by Lochie Bradfield
‘You are the music, while the music lasts’ – T.S. Eliot
The first ever sound recording was made on April 9th, 1860 by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville on his ‘phonautograph’ – a device that scratched sound waves onto a sheet of paper blackened by the smoke of an oil lamp. Roughly ten seconds in length, the recording is of an unidentified woman singing “Au clair de la lune, Pierrot répondit” – a section from a popular French folksong.
This moment marked a turning point in history, the effects and consequences of which are effectively impossible to measure. This humble sound recording led to a series of miraculous discoveries and wonderful inventions, from the phonograph to the radio, cassettes, CDs, personal headphones, walkmans, MP3s and iPods – in the process creating a very different relationship for how humanity relates to, and experiences music.
Prior to recording mediums, music was something we actively did – families had pianos in their homes, people sang at religious ceremonies or while working in the fields, audiences attended performances in major cities or were perhaps lucky enough to see travelling bands touring through regional areas. Walter Murch wrote, ‘Music was the main poetic metaphor for that which could not be preserved.’
In short, music was ephemeral – it was there while it was being played and then it was gone. All that was left was a memory – coloured by all kinds of external and subjective factors – what your day had been like, who you were with, how much you had paid for the experience, what the weather was like.
At this time in history there was no clear distinction between amateur and professional musicians – the cult of celebrity and music as commodity did not yet exist. Of course there were great composers and instrumentalists of the time, but access to these greats came either through sheet music, which you yourself had to play, or through performances, which you had to attend. If you wanted to hear a song then it was up to you or someone around you to sing it – there was no Maria Callas, no Aretha Franklin, no Beyonce – there was just you.
Indeed phonographs in the early 20th Century actually had microphones included with them to record people’s home performances. There was an explosion in people sitting around their living rooms recording parties, orating, singing karaoke style numbers. This recording feature – while hugely popular with the armies of amateurs belting out pop tunes in their living room – was taken away by the record companies, who had an altogether different agenda.
They were more interested in selling ‘quality’, ‘professional’ records, which sat in stark contrast to ‘amateurs’ exploring the joys of music at home. They envisioned a system that placed higher value on the audience appreciating ‘quality’ music than active participation or creation. Effectively audiences were converted from active participants to passive consumers – a system which largely dominates today. We all know what it looks like – the all too familiar sight of a carriage full of iPod wielding, headphone-wearing, disengaged passengers commuting on the train, appreciating Rihanna’s latest single – this being but one everyday consequence of the effect recorded music has had upon our relation to and creation of music.
John Philip Sousa, aka ‘The March King’, famous for his American military and patriotic marches, was opposed to recorded music as a substitute for human beings. In 1906 he published ‘The Menace of Mechanical Music’, writing (from an American context) that,
“The wide love for the art springs from the singing school, secular or sacred, from the village band, and from the study of those instruments that are nearest the people. There are more pianos, violins, guitars, mandolins, and banjos among the working classes of America than in all the rest of the world…[but now] the automatic music devices are usurping their places.
For when music can be heard in the homes without the labour of study and close application, and without the slow process of acquiring a technique, it will be simply a question of time when the amateur disappears entirely…
The tide of amateurism cannot but recede, until there will be left only the mechanical device and the professional executants.
Then what of the national throat? Will it not weaken? What of the national chest? Will it not shrink?”
Of course, it’s not all bad, and I’m not suggesting we should be nostalgic for a time that pre-dated recorded music. Musical dexterity and innovation has been greatly enhanced by recording technology. Music from all over the world can now be experienced as easily as if it had been produced locally. Jazz musicians used to listen to the solos of their idols on repeat, learning every note of a solo, developing an understanding of the relation between the solo and the form. Radical innovations were able to emerge, changing forever the trajectory of modern music – for better or for worse.
What I do lament is the modern industrial complex of specialization, in which people feel that their contribution and enjoyment of music, no matter how amateur, is not of value. ‘Why should I sing when I can listen to Lady Gaga?’
The irony of this situation being that now anyone with a laptop can record a song, or a whole album for that matter. What has changed is people’s conditioning – to believe that ‘they are not musical’, that somehow their exploration of music has no artistic merit.
As David Byrne writes in his excellent book, ‘How Music Works’, ‘many people believe that there is some mysterious and inherent quality hidden in great art, and that this invisible substance is what causes these works to affect us as deeply as they do.’
I would suggest that no such inherent quality exists – of course there are great songs and there are not so great songs – but what is of primary importance is the process. A process that anyone can partake in and from which all people can derive meaning and value.
Friedrich Nietszche wrote “We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once.” I would say ‘We should consider every day lost on which we have not sung at least once’. Even if it is in the shower.