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The recording angel: explorations in phonography.


Explorations in Phonography.

By Evan Eisenberg.McGraw-Hill. 264 pp. $17.95.

During the first half of thepresent century, recordings aspired to emulate, and perhaps to preserve for posterity, approximations of live musical performances. The pioneer recording engineers traveled the world seeking famous musicians (and actors and statesmen) and persuading them to do their things (or as much thereof as would fit in three or four minutes) for the horn and, later, in more extended chunks, for the microphone. By the end of the 1920s, free music via radio seemed likely to replace the phonograph, but eventually the two media worked out a comfortable coexistence, manifest in the ownership of the two major American record companies by the two major broadcasting networks: radio was used to promote the sale of records. Until the 1950s, recordings were accepted only as imperfect simulacra of in-person music-making, lacking the immediacy, spontaneity and certainly the continuity and sonic quality of the concert or bandstand or theater.

Recordings were the first method of"canning' time, and at first they preserved time much more accurately than they did the color of sounds. Then came the motion picture, which stored time's flow visually. Even before the two were combined as the sound film, cinematography had developed techniques that permitted the reconfiguration of time as well as space. Only around 1950, with the long-playing record (which brought greater fidelity of sound and continuity), magnetic tape and stereo, did sound recording acquire techniques comparable to those of cinematography. Mistakes could be edited out; material recorded on separate occasions (even by performers who had never met) could be combined; musical balances and vistas could be altered. Finally, even the sounds could be generated electronically, without the intervention of performing musicians.

Today, in most highly visible musicalstyles, live performances (if extant at all) are subsidiary to the corresponding recordings. Some concerts are attempts to re-create successful records in public (often with electronic assistance), to sell them again, adding the bonus of physical presence. Others are sources of recordings, staged with that end in view (the forest of microphones hanging over the orchestra sends the audience a message which is really "You are secondary,' though it may be read as "You are lucky to be present at a historic event'). In concert music as in vernacular idioms, the economic power generated by the mass production and distribution of recordings siphons a significant part of the available talent away from what remains of live-music cultures. The latter survive, as theater survived the advent of film and film the advent of TV (and as "live' TV will doubtless survive the VCR), but in impoverished forms: how can they compete with that kind of money, either for the services of the best performers or for the attention of the public?

That account oversimplifies--but obviouslythese developments have changed the very nature of music and its role in our culture, as well as the relationship of individuals and society to musical works, performers and traditions. Evan Eisenberg's witty, perceptive, informed and dazzlingly allusive book, The Recording Angel, explores the origins and consequences of "phonography'--his term for the new "art' whose existence was most tellingly articulated by the late Glenn Gould, the only individual to rate a chapter of his own (although nearly everyone you can think of, from Hans Castorp to Blind Lemon Jefferson to Stanley Cavell, as well as phonographic icons such as Caruso, Callas and Charlie Parker, turns up somewhere in these pages). Along the way we encounter four vividly and sympathetically drawn profiles of record listeners: Clarence the accumulator, Tomas the ritualistic opera queen and discophile, Nina the hypercultured and hypersensitive pianist, and Saul the now-disillusioned opera fan of the 1940s and 1950s. They help Eisenberg focus, within his broad frame of reference, on the personal consequences of music's "reification,' on the ways individuals' relationships to music have been altered by technology.

Eisenberg has a lively grasp of the paradoxesinherent in the medium. "A record is a sculpted block of time . . . carved from another time and place. . . . But a record of music does not record historical time. It records musical time which, though it exists in historical time, is not of it.' Or, on the transaction: "When I buy a record, the musician is eclipsed by the disk. And I am eclipsed by my money --not only from the musician's view but from my own. . . . The shudder and ring of the register is the true music; later I will play the record, but that will be redundant. My money has already heard it.' (The introduction of the compact disc, "justifying' the repurchase of recordings they already own, encourages buyers to repeat that thrill.) "Where radio unites, records fracture,' though in the long run records have transformed, perhaps even "fractured' radio. He's a stimulating reader of symbols, such as the famous "His Master's Voice' painting, and not easily taken in by conspiracy theories of an Adornoish cast.

Above all, he graps the multivalentnature of the recording, that a record is what you do with it, never the same thing to different people--or to the same person at different times and places. Some listen hard, some casually, some ritualistically, many alone, few in company (even in congress), some with contextual information, others without. Eisenberg reads the implications with care and insight. I would have welcomed more about the aesthetic consequences of miniaturization: the gradual progress from those bulky leatherlike albums of frangible 78 rpm records made up to look like cultural incunabula (with an implicit social distinction between ten-inch vernacular records and twelve-inch art records) to the lucite cases containing interchangeable parts for insertion in high-tech black boxes run by sedentary operators with remote controls. Or about the matter of recordings becoming models for imitation by young performers, short-circuiting the traditional process of study and interpretation and creating growing ranks of musicians who view their function as essentially that of a good stereo system rather than of a personal intermediary.

But our differing concerns are doubtlessfunctions of our different generational perspectives. What is sure is Eisenberg's recognition of real issues, his ability to articulate them and connect them with the surrounding culture and his power to stimulate further thought about this underexplored subject. If only the publisher had matched the quality of intellect here with an attractive type page design and with a jacket that didn't appear embarrassed by the book's main title and its implicit irony: what kind of angel?
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Author:Hamilton, David
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1987
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