Originally published in PLEASURE 2013
Revised prospects of recording
Illustrations by Henry Glover and 100Busy
“Everybody has that feeling when they look at a work of art and it's right, that sudden familiarity, a sort of... recognition, as though they were creating it themselves, as though it were being created through them while they look at it or listen to it and, it shouldn’t be sinful to want to have created beauty?” - William Gaddis, The Recognitions
“Like, after the second chorus, then there’s like a guitar solo, I mean I don’t know this is just like, the way the Stones do it.” - Voice on Pussy Galore’s 1986 recording of “Tumbling Dice”
Glenn Gould’s 1966 essay “The Prospects of Recording” predicts, from its author’s position at the summit of the shifting world of classical music and with an eye keenly trained on the industry’s business end, a complete reorganization of the modes of musical experience and their commodification. This upheaval is predicated on what Gould identifies as the greatly increased intimacy afforded by recordings, an intimacy not between the listener and the performer of a given piece on a given day--as in a concert hall--but rather between the listener and the archived and unchanging sounds of the piece themselves, an unprecedented closeness that effectively cuts out the extramusical characteristics that have historically furnished the reputations and elitisms and prevailing (or, if you prefer, conformist) value judgments of the public, removing all impediments and affording a direct path into a musical interpretation whose basis is pure aesthetic appreciation. Thanks to recording, writes Gould, “concert-going and concert-giving” will soon fade into dormancy, and, “because of its extinction, music will be able to provide a more cogent experience than is now possible. The generation currently being subjected to the humiliation of public school solfège will be the last to attain their majority persuaded that the concert is the axis upon which the world of music revolves... It is not.”
So recordings subvert the usual high-faluting hierarchies of the musical world; sure, sounds pretty good. I agree with Gould’s premise, and with many of the logical paths his piece delineates; needless to say, many of its predictions have come to pass in ways utterly beyond the capacities of the essay’s necessarily limited 1966 imagination. Listener participation, a mere bud in Gould’s halcyon days of tape splices, has skyrocketing exponentially. ‘Pervasiveness’ hardly seems like a worthy descriptor for the role of music in our lives today. It is here, however, that Gould and I diverge; he posits the result of sonic inundation--the fact that every last moment of our modern lives is saturated with music--as an unconscious training of the public in musical language, a “background against which the foreground that is the habitat of the imaginative artist may stand in greater relief.” We’ll know music, in other words, and we will thus know the good music when we hear it. I see it in terms less planar, and, I think, less reductive. See, Gould prophesies a leveling of the musical playing field in the electronic age and an attendant intuitive public knowledge of good and bad on a rather casual and unspoken aesthetic level; instead, I think of the musically-rife electronic age as having built a conceptual universe of such acoustic richness, with so many intuitively-mapped points of reference and correspondence, that any diagnosis of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is--in this maze without foreground, without background--quite pointless, to say nothing of impossible.
To put it another way, I think recordings, the vast accumulated totality of recordings, allow any listener with half a brain to build a complex network of sounds, in which any piece of music (most effectively, those with which the listener has reached a degree of intimacy) can be situated. To do so then enriches the network, along with the perceptions of the listener. The network is the point, and every node contributes. Indeed, this unique, occasionally transcendent balance--intricacy and intimacy--is only possible thanks to the universe of recordings, and the attendant capacity of the listener to make his or herself a part of that universe.
Obviously, to seriously consider this is to begin treading into rocky territory regarding ownership and originality, innovation and forgery. I’ll save you any Plunderphonic proselytizing or handwringing over piracy, which is irrelevant to say nothing of moot. We have each of us been touched, here and there, by an encounter with art; we have even sometimes attained ecstatic heights, indescribable moments of exaltation. There is guilt inherent in every act of creation, whether that creation is derived out of whole cloth or suspended somewhere in a participatory network of reference points; but beauty is beauty, and a million and one academic theses interrogating the politics of musical creation will never obviate, indeed never even come close to touching this most fundamental of truths.
In any case, the debate is not new. Wyatt Gwyon, the reluctant art forger in William Gaddis’ 1955 novel The Recognitions, lives somewhere in this web of art and sin, painting perfect style-copies of Dutch masters (modern counterfeits to be sold as “rediscovered” originals) and performing--or struggling to perform--the soul-acrobatics necessary to wrest true beauty from this vast entanglement of betrayals. Works of art, for most of the novel’s characters--corrupt dealers, showboating amateurs or artworld hangers-on, scheming critics--are belt-notches, markers of success, cash advances or nest eggs to be bought and sold, bartered away, or simply shown off for peer approval and Greenwich Village oohing and aahing. For Wyatt, the son of a maniac minister for whom painting and drawing have always mingled with the religious, they are all these things, to be sure; but his works, though by all standard definitions counterfeits, lies--crimes--are also, occasionally, gateways to a transcendent communion.
It is this gateway quality, applicable to all art, that I wish to highlight. Just as there is aesthetic value in a piece’s content, there is an inherent, unspeakable pleasure in the personal recognition of that content, in the trip one takes to reach it. It’s more or less understood, for instance, that an encounter with a bonafide masterpiece of sterling reputation, approached at exactly the right moment with a modicum of open-mindedness, ego-dissolution and respect, can be transformative. Many reputed masterpieces--Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, the gothic cathedral at Reims, the first page of Lolita--are, in fact, as good as people say they are. But none of them exists in a vacuum, and each work’s aesthetic value, mystical and ineffable though it seems, is enhanced, exalted in, perhaps even conjured out of whole cloth somewhere else; by the viewer, reader, listener, through his or her reaching for something, across gaps variously of time and space and circumstance, reaching forward to some foundational component in the work and making this final transcendent identification, this all-important ‘recognition’ of Gaddis’ title. Wyatt Gwyon, inventing nonexistent van Eyck paintings to be shuttled among unscrupulous dealers and unscrupulous collectors, nonetheless reaches this state, luxuriates in the fullness of his achievement, communing with the original artist, with some spirit thereof, with the very same timeless instinct that seized his or her soul, evincing “a talent... totally in tune with the work it produced.” No crude or vulgar forger, Wyatt is even more effective as a conduit for transcendence than the contemporaries who surround him, stabbing desperately at originality. The question, here, is not “Can a forgery be as moving, as legitimate, as great as an original?” but rather “Can a forgery”--holding in itself an implicit reference to another work, conveying the essence of a direct recognition arrived at, held suspended, from two points at different ends of the artistic universe--“faithfully carry forth the greatness of the original, all the while augmenting it with greatness of its own?” Or, if you’d prefer, “Can such a work be far greater than an original?”
This take can very easily be replied to recording, and really juicily problematized. There is, for example, the question of just what is going on in a cover song.
Take Pussy Galore, who in 1986 recorded a full-length covering the Rolling Stones entire Exile on Main St. album from 1972. Taken on its own, divorced from all notion of history as an appraisal-determinant (what Gould, recalling Gaddis whether he means to or not, calls the Van Meegeren syndrome ), it is a record full of rough edges and sloppy takes that is--in this listener’s humble and subjective estimation--deeply aesthetically effective. But, of course, we cannot ignore its central conceit; it is a cover, a replica of another, rather renowned record, and it strives presumably to recreate or at least use as a jumping-off point that referent’s own rough edges, its own sloppy takes. Pussy Galore seeks to present an interpretation of the original Exile on Main St. furnished--the listener can’t help but assume--by an intimacy with that record on the part of the performers. A little extramusical history thus beckons, is indeed difficult to ignore, but for Gould, to take such information into our calculus would be unconscionable--he sees the pure listening experience, the raw encounter, as the sole determinant of a piece’s worth; to include musical history in one’s conception is to pave the way for any number of elitism-affording myths about musical landmarks and pivot points of stylistic upheaval, opportunities to ‘confuse evolution with accomplishment.’
But is to simply document accomplishment really the best recording can do? The Stones’ version of Exile is a document of real shagginess, one full of quirks and hap; being recorded, these idiosyncrasies were sealed-in and made sacrosanct, and thus positioned themselves to be revealed to any intimacy-seeking listener from 1972 until the end of time. Pussy Galore engages admirably with these quirks and celebrates the patent multifariousness of the original; should we, who know the Stones’ music and hear it again in this new form, ignore or shut down the correspondences that light up like neural networks as we listen? Could we, even if we desired it?
Well, folks, I think Gould has this all backwards. His notion of purity is one predicated on isolation, in which pieces (and their constituent sounds) are islands with no relation one to another. This may be useful for debunking the admittedly silly myth of the ‘watershed moment in musical evolution’ that Gould finds so objectionable, but it ignores the richer potential for an understanding of pure sound that grows from a negotiation of recording’s vast conceptual network, its store of pure sounds of every kind, there for the referencing. The sound of the guitar in a Pussy Galore rendering of “Tumbling Dice” points not toward the instrument or its player; its conceptual referent is rather some other disembodied sound on some other record from across the vast recesses of the landscape of recorded music, namely this other “Tumbling Dice” from 14 years prior. On a sonic level, they connect, and somewhere betwixt the two, the listener exalts in a moment of recognition. To be sure, it is nice to experience the sounds on a recording as pure and without referent--but how much richer is the experience of feeling the purity of a sound reinforced by its sonic association with another?
To avoid falling into any of Gould’s “syndromes,” I should say that there need not be any extramusical connections between pieces for their sounds to be acoustically linked. To take a few examples:
- Don’t the military drums on Nico’s late masterpiece “Sixty / Forty,” the solemn procession of the fallen queen, conjure irrevocably the sad march of the “Marseillaise,” the exhaustion of revolutionary hope, and the French mob leading Marie Antoinette away?
- Doesn’t “Jet Pet” from Royal Trux’s Twin Infinitives effortlessly evoke four decades of Presleyan rock’n’roll grunts, howls and coos in its desultory “yeah, yeah, yeah, hey hey” chorus?
- Hell, doesn’t Mick Jagger sound kind of like Kim Gordon when, at the end of “Under My Thumb,” he exhorts the listener to “take it easy, babe”?
The association between such recordings, for me, persists, but to be sure, I couldn’t point to any extramusical connection between the two. Nico is not Marie Antoinette, though they were both Germanic and treated unfairly; on the level of sound, however, I find the correlation undeniable, its evocative power transfixing. And the listening experience, no less acousmatic for the conceptual wear, is enhanced ineffably. My musical star map is richer for my having identified a new constellation; reexamining it, I rethink the very universe.
I suspect that I am not a freak of science, and that we intrepid listeners undertake this timeless exercise every second, often without realizing. That this mode of conceptualizing is even possible is, of course, thanks to recording, with its utility for documenting and archiving a performance in its purest form, its inviolable immediacy. Exile on Main St., in the decades since its release, has seeped into culture and wormed its way into the intuitive musical unconscious with as much insidious creeping as any background sound or Muzak track, but its constituent sounds have not changed an iota. The members of the Rolling Stones provide about as good an object lesson in this concept as can be imagined: indeed, though Exile’s original performers have aged hideously and lost their rebel spark, their countervailing urgency, their every last suggestion of danger, the sounds on the recording retain all the punch they had on its very first day of release. Prior to recording, such sensory/conceptual dissociation was utterly impossible; the sound of a well-known Bach fugue encountered in a concert hall was tied up inextricably with its performer, with its history of performers, with the space it occupied in the cultural timeline, with Bach’s relative standing this concert season, with how good your seats were, and any number of other ossified taxonomic criteria. One can hardly blame Gould for seeking to overthrow this “tyranny of the upper balcony,” and for celebrating the means by which such a coup might finally come to pass.
“The Prospects of Recording” rather oversells, however, the democratizing aspect of recording by dodging the fact that in many ways, such intimacy-fostering technology reinforces the artist-hero myth rather than debunking it. On a record we hear a piece exactly the way its creator intends it to be heard, and, building familiarity with that most singular vision, we bolster an auteur narrative that’s not so far off from, say, Van Meegeren syndrome’s emphasis on stylistic metamorphosis. But I don’t think Gould would find this tendency objectionable; though it may be a narrativization, it is one based in sound, not history; if it’s hero worship, it’s hero worship predicated solely on artistic accomplishment. It’s an intimate musical connection, and I think it’s a valid approach for any listener, at least as a healthy starting point for interaction. Transplanting this idea into another medium readily reveals its self-evident nature: we don’t hope, after all, to witness an inspiring or evocative reading or interpretation of a great work of literature or poetry so that we can build a personal connection with it. The work’s purest form is on the page; we just read the thing. As the youthful ire of Arthur Rimbaud is accessible in its entirely unadulterated form, so is that ire of, say, Keith Richards, and now that the concert-master middleman’s been cut from the equation one needn’t be distracted by anything else--not even the fact that Richards’ once-youthful face now resembles a worn-out catcher’s mitt--when experiencing it.
And what of the participatory elements and stylistic mixes prophesied by Gould? Of course he’s correct insofar as listener reinterpretations of recorded pieces have become an indispensable part of the recording industry’s standard operating procedure. The listener’s ‘splice prerogative’ has been healthily exercised in mixtape and remix and mp3jay playlist cultures--practices so prevalent now that they hardly bear mentioning (akin to the real elephant in the room when reading Gould’s piece, namely ‘Man, if he thought music was pervasive then...’). But Gould’s notion of a stylistic mix is established mainly as a hoped-for corrective to outmoded elitist categorizations--more of the author’s concert hall vexation--and the furthest the line of argument is allowed to develop is into a sort of hasty paean to background music and the varied catalogue of the Muzak corporation. Gould seems to be hoping that the public’s natural consumerist tendencies will, in effect, trick it into internalizing the Western canon; this is a woefully cynical notion, especially as championed by an iconoclast. Gould even feigns pleasure at the fact that Muzak’s corporate status supersedes its aesthetic objectionability--all the better for the listener, who can buy into the Occidental music tradition mindlessly, without having to realize he is learning, heaven forbid. Presumably Gould would congratulate the man who only knows “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” from the spaghetti commercial.
Where Gould’s essay has veered into negative dialectic and dour prognoses for the future, I see a positive one emerging, thanks to the same participatory elements previously identified (to which list I might add ‘focused listening,’ the fostering of intimate acquaintance with a recording). Rather than unconsciously integrating an encyclopedia of musical clichés ordained by a corporation in a deal intended by neither buyer nor seller, the focused listener has, in navigating the plethora of recorded sounds, inherited and contributed to extraordinarily vast networks of sonic correspondences that are all at once deeply personal and collectively shared, internally explorable to spiritual heights and telepathically transmittable to any other focused listener who, placing the needle on Pussy Galore’s document of sonic entanglement, is flicking on his or her cognitive receiver.
Near the end of The Recognitions, Wyatt Gwyon, having freed himself of the corrupt and cynical New York art world, is living in a Spanish monastery, where he works (in a sort of inversion of his prior role as a counterfeiter) restoring paintings. In a circuitous and allusive conversation with a novelist--also staying at the monastery in vague and pointedly pitiful hopes of having some kind of religious experience--Wyatt manages in one declaration to convey the essence of the artist’s quest for beauty which, whether manifested in forgery or restoration, is at its a core a direct aesthetic intertwining, a fierce staking out of connection, of deepest identification, of a mystic communion with and a brave expansion of the body of art, what’s come before, what remains to be discovered, what lies suspended in-between: speaking of an El Greco painting with “a suddenly hungry tone in his voice,” he declares to the stupefied novelist, “‘He studied with Titian too. We all study with Titian.”’
 Gaddis, in a letter to Thomas Sawyer III, 7 June 1981 (See Ed. Steven Moore, The Letters of William Gaddis, p.363).
 From the novel’s art critic-cum-conspirator Basil Valentine: “Originality is a device that untalented people use to impress other untalented people, and protect themselves from talented people.” (The Recognitions, p. 252).
 The ingenious and infamous art forger Han van Meegeren was an acknowledged model for Wyatt Gwyon in The Recognitions. In “The Prospects of Recording,” Gould calls him ‘a forger and an artisan who, for a long time, has been high on my list of private heroes.’
 Who technically was 29 when Exile was released--as opposed to Rimbaud’s 18 when he finished Une saison en enfer--but you get it.
 The Recognitions, p. 872.