How Modern Gizmos Changed the Way We Understand Music
As the audience was being seated, Thomas Edison threw a lever and plunged the auditorium into darkness. A soprano sang an aria, and the lights came back up. Was the woman standing by the piano singing, or was Edison cranking sound through the giant brass horn? His demonstration was brilliant theater, but it is unlikely that anyone was really fooled.
“The nightingale’s song is delightful because the nightingale herself gives it forth” was John Philip Sousa’s explanation in “The Menace of Mechanical Music.” Unlike Edison, Sousa refused to divorce the sound from the performance activity; Sousa further noted that “the boy with a penny whistle and glass of water may give an excellent imitation, but let him persist; and he is sent to bed as a nuisance.” Meanwhile, Edison remained a showman/inventor who profited handsomely from this new mechanical ambiguity. A century later, advertisements still ask, “Is it live, or is it Memorex?”
In a recent article I discussed the 1920’s cultural transition from music producer to music consumer and its possible effect on church music. Now I would like to explore another aspect of the same issue—the effect of technology on the way we perceive and understand music.
When music became a mass market commodity, the very process of fixing music into an artifact that could be bought and sold changed the way we understand musical meaning. This began with the earliest printed editions of baroque scores. Produced with inflexible lead type, they barely captured the complex notation of a hand-written manuscript. While later advances in printing made more accurate notation possible, today’s printed artifact still remains an approximation and simplification of the great nuances expressed in performance.