4. Digital Mythologies
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4. Digital Mythologies Music aesthetics became closely intertwined with recording and distribution technologies in the second half of the twentieth century. This fact is acknowledged in popular music but also holds true in art music: large-scale changes in recording techniques precipitated change in compositional aesthetics , and vice versa, in a symbiotic process that mimics and carries on the 1,200-year—and now largely defunct—relationship between musical style and notation. Digital recording techniques—recording music as numerical data strings—first became commercially available in the late 1970s in the form of pulse code modulation, or PCM, recordings. In this chapter, I focus on digital recording as a turning point in the curatorial and distributional aspects of this history and describe how it has effectively transformed our relationship with musical performances and compositional styles of the past. As discussed in chapter 2, recordings have become a form of cultural memory. They have become our main avenue of communal musical recollection at a time when printed texts don’t have the currency and cultural authority they once did, and the simple act of performing music has largely been co-opted by the culture industry. As referential performances recede farther and farther into the past, along with the compositional common practice they document, their remembrance has become fraught and more subjectively attended to. Further complicating this situation is the fact that recordings are—at least when it comes to art music and art-musical practices—poised somewhere between written and oral transmission. Seen from one perspective, recordings are like writing. By its etymology, the very term “phonograph” indicates a manner of writing in sound. For their first century, recordings were played back with a stylus, which according to its Latin etymology represents a pointed instrument for writing. 123 Recordings also resemble printed texts in their general fixedness and inalterability, the possibility of their duplication and wide dissemination, and—especially in the case of popular music—their status as a primary reference. Anyone discussing Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” will find the closest they can get to an Urtext is the song as it appears on the Bringin’ It All Back Home album. Stravinsky’s recordings of his own works have a similar paradigmatic status, though in that case the reference sits somewhere between the printed texts and the recordings, since Stravinsky the conductor and pianist departed with some frequency from his own score instructions. Recordings are also like participants in oral musical traditions, to the degree that they are accepted as synonymous with performers and performances and not considered “historical” artifacts: they offer interpretations of art-musical works that later musicians can learn from. Here I think of pianist Yundi Li, who grew up in Chongqing, China, hearing Krystian Zimerman’s recordings, and now offering a similarly aristocratic pianism but in some repertory Zimerman would never touch. Devising practical data strings for performances of classical music has realigned those performances with regard to oral and written cultures. Introduced to centralized information platforms and high-speed file transfer, Pablo Casals’s Bach has reached listenerships that had no access to vinyl pressings or CDs even ten years ago. Digital technology has thereby expedited music in its written aspect. By carving Casals’s Bach up into bits, digitization has also opened his already individualistic interpretations to any form of electronic manipulation and personalization—Casals mash-ups could well appear before the present book runs out on its first printing. PCM has thereby introduced these iconic performances into oral musical culture. The close entwinement of aesthetics and technology in the twentieth century has also changed our understanding of history, insofar as both technology and history have been traditionally understood as truthseeking pursuits. In 2008, David Giovannoni and a team from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory used optical imaging to “play” a phonoautogram made by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville in 1860. The phonoautogram is a piece of lamp-blackened paper on which sound waves were etched by a stylus connected to a barrel-shaped receiver, not in order to create a “recording” that could be played back, but rather as a method of visualizing the sound. Scott had documented a woman singing the folk song “Au Clair de la Lune” on the apparatus. When Giovannoni and his colleagues used software to play this phonoautogram for the first time, 148 years after it 124 / Digital Mythologies was made, they extended the span of known musical sounds—previously set by an Edison cylinder of...