Musical Villain Series: Recordings

This Musical Villain Series is not an outlet to castigate performers or composers.  My assertions are not so narrow in scope; indeed an equally culpable perpetrator is the collective unit known as “recording technology”.  The fact that I like recordings and that I use recordings almost every day does not take away from the idea that it is ultimately the advent of recording technology that in part led to the downfall of artistry in music during the later half of the 20th century.

During the 1950s, major strides were made in terms of the quality of sound that could be replicated. Recordings sounded clearer, captured more of the tone produced by musical instruments, carried more accurate pitch, and ran for longer times. It also started to become cheaper to produce multiple takes for a recording, as well as to edit what had already been recorded. Audio engineers, whose line of work had flourished since the 1930s or even earlier, could now tweak recordings to a further extent than ever before. The perfectionist mindset that arose naturally from this new and improved technology led in turn to a kind of obsession among performers with their own perfection. Any passage that contained a mistake could now be re-recorded and spliced together with the rest of the performance, producing a seamless, flawless recording.  By now, this has been routine for decades. But it would be natural to wish to go even further and actually be able to play a piece of music flawlessly every time. Practically any performer with a recording contract would be expected to have immaculate accuracy, and anyone hoping to gain any kind of prominence would need to aspire to it. Therefore, because of the sharp increase in recording quality in the mid-20th century, the uppermost level of the classical performance culture shifted its emphasis to technique over all else.

One thought on “Musical Villain Series: Recordings

  1. I am glad the new villain has appeared on the scene, though a non-human villain is less fun than a real-person-villain.
    Having welcomed our new villain I think that recording technology has had more diverse effects, not just introduced a “decline” in artistry through “sterilizing” the music. Some of it I have already mentioned in the discussion on the last villain (Stravinsky), but I’ll repeat it here for completeness’ sake.
    1. To be able to listen to one’s own playing has vastly improved people’s technical discipline. You blame the “downfall” you deplore largely on this effect. It is important to note though that there is nothing wrong with a good performance that I also free of technical errors (I have this formulation from a little booklet by Urs Frauchiger, the former director of the conservatory in Bern, Switzerland: “Was zum Teufel ist denn mit der Musik los?”, highly recommended if you can read German).
    2. Also at least in part because of this we have much higher quality teaching and people have better and more solid basic technical skills, than people at the same level in the music making hierarchy used to have, from amateurs to top soloists. This is a good thing; it should–among other advantages–help cut down on professional medical problems like tendonitis.
    3. It has made classical music accessible to a much larger group of people. Obviously a good thing.
    4. Niche markets in the overall market in recordings have been discovered, most importantly the period instrument ensembles, which started out from more academic types, but also included people who could succeed in this more sheltered niche who would be just (more or less sound) average interpreters in the general market. I strongly believe without recording we would still be practically clueless about the baroque (in my youth–not that long ago–Bach and Handel together were baroque music, besides a few unimportant Italian and French composers). I will disclose here that I am sometimes tempted to cast period instrument playing as the villain. But this is a different though related topic.
    5. An over-emphasis on technique and–even more–beautiful tone has had bad effects. However, I think we are climbing out of this particular hole; at least for chamber music there are numerous newer ensembles from many countries who have made wonderful recordings (with technical perfection the icing on the great cake).
    So: overall I am thinking we should not complain too much about the state of music just now; we are moving in the right direction or at least many performers are moving there these days.

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