One of the many technical inventions that enriched life at the turn of the 20th century was Edison’s phonograph. The American inventor had it patented in 1877, but his original technical innovation became broadly applied only decades later, in an altered form. At first it was not even clear what purposes it would serve. Edison himself long saw sound recording mainly as an office tool, and recording music was not part of his original plan. Only with the passage of time did it become clear that musicians would be the ones to benefit most, and that the invention of an apparatus for the recording and reproduction of music would mean a milestone of historic significance, especially in the area of culture.
Of the history of recording and reproduction of music much has been written of a technical or commercial character. Only now, at the beginning of the 21st century, with the perspective of time, has its contribution to musical thought become clear.
To gain the kind of overview necessary to explain this, we must recall a key moment in the history of European musical thought, which preceded the invention of recorded and reproduced music by several hundred years, and had a fundamental influence on music: the invention of music notation. The process of incorporating this into the standard European education, begun in late medieval times, can be seen as something of a precursor to the incorporation of sound recording into the music culture of the twentieth century. But first, however, it will be good to mention something about music itself.
Music exists in a number of forms. Its original form is that which is created, is heard, and passes as a specific event, the creative and emotive expression of sound by a human being. One person or several people sing at the same time, or play musical instruments. This is either prepared beforehand, and backed up by deep study and improved by long musical practice, or it is the musician’s improvisation, impromptu; inspired by a spontaneous idea, or the momentary situation. In these forms music has functioned since time out of mind, in various genres such as ethnic music, folk music, jazz, etc. just as it functions today.
Music acquired another form in Europe, during medieval times, with the invention of musical notation. Notation became a regular part of music only slowly. It was first used to express only one of the parameters of music, the parameter of musical intonation, and then only in a certain, specific area of music, that of the music accompanying the Christian liturgy. From there it spread into other, secular spheres, while its vernacular was gradually perfected. The first forms of written music were very simple graphic symbols inserted into the texts of songs, a kind of mnemonic aid serving to remind one of a song one already knew. Only after long centuries of development and musical practice did a current graphic and symbolic system of formal notation take shape capable of conveying to a sufficient extent all the important aspects of musical structure.
Thus musical notation was created in order to capture musical structures. But when it finally came into existence and was being used, then it began to have its own effect on the music itself. Significant changes began to be seen in the music that was being written down. We can name some of them. First, the basic element of musical thought became the tone. Musical practice divided itself into two spheres, creative and interpretational, while musical notation took on the function of intermediary, a bridge between the two. Thanks to its written form music ceased to be something merely transitory, which briefly comes to life, and then is lost, leaving only a very uncertain, difficult to grasp, fleeting impression. In the field of music, notation led to the creation of lasting artifacts, independent of time and external circumstances, much like the tangible creations of artists in other fields: a painter’s pictures, or a sculptor’s statues. By the end of the 15th century the apt term opus perfectum et absolutum begins to appear. This term is associated with French-Flemish music theoretician and composer Johannes Tinctiris. Musical works began to be reproduced through the press and published in the same way as literary works. The musical artists using musical notation now had a way to invest greater intellectual effort into their creative efforts. Musical notation allows one to address music more consistently, with greater deliberation and forethought, and in a more focused manner; it gives the artist the chance to realize more extensive musical projects. Thanks to musical notation music could advance towards new means of expression. Out of the heterophony of the ancient musicians, imitational polyphony crystallizes, out of centerism comes tonality and functional harmony. The tonal plan became an important, very effective instrument of construction. This helped the classical composers to create broader musical palettes. The rational focus of composition in the twentieth century becomes serialism and multiserialism, as a means of broadening and sharpening the expressive capabilities of even previously little-used musical parameters.
And now we can finally pick up where we left off in the first paragraphs of this study, with Edison’s phonograph and wax cylinders. Music acquired its third form at the turn of the 20th century with the advent of recording and sound reproduction technology. These too, like written music before them, became part of music gradually, and were gradually perfected. Many technological changes had to take place before development in the field reached its present advanced state. It is now so advanced that recording in some aspects actually far exceeds the ability of the human ear to distinguish sound.
First sound recording conquered the area of light musical genres. This was at a time when it was still far from technical perfection. The enormous growth of light genres during the first half of the 20th century was enabled precisely by the development of recording and sound reproduction technology. It was part of the life style of that time to listen to jazz and popular hits on vinyl records, and through this media to follow developments on the light entertainment music scene, which thanks to the gramophone industry grew to global proportions. And here, at this point we can find one of the first points in common between sound recording and musical notation. In its time the creation of music and interpretation became separate, and the writing of music became predominant. Now, in the age of the black vinyl gramophone records, it is the other way around: writing and interpretation become closer again. For the average consumer of entertainment music the two spheres gradually merge into one, and the bearer of artistic responsibility becomes the popular singer, admired by all, while the composer remains in the background.
Roughly from the middle of the last century, sound recording and reproduction equipment become of enormous importance for the interpretational art of the music referred to as classical music. At the beginning of the 20th century many renowned musical artists still had reservations toward sound recording technology. They were unhappy with its imperfection. A major change could therefore only come as a result of further technical improvements. The subtle, transient, and previously uncapturable interpretational performances by top musical artists suddenly became possible to record, and easily accessible to all. It is too bad that high-quality sound recording was not available at least a century before that. We could marvel at the legendary interpretations of Liszt, Smetana, or a young Otakar Ševčík. Immediate contact between top interpreters and quality recording equipment brought another valuable benefit: it suddenly became an effective study corrective. The qualitative level of interpretation became objectively measurable, and therefore began to rise considerably.
At the same time, at the beginning of the 1950s, the most modern recording and reproduction technology in the field of music took on a whole new function: it became an instrument in electronic and concrete music. Thus manipulation of sound in this new genre is not limited to the process of recording itself, but is a direct actor in the artistic creation. All sound recording equipment is now also a musical instrument, and is also taking over most of the functions previously filled by musical notation. Thus there is no need here to repeat everything said in the previous paragraphs.
Traditional musical notation itself in these areas is in many cases becoming completely superfluous; now not even its role as a connecting bridge is needed. The role of the musician, divided by musical notation into composer or interpreter, again merges into one, just as it was before the invention of musical notation. Work with recorded sound relativizes the very phenomenon of tone. Diverse sound creations, often with an irregular course, are becoming an alternative to tone. By greatly slowing down the recording we open up short instants, and the inviting door into the micro-world of sound; while greatly speeding up the recording suddenly transforms long, internally complex phrases into a few short jabs, a few brief points. However, the creation of music cannot take place here without somewhat modified creative procedures. The musician must therefore master a few, mainly technical fields. But his reward is a palette of unexpected benefits. With incredible ease one can now realize difficult compositional tasks and creative operations which in the field of written music previously required thorough professional training and extraordinary concentration. Transposition, augmentation, imitation diminution, crab movements, inversion, layering are now reduced to the click of a mouse. But no technology can substitute for the fundamental input, that is, imagination and hard creative work.
PhDr. Vojtěch Mojžíš, Czech Museum of Music Prague /CZ/