Sunday, January 24, 2010

High Infidelity

Friedrich Kittler (Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, 1999) argues that from around 1880 on, composers of music have been “allied with engineers” (24). After this date, he writes, “The undermining of articulateness becomes the order of the day” (24). As a consequence of sound recording, noise itself became an object of scientific research, and the previous conceptions that governed musical theory became antiquated.

The phonograph does not hear as do ears that have been trained immediately to filter voices, words, and sounds out of noise; it registers acoustic events as such. Articulateness becomes a second-order exception in a spectrum of noise. (23)

Recording is a form of engineering. Consider the composers who became significant since 1887: Schönberg, for instance, Ives, Varèse (all born in the nineteenth century), John Cage (born 1912), and Stockhausen (born 1928). David Morton (Off the Record) indicates that Arnold Schönberg, along with many other composers, writers, and scholars (think of John Lomax, and later Alan, recording folk music “in the field”) became “avid users of sound recording equipment” such as the portable tape recorder (144). (An implication of this development, of course, is that we live in a world in which we will most likely encounter a reproduction of something rather than ever encountering the thing itself.) For tape recording, says David Morton, “destroyed the already tenuous concept of an “original” performance and made the performance a source of content to be refined rather than something to be preserved” (46). Morton cites Steve Jones, who made the observation, “it has become sound—and not music—that is of prime importance in popular music production and consumption” (qtd. in Off the Record, 46). Recently developed (historically speaking) digital recording technologies only made it “easier than ever,” Morton writes, “to create and manipulate new sounds and have little relevance to the concept of high fidelity” (44). Hence the concept of fidelity (truth, accuracy, realism) is no longer relevant when judging a recording (what Kittler calls an “acoustic event”). It must, more than anything, sound good. By way of analogy to the terminology employed in rhetorical theory, perlocution (the effect on the listener) is privileged over elocutio (“purity,” correctness or faithfulness of utterance).

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