Kubrick’s Bone: A CENTURY OF MUSIC AND TECHNOLOGY (as of Sept. 1995)

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TWENTIETH-CENTURY technology has a lot to answer for. This has been the century of mass warfare and mass murder. But it has also been the century of mass media, of pop and avant-garde art, almost all of it produced with or vastly assisted by contemporary technology. It is the audio century as well as the film and television century, the age of art as entertainment, entertainment as art, and both as information. For better or for worse, most musical experience now takes place through loudspeakers and headphones. We live in the Age of Amplified Music, and, as the millennium winds down and the information age gears up, it seems like a good time to take stock.

We are awash in amplified sound — sound that passes through loudspeakers and headphones. It has become such an integral part of our life that we don’t even think about it, but most musical experience is now filtered through the technology that has established itself at the center of musical life. Amplified sound is the economic and aesthetic heart of musicmaking; it is (to change the anatomical metaphor) the tail that wags the dog.

Some people like to think of technology as neutral, an impartial transmitter that puts out, in an increasingly faithful manner, what goes in. But fidelity, faithfulness note how the metaphor suggests the passions of a love affair — are only part of the picture. Any medium affects the thing it transmits and how it is received. Audio technology, if only because it has brought about such a huge social change, alters our attitudes about music and our ways of listening to it and making it as well. There is no music that has not been affected.

In Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, one of our brutish ancestors beats a rival to death with an animal bone and then, in his murderous euphoria, tosses it up in the air. Suddenly, thanks to the magic of film technology, the eons melt away and what went up as a crude weapon comes down as a space ship waltzing through the heavens to the strains of The Blue Danube. In my music- theater version, that bone would be a flute (bone flutes are found in hundreds of ancient burial sites) and it would come down as a synthesizer or CD player blaring out sampled Strauss. The marriage of technology and music is nothing new. The very term instrumental music says it all; man is a tool-making animal, and musical instruments, primitive or sophisticated, are all tools. When one of our Neolithic ancestors began to beat out a rhythm on a hollow log or to pipe a tune on that bone flute, he — or she — was right at the cutting edge of new technology. What is a grand piano but a music machine? It even has a keyboard, just like a computer. The keyboards, w brass, and percussion of the Romantic orchestra are all products of industrial technology.

Traditional music is passed on aurally and orally, by ear and through the relation ship of master and pupil. The technology of writing and printing changed all that; we talk about the “score” as if it were the music itself. The German Romantics thought that music was the purest of the arts because the “real” music was not the flawed result of the efforts of a bunch of huffers and puffers, scrapers and bangers, but the idealized score on the page, which was itself a direct reflection of the inside of the composer’s mind. This quite antisocial view of music, still current in some quarters, is a good example of how technology and media affect our ways of thinking and hearing.

But both technologies and ideas can change. Recording is the modem equivalent of publication, and computers can bypass or redo the old hand written or printed “score.” As old ways of doing things are replaced by new ones, other modes of doing, hearing, and thinking inevitably follow. What written and printed music were to the past, recorded music is to the art of today.

When Edison added a wax cylinder to Bell’s telephone, modem sound recording was born. The bumps and grinds of a groove cut into a revolving wax cylinder or platter by a needle or stylus were to remain the basis of sound recording for three-quarters of a century. Microphones, amplifiers, and loudspeakers, developed for radio broadcasting, also became essential ingredients of both recording and live performance. All three media interacted, sharing the same technology and similar aesthetics from an early date.

By, midcentury the pace of change had increased. Tape became the primary medium for recording. Two- track stereo sound, introduced in pursuit of the ideal of audio fidelity, reflected the fact that human beings live in a stereophonic world, with two sets of aural information mixed and processed by the brain to produce three-dimensional sound. The advent of tape sparked a competition between disc and tape for the home audio market that led to the development of the extended or long-play record and tape cassettes. The stereo LP later succumbed to the compact disc, while the cassette, though still selling briskly, began losing ground to it.

Sound reproduction, which once lagged behind the visual, moved out to the leading edge of technological innovation. The high-fidelity movement dissected ‘the sound system, breaking it up into smaller and lighter mix-and- match components that were high in quality and consistent in performance. Many of these innovations came not from big corporations but from garage tinkerers with a love of music, primarily classical. The vacuum tube was re placed by the transistor, and dramatic new developments in the range and fidelity of microphones and speakers were introduced. High-end equipment, originally the province of ‘well-to-do audiophiles, began to reach a larger and larger public and influenced even mass-market commercial design.

All these developments were about that elusive goal of authenticity, or “realism,” in musical sound. But the vogue for recordings of the Indianapolis 500 did not last long; it was the taste for hi-fi Beethoven, Vivaldi, and Mahler that spurred the market. Pop music, not being concerned with such lofty matters and long mired in the low-fidelity aesthetics and economics of AM portables and car radios, crossed the high-fidelity sound barrier only when pop recording be came a creative form in its own right and the pop album came into its own.

Before the 1960’s,’ classical, con temporary, jazz, and pop music were all recorded in essentially the same way and with a similar basic recording aesthetic; then they began to diverge. One of the great ad vantages of tape is that it can be cut and spliced. Classical musicians, ever in pursuit of musical perfection, took to this technique, and the composite, edited performance became the norm. A new kind of virtuoso appeared: the virtuoso of the recording studio, per formers who specialized in recording music in sections that could be seamlessly edited together, giving an illusion of technical perfection. There is a famous story about Pianist X listening to a radio performance of a concerto in the company of conductor George Szell. They were trying to guess the name of the pianist; it was, of course, Pianist X himself. “Don’t you wish,” said the sharp-tongued maestro with out losing a beat, “that you could play like that?”

The impact of recorded music on classical performance should not be underestimated. Toscanini’s early interpretations were not particularly fast; the clarity and driven quality of his later performances are perfect examples of the effect of working almost exclusively in the broadcast and re cording studio. The new Neoclassicism fast, straight, virtuosic, note- perfect, anti-Romantic — comes from a generation of performers driven to produce something not of the moment, not quirky or personal, but for all time. The public for classical music was originally the public for concert and operatic performances, and the repertoire was accordingly restricted. In the LP era, however, a new record-buying public appeared that was no longer merely an extension of the concert audience, and that public began to find its own repertoire, often leading to changes in taste that later penetrated the concert world. The first and most noticeable result of this was a major leap backward into musical history. By the 1960’s, recorded repertoire was no longer confined to the standards, and the early-music movement was born. Starting with the Rococo and Baroque revivals, the taste for old- music recordings eventually worked all the way back to Gregorian chant. It is one of the great paradoxes that modern technology helped foster interest in early music and played a major role in creating and popularizing the period-instrument movement — a remarkable example of the pre-industrial getting a boost from the post-industrial.


Technology tossed up at the start of recording...


has come down as today’s multitrack studio.

Unusual music of more recent vintage also benefited from being circulated in recorded form. The new popularity of Ives and Mahler was as much a product of the Amplified Age as the Vivaldi and Monteverdi revivals. New music, even of the most avant-garde sort, found a public through recordings, and new musical trends began traveling around the world with extraordinary speed. The taste of the music world has moved forward to Cage, Gorecki, and Glass as well as backward to Pachelbel, Charpentier, and chant.

Part of the reason for this diversity has to do with what advertising people call niche marketing. This concept, much talked about today in the computer world, actually goes back to the early days of pop recording. In addition to the star vocalists and the big- name jazz and swing bands, there were recordings that served minority tastes, and it is to niche marketing that we owe much recorded early black music, from the blues to the race records of the 1940’s and 1950’s, the source of rock-and-roll.

The advent of tape and the miniaturization of equipment made location re cording cheaper and more dependable. Jazz could be taped live in its proper club and concert habitat. Traditional music could be recorded in Balkan villages, on the slopes of the Himalayas, in the Arctic or the rain forest. Mu sic from anywhere — any natural or man-made sound at all — could be re corded and preserved. The notion of “world music,” of the musical global village, rapidly became a reality, and the taping of the world is a project still in progress.

At another extreme, it became possible to make new music by creating, mixing, or editing sound directly on tape, presenting us with the paradox of recorded music that is not a recording of anything. After World War II, no European radio station or American university was complete without an electronic-music studio, and whole schools of experimental tape and computer music evolved out of the avail able equipment of the day.

Pop music, way behind in the audio department, began to catch up fast. With few traditions or inhibitions to hold it back, pop began an infatuation with technology that turned into a love affair. Rock-and-roll had little interest in audio fidelity, but it was devoted to amplified, electric sound, it was anti-traditional, and it prized creativity. For the first time, the recording became the original, and the live performance was the copy instead of vice versa.

The most important technological contribution of pop musicians and producers was multitracking. Two different techniques came together here. One involves adding elements layer by layer, track by track, to build up a giant multitrack master tape by accretion. The other is the technique, originally developed in live performance, of merging multiple inputs to create the mixdown. As some wag once said, “Music expands to fill up the tracks available to it.” The expansion was geometrical: two, four, eight, sixteen, thirty-two, and up.

In a typical classical recording, everything is recorded straight by the whole ensemble many times over. The best sections from the different takes, plus patches and inserts, are then spliced up to create a master. On the other hand, multitrack pop recording starts with a multitrack master on which the basic rhythm tracks have been laid down; the other parts are then added by overdubbing, track by track. The definitive vocals may be put on only near the end of the process, although some fussy artists and producers can go on adding “sweetening” almost indefinitely. Finally, the multiple tracks are elaborately merged, shaped, and colored through gigantesque mixing boards specially developed for the task.

Detractors claim that multitracking is a crutch for musicians with limited abilities. Different tracks can be recorded and then rerecorded as time and money permit. Ringers can be brought in to clean up a mess or add new elements. An important part of the mixdown comes from the almost endless possibilities for manipulating the sound of each individual track. Effects ranging from simple echo to vast tonal alterations are added through a whole new technology of sound mixing and modification. The final result may, in fact, be completely unlike anything that can be produced in a live performance.

The ascent, diffusion, and impact of musical technology, and of recorded music in particular, has been steady throughout the century. If we include radio music (mostly based on recorded music), we can say that recorded mu sic reaches almost every person in this country and a very high percentage of the people on the planet. Free trade in recorded music has existed for a long time, but its pace has been accelerating enormously, and it has internationalized music culture to a substantial degree. Only now, at the millennium, does that old saw about the universality of music bid fair to come true.

This is only the beginning of the story. Technology has invaded the once sacrosanct domain of live performance and is now a dominating element in the performance of almost every kind of music. Even the exceptions, traditional classical and folk, for example, have been influenced by audio technology. And we are just at the very beginning of the computer/digital age, which promises to bring a whole new wave of change to musical life.

One thing we can say for sure: Toss the bone up in the air, and it will come down. Consequences there will be. The age-old love affair of art and technology is an enduring and fruitful relationship, and as passionate today as it was in neolithic times.


Source: Stereo Review (09-1995)

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Updated: Tuesday, 2016-09-27 21:49 PST