2. Recording, Repetition, and Memory in Absolute Music
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Edison’s early cylinders wore out after only several plays, so aural history begins with one particular refinement of his invention: the electroplated “phonogram” disk devised by Charles Sumner Tainter in 1881. Emil Berliner further developed this method for commercial markets, making multiple stampings from master discs onto a hard resin that could withstand repeat plays. By the late 1800s, then, people were able for the first time in history to hear the very same sequence of sounds not only once, but twice, four, seven, ten, a theoretically unlimited number of times. This marked an even more dramatic development in aural terms than photography did in the visual realm, since the visual world is more stable, less fleeting than the constantly, indeed restlessly departing landscape of sounds.1 Photograph a singer or a church bell, and the visible object will remain more or less the same after the picture is snapped; record them, and you capture a fleeting moment within a state of continual flux. Much has been written on the impact that the replayable record has had on popular music—transforming its textual aspect and, in the case of unpublished music transmitted orally, instituting a fixed text where none had existed.2 But the replayable recording has had a deeper impact on the absolute-music construct, where works were once—before the proliferation of records—defined across time and through musical-aesthetic practice. Before the advent of recordings and the publicity agent’s “world premiere performance,” there was no conception of “this is, right here and right now, the real and singular Brahms Symphony No. 1.” Indeed, the idea of a performance set down in permanent form conflicts directly with the absolute-music notion of an objective work that is “better than it can be performed” (to return to Artur Schnabel’s thought-provoking phrase).3 The carved-in-stone permanence of the one works to deny the elusiveness 2. Recording, Repetition, and Memory in Absolute Music 60 Recording, Repetition, and Memory / 61 of the other, the diachronous performance threatening the synchronous nature of the masterwork. Walter Benjamin described modernity’s destruction of the aura that once surrounded objects of deep cultural value; by this thinking, a Brahms symphony on CD or MP3 could be seen as eroding earlier concepts of performance and musical text. But we could also speak of today as a time where commodification creates cultural cachet, and say commodity prestige has far outdistanced any lingering cultural-musical value. In that sense, recording culture has mostly appropriated any ideas of auratic permanence and uniqueness for itself: the record has come to exist in a quid pro quo with the musical work, its carved-in-stone permanence salvaging the work in a time of ontological crisis. We should step back for a moment and ask just what the listener listens to when she turns on the stereo, computer, or iPod to hear a symphony, sonata, or concerto—musical works that are still to some degree scoredetermined , but that by historical definition at least must remain open to multiple performances and interpretations. We can begin by saying that the repeatable aspect of recordings means that they function like substitute memories. But how do they relate—as instigations to remember, as memory stand-ins, as aide-mémoire, or perhaps all three? As regards aural recollection , recordings can represent several possibilities, which I list here in no particular order: 1. surrogate memories (“This is how Brahms’s Third Symphony is to be remembered.”) 2. experiences that are in and of themselves remembered (“Among the many ways of remembering Brahms’s Third Symphony, here is Furtwängler’s particular way.”) 3. instigations to remember (“Oh yes, Brahms’s Third Symphony . . . let’s remember how it goes!”) 4. specific preclusions to remembering (“Sorry, your memory of how Brahms’s Third Symphony goes isn’t right; let’s remember that it proceeds like this.”) A given recording of Brahms’s Third Symphony will fulfill several of these functions to varying degrees, depending on the listener (by sensibility “structural,” “emotional,” or “physical”?), her previous experience with this symphony (how “deep” and how recent?), and how the recorded performance finally affects her (disorienting? instructive? inspiring? supporting or challenging her memories of the work?). The listener likewise looks to a recording to satisfy different functions at different times, and might have different needs from one hour to the next. The function of the recording also naturally depends on...