Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Sunday, March 14, 2004


It’s a truism of art history that photography changed painting. Until photography, the only way to preserve a likeness was through drawing or painting or sculpture. Once photography took care of that, painters realized they had other things to do too. And photography took on a huge debt from painting. Photography is almost always in a painting-esque frame, the good old rectangle, with post-Renaissance perspective and all.

Until sound recording, notation was the only method of preserving music, and it didn’t preserve something that could be listened to again, only instructions for performing something again. The notated tradition, which until Edison invented sound recording is more-or-less the classical tradition, is pretty much all we know about pre-Edison music, because notation-literate musicians did very little to record the folk musics of the world before records.

Did the advent of records change classical music as photography changed painting? I can’t see how it couldn’t have. Aaron Copland said something about records that I’ll have to paraphrase, having no recollection of where I read it. According to him, the problem with recorded music is that the interpretation never changes. Every time Copland played a piece on piano, his interpretation would differ. He couldn’t imagine wanting to listen to the exact same version of any piece more than once.

By far, most of what I know about music comes from recordings. And I’ve noticed that with the classical repertoire, getting to know a second interpretation of a particular piece can be hard -- the first record I get to know becomes the norm, and subsequent interpretations seem too fast or too slow, depending.

I can’t help feeling, though, that the advent of recording had a smaller effect on “classical” music than it did on -- well, the word isn’t “classical” painting, is it?

Maybe that’s the crux. To a large extent, the “pop” and “folk” and “commercial” western art traditions post-date photography in a way that the “pop” and “folk” traditions in music do not. “Folk” visual traditions that pre-date photography, such as quilting, are largely non-representational and share little or no visual turf with photography. The popular tradition of amateur drawing of likenesses fell away with photography. (An exception: Cartooning and caricature pre-date photography too, and that tradition is continuous with today’s practitioners.) Similarly, for 70 years people have complained that fewer people learn to play musical instruments because records make music too accessible.

Despite that parallel, the effect of mechanical reproduction on music has been very different. The mode of music reproduction before recording -- notation -- is also a mode of musical communication between the composer and the players. When recording came on the scene, composers still wanted to communicate with their players in the same old way. Nothing wrong with that, and a lot of “popular” composers still do communicate with their players in the same way.

Jazz, being a more collaborative art, frequently departs from the notated score, and not just with the improvised solos. Plenty of the small-ensemble jazz has never used scores; Count Basie’s big band used them sparingly in the 1930s and ‘40s. Duke Ellington’s scores when read today sound famously different than the records based on them, because the members of his orchestra frequently modified and personalized their parts through the rehearsal process. Mingus’s 8 and 9 piece bands in the early ‘60s used no scores for complex pieces of music. Mingus would teach the parts to his band members by ear, playing the parts for them one by one on piano until the players had the piece memorized, at which point the composer would urge them to personalize and elaborate on their parts.

Recording ended the monopoly of notation over music preservation. It changed music tremendously, but how it changed the “classical” tradition, I just can’t put my finger on, at least until the ‘30s, when John Cage started incorporating pre-recorded sounds in his compositions. A coincidence that strikes me as odd is that the disappearance of the virtuoso soloist-composer from “classical” happened around the same time as the appearance of recording. Liszt, the last of the line, died in 1886. Edison invented recording in 1877. Jazz and rock, of course, have embraced the virtuoso soloist-composer.

Another oddity. The last “classical” composers to have an influence on “popular” stand-alone music (until the 1960s) were writing around the time of the early growth of the record industry. The music that Debussy and Ravel wrote in the 1890s and 1900s influenced jazz and popular music of the 1920s and ‘30s. Bix Beiderbecke, Gershwin, and Ellington all acknowledged the influence, particularly in harmony. Schoenberg and the kings of dissonance had an enormous influence on movie soundtrack composers, especially on suspense and horror movie music. And while soundtrack music is a popular form or mode, it rarely generates radio hits; the music goes with the visuals of the film. Which is not to say that it can’t stand by itself: it can and does, and classical symphonies now play soundtrack music in concert and on records just like any other stand-alone classical music.

The first “classical” composers since Debussy and Ravel to have an effect on pop music have been Terry Riley and Steve Reich, whose pieces in the 1960s using tape loops, phasing, and electronic sequencing influenced the Who, Eno, Kraftwerk, and present-day DJ-sampling dance etcetera music. The Who named “Baba O’Riley” after Riley, and the keyboard part shows the influence of Riley’s semi-improvised keyboard pieces like “A Rainbow in Curved Air.” Another parallel with past classical music: Riley was and still is an improvising virtuoso soloist-composer.

I’ve always assumed, without knowing exactly why, that the turn away from lyric melodicism and “listenability” by classical composers like Schoenberg and Stravinsky in the 1910s paralleled the turn away from representation by artists like Kandinsky and Duchamp at about the same time. Photography and recording made images and music ubiquitous. Maybe the new mechanical accessibility to tunes let "classical" composers know that they had other tasks to accomplish, just like in painting. I wonder.

Salt intake warning: I’m a rank amateur of the history of art and music. My ignorance far outweighs my knowledge. Anybody happening to read this who comes across howlers or bungles, please let me know of my errors of fact or interpretation -- I’m just trying to figure stuff out.

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