdubbing, in which recordings made at different times are combined, not sequentially, as in splicing, but synchronically.

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