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Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Recording Angel: The Experience of Music From Aristotle To Zappa

The Recording Angel:
The Experience of Music From Aristotle To Zappa
by Evan Eisenberg
Penguin Books
p. 1987

   Now that I'm actively writing my own book, I'm becoming more interested in the rhythm and structure of other people's books.  I'm generally interested in books that make use of specialized knowledge ("discourse") in the course of writing a general interest book.  All this writing about artists and audiences makes me all the more aware of similar precepts in the world of books.

   Here are a couple of principles that seem to apply:

  1)  A general reader does not want to read a book longer then 300 pages unless it features wizards and/or dragons.
 2)   Books that try to convey specialist knowledge to a general audience need to convey it the way you convey medicine to a dog:  Take a piece of hamburger and stick the pill inside, hope the dog doesn't notice as he wolves down the meat.
 3) If you are going to reach a general audience with a book about ideas, you need to convince book industry professionals, and the smaller audience of people who read magazines like the new yorker and the atlantic monthly, or read the Wall Street Journal, or watch Fox News:  I'm talking about members of the general public who are interested in ideas.  These are the folks who get regular people buying off of Amazon.

   The Recording Angel clocks in at a spare 250 pages and has no footnotes or bibliography: Principle 1 is certainly satisfied.  Principle two is more ambiguously realized.  "The Recording Angel" is the musing of a journalist on what he considered a quasi academic subject, "the impact of recording technology on the social experience of Music."  Also, he is writing in the mid 1980s, during a time when the vocabulary for describing the social experience of music was itself limited, let alone the vocabularly for talking about the impact of recording technology on the social experience of music.  Here, however, the proof is in the pudding, or rather, the proof is in the handsome revised edition that was published in 2005.  Clearly, Eisenberg succeeded in writing a general interest book about music drawing upon specialist knowledge, particuarly in the disciplines of history, musicology and philosophy.

    The About the Author foreword says that Eisenberg, "writes about music, culture and technology for the Nation, Saturday Review, The Village Voice... and other publications.  He studied philosohy at Harvard and Princeton."  He is an intellectual, writing for a general audience (book is published by Penguin Books.) In The Recording Angel, Eisenberg convicingly synthesizes the history of popular music in the 20th century with the history of "serious" music during the same time span and the ideas intellectuals have about music during a longer time frame.

   What is less convincing is his ability to make a larger point about what it all means.  Writing about the relationship between music and technology prior to the arrival of mp3s is a bit like writing the history of the Jews in Germany and stopping in the 1920s: It would be an interesting book, but not the complete story, and your thesis might change were you to include the next bit.

   Eisenberg does do an excellent job of explaining how recording technology, specifically, the shellac record, changed the relationship between Artists and Audiences in the 20th century.  The primary change appears to be the introduction of "an audience of one."  Before the shellac record of the early 20th century, listening to music mostly meant listening to music WITH OTHER PEOPLE.  The record replaced that prerequisite with new possibilities.

   Readers of this blog might be interested to read his chapter of the Invention of the Record Producer, whom he refers to a Phonographer (as supposed to a Musician.)  This is a person who simply did not exist until the Recorded Music Industry summoned him into existence.   Examples existed before the Rocknroll era: John Hammond of Columbia Records is a prime non-rock example.  However, Eisenberg identifies Phil Spector as the first "auteur"(in the sense of a film director auteur) and likewise tags Zappa as the first Artist/Phonographer: An artist whose entire identity is equivalent with the technology he utilizes to record his music.  To his eternal credit, Eisenberg does not exclude the important development in electronic music happening mostly in Europe in "serious Art Music" circles at the same time that Spector and Zappa were doing their thing.

   I'm seriously considering picking up the 2005 version to see what he has to say about Mp3 and the collapse of the Major Labels, but the original edition stands alone- worth reading.


1 comment:

by Mario S. said...

glad to hear your writing a book!

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