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  • Art Music and the Machine
  • Gustavus Stadler (bio)
Absolute Music, Mechanical Reproduction by Arved Ashby. Berkeley: University of of California Press, 2010. Pp. 336. $26.95 paper; $60.00 cloth.

As the title suggests, the guiding figure for this compelling, insightful, occasionally head-spinning book is the Walter Benjamin of “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936). Arved Ashby’s project investigates the status of the classical “work” after it apparently loses its Benjaminian aura, becoming disassociated from the requirement of human presence with the advent of cheap, easily available mass-produced recordings. The book examines absolute music (defined as “purely instrumental, structure oriented, untouched by extramusical elements, and with a purely aesthetic rather than social function” [6]) in its existence as a “vernacular practice” within everyday life (2). Given the extent to which Western popular music continues to dominate histories of sound recording, this is a welcome addition to a growing body of work with a more diverse focus, represented by scholars like Tia de Nora.

In approaching recording, Ashby seeks to construct a middle ground between the technological determinism of a Marshall McLuhan and what he sees as the technophobia of McLuhan’s recent culturalist-historicist critics. The latter are represented most prominently here by Jonathan Sterne, widely considered the doyen of the perpetually “recently emergent” field of sound studies. And while Ashby’s take on Sterne’s work is by his own admission not fully developed (and in my [End Page 633] view ultimately off the mark), it does provide some important ballast for boosting awareness of what would be lost if media histories were to use work like Sterne’s to write off the materiality and agency of sound reproduction devices as “merely cultural.” Pointing out that both approaches “discuss technology as something rational and planned, a purposeful means to a certain end” (15), Ashby takes a compelling turn in the direction of philosophy, specifically citing Heidegger’s notion of technology as “bringing forth,” as a force that “ultimately acts to reveal the world, thereby becoming inalterable an inevitable, a project that everyone must take part in” (15). This take on the ontology of recorded classical music underlies the broad purpose of his book: to “paint perhaps the first sanguine picture of art music as it connects— and will potentially connect in the future—with early twenty-first-century market technologies” (20). Those looking for Adornian gloom about the decline of listening should look elsewhere, as this is no desperate plea for the continuing relevance of classical music in the digital age, à la Lawrence Kramer, whose work Ashby critiques. In fact, in a number of ways, the book argues, “recording culture has actually served to uphold absolute music aesthetics into the twenty-first century” (125).

Ashby’s opening chapters explore one paradoxical quality of this project, that a technology originally thought of as chiefly preservational came to undermine and disorient understandings of the work, the author, and the performance. It is axiomatic for him that “recording has had less an aesthetic influence on classical-music practice than an ontological effect” (22). The book grounds this argument in a view of recording as a Barthesian text rather than a scriptural one, and outlines the very different ways that Glenn Gould, Leopold Stokowski, and Herbert von Karajan have described and executed their willingness to employ the recording studio to manipulate the organic notion of the performance. Here and throughout, from various vectors, the book is an assault on the idea that recording’s ultimate purpose is to restore a proper, recoverable “original”—even though, unlike in pop music, this notion of mechanical reproduction has dominated much of the discourse of classical recording. In one of his typically provocative points, Ashby argues that this idea began with the onset of the mass-scale production of classical LPs in the 1950s, which imposed a kind of linearity on thinking about absolute music. Raised in the context of ontological issues about work, performance, and authorship, this argument is convincing but is less so when used as a critique of Susan McClary’s historicist reading of Tchaikovsky’s queerness, which he sees as an attempt to restore a...


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