Colin Symes’ Setting the Record Straight: A Material History of Classical Recording

symesOne of the fundamental concepts of contemporary critical theory, whether it be post-modern, feminist, post-colonial, queer theory, or whatever subset one has chosen, is “discourse.” Discourse in this sense is not to be taken as mere converse employing words as they are employed by people speaking in everyday ways, with all attendant ambiguities. It is to be understood, rather, in the sense of a “metaconversation,” what Michel Foucault characterized as, in Colin Symes’ words, “engines of meaning underlying ‘regimes of truth’.” In this sense, of course, discourse is a significant delineation of the sources of our agreed-upon truths and this understanding of it allows us to describe our shared reality in a defnitive way, with the understanding that these truths are not in any sense absolutes: they are social constructs reflecting the comparative weight of the cultural power of the various groups that define our current reality. (Although it may sound lethal, or nearly so, there is really a great deal of excitement in this means of investigation: one is introduced to a world much broader in scope and more significant in detail than one had thought possible. The danger, of course, lies in being so enthralled by the trees that one becomes quite lost in the forest.)

Colin Symes, in Setting the Record Straight, has turned this engine upon the phenomenon of sound recording, specifically on the recording of classical music, and on the social discourse surrounding this phenomenon. This is “history” in a very thorough, deeply probing sense, not merely a recitation of names and dates, but a full-bore examination of the construction of “records” as a mode of information exchange and the attendant expansion of the social parameters of “entertainment” and “music.”

The early days of sound recording, beginning with Thomas Alva Edison’s faint, scratchy, but justifiably famous “Mary had a little lamb” of 1877, were marked by some degree of controversy at all levels: Edison saw his invention as a business machine, a “superstenographer” that could be faster and more accurate – and complain less – than its human counterpart, and as a means of preserving the voices of the notable and the beloved for posterity. The public was enchanted by the idea of being able to hear favorite songs on demand – one of the earliest uses of the new invention was in arcades, where coin-operated gramophones played popular songs – usually vaudeville tunes – through the forerunners of today’s headphones.

The phonograph thus was perceived as entertainment of a low level, certainly not partaking of the decorous and reverent standard found in concerts of “serious” music, itself a reconstruction of the 19th century stemming from the Romantic vision of the artist as demigod. The Victor Company, in an effort to circumvent this perception, persuaded tenor Enrico Caruso and soprano Geraldine Farrar to make recordings of opera arias. Now the cachet of opera – the pastime of the educated and wealthy – was available to everyone in his own home.

One of the most fascinating parts of this book is that Symes not only examines the gradual acceptance and growth of the classical recording industry, but does it in such a way as to draw in a much broader picture of the social change implicit in this growth. His discussion, for example, of the marketing efforts of the manufacturers of phonographs and gramophones, directed toward making their devices an integral part of bourgeois décor, exists in juxtaposition to the ongoing controversy between the “one take,” performance-only opponents of recordings and the “nine take,” “recording as the next stage in the life of serious music” proponents. (The contrast in these two positions is typified by the stances of the eminint conductor Sergiu Celibidache, who after a brief flirtation with the process refused to make recordings, and pianist Glenn Gould, who stopped performing. Anyone who thinks musicians are not terribly intellectual is invited to read these chapters and ponder.)

Symes also relates this contretemps to the advances in the technology of recording, from acoustic recording to electrical, from 78s to LPs and CDs, as reflective of recording’s increasing ability to deliver accurate renditions of classical works. Verisimilitude has always been a major factor in the marketing of recordings and the equipment needed to play them, but it the concept of “accurate” that lies at the heart of most disagreements: Symes’ discussion of the role of editing in the recording studio, and its obvious analogies to publishing and film-making, in pursuit of “accuracy” is illuminating in contrast to the portrayal of the intangible benefits of the unique live performance.

Once sound entered the realm of the more-or-less permanent (all else being equal, the mere fact of a recording means that sound is no longer ephemeral) it took on a new role in that broad category that humanity has been occupied with since its beginnings: information. There is some irony in the fact that the bulk of the discourse around sound recording is textual in nature: in spite of Edison’s dreams for the future, information is still largely text-based in modern society, and, since recording appropriated the established structure of publishing to a certain extent – the ability to make numerous copies cheaply and easily, standardization of formats, systems of organization and retrieval (i.e., catalogues, discographies, libraries), and the attendant superstructure of marketing and criticism, it stands to reason that the new landscape of sound would exist within a variation on the framework provided by texts, particularly since so much of the discourse is text-based.

Although his initial chapter makes some assertions that I question (his statement that the phonograph “immediately produced a culture of the absent-present that disrupted the existing parameters of time and space” seems to disregard the equivalent effect of the inventions of writing, which was, in all its essentials, an earlier form of recording sound, and photography, another recording medium that certainly had an impact on the perception of the “present” and also relied on verisimilitude for its authority, and, although he does loop back to these parallels, I’m not sure that he ever makes that connection), Symes’ arguments are well-knit and cogent. This is, however, not a popular history – it is densely scholarly, with enough footnotes and references to make the most pedantic reader shiver with delight.

I will say, though, that if one has any interest in the history of music recording, this is an essential work: I doubt you will find a study at the same time more detailed and broader in scope. And, even if that is not your main interest, Symes has provided a tremendously exciting model of examination that can be translated to many areas of inquiry.

(Wesleyan University Press, 2004)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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