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Recordings – Documents or Artifice?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010 - 01:35 PM

The fallout from last Wednesday’s segment on the famous recordings of bluesman Robert Johnson continues.  You may recall we discussed the controversial theory that those two sets of recordings, the only ones we have of Johnson and a huge influence on rock guitarists since the 60s, may actually have been sped up by the record company, either accidentally or as an intentional way to create excitement about his playing. 

I personally don’t believe it (Johnson was a complete unknown and there would have been no incentive to spice up his recordings to boost sales that no one could really have expected), but the slowed down recordings do have a genuine charm to them.  And as one commenter, Matthew from Brooklyn, wrote, “AWESOME. We now have new Johnson music.”

But the bigger issue is: do we expect recordings to be documents of what the music and the musicians actually sound like?  Or are they something different, an artifice or work of art themselves?  I would say that up until the Beatles and the Beach Boys, people probably expected that what they got on disc was the way the music would sound in live performance.  And to this day, most classical and jazz fans expect their recordings to faithfully document how an orchestra or a jazz band sounds live.   But once you had studio creations like Pet Sounds and Sergeant Pepper, you were in a different musical world.  In 1967, avant-garde electronic composer Morton Subotnick wrote Silver Apples of the Moon – an electronic piece specifically for the medium of the LP record.  It was not a document of a piece of music; the recording WAS the piece of music. 

As recording techniques have become more sophisticated, so have listeners.  We recognize that musicians overdub parts, and a lot of hip hop is about showing us the way an old recording is used as an artifact to create something new.  I think people get upset only when it seems that an artist or record company is actively trying to deceive – which is why people were upset with the lip sync antics of Milli Vanilli, Luciano Pavarotti, and Jessica Simpson, among others.   

What do you expect from a recording – verisimilitude or something that exploits the mediumLeave a comment


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