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

Thursday, June 02, 2005


Terrific piece by Alex Ross in the New Yorker on the effect of phonography on music. Chock-filled with researched history and insights. Great stuff on early use of record players as instruments by German modernist composers in the 1920s, Paul Hindemith, Kurt Weill, Ernst Toch, and Stefan Wolpe. Fascinating history of how phonography standardized performance practices in standard-repertoire classical music.

A couple points I’d like to expand upon. Alex points out that early recording had so much surface noise that sharp sounds, such as Caruso’s voice and Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, had an advantage over the softer, rounder tones that so much classical music makes. Another disadvantage that classical had, especially in the early years, but continuing to this day, is that records have an extraordinarily difficult time reproducing the dynamic range of a classical piece, especially of an orchestra. Popular music has conformed itself to radio’s requirement for a consistent volume level. Mozart wasn’t thinking in those terms, and neither was Ravel, who composed into the era of electrical recording (a big technological advance of the 1920s).

Alex points out the innovation of the soft croon that recording -- and radio -- made possible. I don’t know that classical music has very much explored the *artistic* possibilities of this change of media. Rock has been brilliant at finding the emotional complexity that can be wrung out of placing sounds that register as loud next to sounds that register as soft, and allowing the listener to hear them on equal terms. Topper Headon bashing away at his drums while Mick Jones speaks conversationally in your ear creates an emotionally complex sonic whole. Franklin Bruno’s book on Elvis Costello’s album “Armed Forces” points out an example -- Elvis simultaneously singing and whispering the chorus of a song. These effects would not exist without recording. I know some classical composers have explored this arena -- maybe the solo bass voice chanting “Koyaanisqatsi” as the electric organs wail in Philip Glass’s piece could be an example. I’m sure there are others -- it seems that this could be one.

Interesting discussion of the article at Carl Wilson’s place too. Thanks to Alex for the thought-provoking and informative stuff.
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