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Thursday, March 15, 2012


Capturing Sound
How Technology Has Changed Music
by Mark Katz
Published 2004
by University of California Press

   An interesting question raised by the generally well reviewed Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music is the question of the subject of Capturing Sound. Is Capturing Sound a history of recording technology?  Is it that rarest of things, a contemporary book about Aesthetics (i.e. the "science" of beauty)?  The relative rarity of books that take recording technology and it's influence on Art seriously is attributable in the drastic decline in interest in the subject of Aesthetics. Even people who care about Art and take it seriously rarely have a grounding in Aesthetics as a discipline- they are far more likely to be grounded in the tenets of disciplines like history, sociology or anthropology.

 One of the characteristics that differentiates Capturing Sound from a predecessor-  Evan Eisenberg's, The Recording Angel:Music, Records and Culture from Aristotle to Zappa, is that Katz is writing after the digital revolution.  Eisenberg had nothing to say about the digital revolution in music because he wrote The Recording Angel in the 80s.

  Capturing Sound contains both an extended discussion of the use of the vocal sample used by Fat Boy Slim AKA Norman Cook and a pages long break down of the opening 30 seconds of Public Enemy's immortal classic, "Fight The Power."  In these sections, and other portions where he describes the work of a "battling" DJ- down to including a sketch of a turn table set up in page- already sound dated.

   I think Katz is at his best when he identifies specific phenomenon's and calls them "recording effects."  He mentions a couple specific phenomenons- the use of vibrato on violin recordings in the first part of the 20th century is one effect.  Another salient recording effect is the "ideal" pop song being 3 minutes long, or the maximum length of a 45/7" record.

 As someone who has sold a fair amount of vinyl records, I can attest that the 3 and change song limit is still taken into consideration- since records are still, in fact, being made.

  Katz also makes the novel, and well-taken point, that people besides collectors of vinyl have feelings about the physical product of music- even it is a CD they care about.

  I though the later chapters on the politics of file sharing and the culture of turntablism were labored, but the early chapters, especially his documentation of The Rise and Fall of Grammophonmusik (Chapter 5) are little masterpieces of the history of culture.

 I thought a major weakness in Capturing Sound was Katz's avoidance of an economic aspect, preferring instead to veer towards the minute description common to both "musicology" and the language of modern music criticism. Everywhere Katz is discussing the impact of recording technology- quantifying it in economic terms- but not discussing the way the resulting economics changed the relationship between Artists, Record Companies and the Audience, which is surely the most interesting story in the history of recording technology- that shift.

  Katz gets close to grasping this crucial interplay early on- Chapters 2 and 3- concerning the emergence of the high/low culture distinction between classical music and popular song and about early recording of jazz respectively;  but he doesn't follow through on the early promise leaving Capturing Sound as a promising addition to the limited number of volumes on this subject, but by no means the only word on the subject of "how technology has changed music."

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