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6. Photo/phono/porno Susan Sontag called photography an “ethics of seeing,” and by analogy recording could be termed an “ethics of hearing.”1 Photography’s traditional truth-telling powers stem from its long association with photojournalism. Recording owes such truth implications to the absolute-music heritage, the work concept, and to the art-religion idea originating with Friedrich Schleiermacher and Ludwig Tieck—legacies by which music recording becomes a form of scripture, a means of faithful transmission for timeless edicts.2 Ethics is largely inseparable from politics, whether instituted in photography , recording, or any other endeavor. The microphone and the camera , as part of their peculiarly implicit form of ethics-politics, feign impartiality when in truth they remake reality in their own image: their power lies in the ostensible transparency of purpose under which they point the onlooker to this image in this way and at this time. The picture-taking process reformulates or entirely supplants any reality residing in the scene photographed , even in photos that pretend to be impromptu and candid. Or reality is especially supplanted in such photos, as epitomized by fashion shots. Seeing a heavily posed, made-up, coiffed, Photoshopped, and yet studiously informal Cosmopolitan cover, one might easily recall Walter Benjamin’s observation about movies that “the equipment-free aspect of reality here has become the height of artifice.”3 Photography has long been torn between objective reportage and creative artifice. In Sontag’s account, it has historically represented “the struggle between two different imperatives: beautification, which comes from the fine arts, and truth-telling, which is measured not only by a notion of value-free truth, a legacy from the sciences, but by a moralized ideal of truth-telling.”4 Photography was long thought parasitic to painting because of the way it pursued and propounded beauty, and it took decades for the 194 discipline to achieve the resourcefulness and critical respect that eventually qualified it as an art form. But Walter Benjamin turned this common historical analysis upside-down, saying the mechanical reproduction aspect of the photo made it transformative rather than accessory—not a matter of modified artistry so much as a question of wholesale ontological change. “Much futile thought had been devoted to the question of whether photography is an art,” Benjamin averred. “The primary question—whether the very invention of photography had not transformed the entire nature of art—was not raised.”5 Michael Chanan felt compelled to ask the follow-up question: “Could the same not be said of recording—that it has transformed the very nature of music?”6 Apparently no such transformations had yet taken place by the late 1950s, when Decca record producer John Culshaw heard some musicians describe recording as a matter of “transcribing the notes.”7 But even going that far back, at least with a studio auteur like Culshaw, recording could not represent direct and transparent transcription for the same reason performance can never be like decryption: it is too creative and musical an act in itself. If recording were a straightforward form of transcription, different musical styles should be amenable to the same manner of recording. But songs on the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album are inextricable from the recording process that preserved them, while the apparent aesthetic unity of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata op. 110 usually incites a purist approach with few edits and few microphones.8 To a listener familiar with Pet Sounds and with op. 110 as recorded by Artur Schnabel or Claudio Arrau, any attempt to reverse these scenarios—catching an unedited, one-off performance of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” on two-track tape, say, or improvising a piecemeal and multitracked studio account of the Beethoven—would sound quaint at best, and aesthetically defective at worst.9 With their recording culture differences, Beethoven and the Beach Boys show us how recording, as the final public and commercial realization of projects in an increasing number of compositional styles, can in and of itself represent a reply to writing music—though musical creation then answers in turn. While popular styles are rooted in diachrony and process, so-called classical music embodies a synchronic aesthetic. The aesthetic-cultural construct of “inspiration,” integral to the mythologies surrounding Western art music, requires instantaneity from its creators as well as unanimity, purity , single-mindedness, and compliance from its performers and record producers—or at least demands that they profess commitment to such. Perhaps paradoxically, these ethics and objectivity...


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