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'Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music'

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Mark Katz
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Tuesday, July 26, 2005; 11:00 AM

Musicologist Mark Katz 's current book, "Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music," investigates the preservation of music through recording -- from Edison to the Internet. He was online to answer your questions.

A transcript follows.

A professor at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, Md., Mark Katz teaches courses on 20th-century classical and popular music as well as on how technology impacts music. His articles have appeared in publications including American Music, Beethoven Forum and the Harvard Dictionary of Music. Currently, he is in London working on a new book.

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Mark Katz: Hello, and greetings from London! Thanks for joining the discussion. You certainly don't have to have read my book to ask a question or offer a comment. For those of you who unfamiliar with Capturing Sound, it explores the profound influence of recording technology on the music and musical life of the past century. There are chapters on early jazz, classical violin playing, digital sampling, hip-hop turntablism, and Internet file-sharing, among other things. Feel free to ask about these or any related topics, or share your thoughts about the impact of recording.

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washingtonpost.com: Hi Mark - thanks for joining us. How did you become interested in the interesection of music and technology?

Mark Katz: Hi everyone! Thanks for joining the chat.

I remember the first time I started thinking about the possibility that recording might do more than just record--that it might also have a real impact on music. It was 1990 and I read a review of a CD reissue of some old violin recordings. The reviewer noted that violinists back in the early 20th century played quite differently from the way they play now, and he wondered if somehow the process of recording might actually have changed the way they played. The idea had never occurred to me and came as something of a shock. The reviewer didn't follow up on the thought, but I did. I ended up writing an undergraduate thesis on violin playing and recording and then I wrote a dissertation and then a book. Since writing that first paper on violin playing (almost 15 years ago!), I've expanded my research and have studied early jazz, experimental German music, hip-hop turntablism, digital sampling, Internet file-sharing, and mash-ups, among other things. And I'm still at it.

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Boca Raton, Florida: In your research did you uncover a particular event that suprised you or was contrary to what has generally been accepted as factual?

Mark Katz: A lot of things surprised me. For example, that it was once considered unseemly to listen to the phonograph alone. It was considered the equivalent of drinking liquor alone or talking to yourself. This sounds crazy, but it actually makes sense. Before the phonograph, listening to music was something done almost exclusively as a communal activity. It was hardly possible to listen to music alone. So in the early days of recording people often listened to recordings in groups and applauded as if they were in concerts. Not so anymore, of course!

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Baltimore, MD: What a fascinating book, every chapter! "Capturing Sound" has greatly impacted the way I think about many aspects of music (and I'm a professional musician) -- thank you for writing it.

I was very interested to read about the Stroh violin -- I hadn't known that such an instrument existed. Do you know about any other uses of it besides the recording sessions you mention in your book?

Mark Katz: Thanks for the kind words! I'm especially pleased to know that my book resonates with professional musicians.

The Stroh violin is a fascinating instrument. It has the fingerboard, strings, and chin rest of a violin, but instead of the hollow wooden body it has a trumpet-like horn sticking out of it. The horn makes the instrument quite a bit louder, which was very useful in the early days of recording when recording equipment wasn't very sensitive. There's a photo of some Stroh violins in my book (p. 38), or you can find photos of them on the Internet. (A Google search should do it.)

Interestingly, even though they're no longer necessary for recording purposes, Stroh violins are still being made and used. I've heard of them being used in dance bands, esp. for outdoor parties. And some avant-garde musicians use them, too, for example a German group called the Kryonics.

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Dale City, VA: Hi Dr. Katz, What can you tell us about mash-ups? I've heard more of them lately, so they seem to be pretty popular. Thanks.

Mark Katz: First, a quick definition. A mash-up is created when two songs are combined create a new one. It's usually done by taking the vocals of one song and layering them on top of the instrumental part of another song. To take an actual example, the instrumentals of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" are combined with Destiny Child's "Bootylicious" to create the mash-up "Smells Like Teen Booty." (You get bonus points if the titles mash-up cleverly as well.) Mash-ups are often meant to be clever or silly, and many are real dreck, but some are quite good. One of my favorites is Evolution Control Committee's "Rebel Without A Pause," which combines Public Enemy and Herb Alpert. And DJ Dangermouse's Grey Album (Beatles' White Album + Jay-Z's Black Album) is considered a masterpiece of the genre. I should also add that most mash-ups are done without the permission of the performers or copyright holders of the original songs. (Though some performers are starting to jump on the bandwagon and create mash-ups of their own.)

Mash-ups in various forms have been around for a long time (Bach did it in his Goldberg Variations, back when it was called a quodlibet), but it's just been in the last few years that they've really proliferated. I think that's because file-sharing has made so many songs available in digitally manipulable formats and because new and cheap software has made it possible to mix songs on home computers. (One popular program, Audacity, is free over the Internet.) I'd also point out that we hear unintentional mash-ups all the time. Walk down any busy city street and you'll hear a dozen mash-ups created by passing cars. So mash-ups are in the air.

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Reston, Virginia: Do you anticipate that technology will ever provide the ability to have different sections of an orchestra, at different locations, play together?

Or is there some anticipated advancement in technology that will take music well beyond its current level of enjoyment?

Mark Katz: It's already possible! Using a high-speed Intenet connection you could have the strings play on one continent, the winds and brass on another, the percussion on another, and the conductor leading them all from yet another. (Or have I run out of continents?) I don't know if any orchestras that actually do this, but I heard about a recent pop concert in which the audience was in Spain watching and listening to a band whose members were scattered across the world. And I've also heard of masterclasses conducted over the Internet.

The second question is harder to answer. Technology can keep advancing, but that doesn't mean that our enjoyment will increase with it. In fact, the opposite is even possible.

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Lawrenceburg, IN: Without technology, I would not be able to build my home studio and because I was able to build this studio, I was able to record ancient Indian (East Indian) Dance music which is approximately 2500 years old with the help of musicians around our area who played these exotic instruments. Ordinarily without my studio the project would have cost tens of thousands of dollars and would be impossible to record. Do you think the continuing growth of home and small studios will threaten the Music Industry? I know at least one other person in my small town that has a home studio!

Thanks,

Mark Katz: Very impressive! Thanks for sharing. Home studios are proliferating, and a lot of good music is coming out them. I'm sure that this development has and will continue to change the industry. Some might be threatened by it, but I don't think the industry can or should try to stop it.

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Alexandria, VA: Mark - Are you familiar with the live recording of Grateful Dead concerts? The band has always allowed fans to record and trade their shows and the result has been an amazing archive of live material. A lot of the recordists were really pushing the envelope as far as mic and deck technology went, not to mention the art of live recording. They were doing things like altering the electronics in the tape decks and mics to better capture the live sound on tape and some absolutely fantastic recordings were made. There's a legendary show from August 1971 that was recorded from the audience that sounds better than many professionally recorded live albums.

Mark Katz: Yes, I'm familiar with the Dead's acceptance, even encouragement, of concert recordings by audience members. I think it was a brave and brilliant decision by the Dead, and (as you say) has resulted in their best recordings.

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Alexandria, Va.: I know several people who have kept their stacks of vinyl albums and their turntables. They swear up and down that the vinyl LP has a "warmer" sound that's missing from digital recordings. What do you think of this? I honestly can't tell the difference.

Mark Katz: A lot of people do swear by vinyl, but they differences may not be as dramatic as some say. I think the attraction of vinyl actually has as much to do with the tactility of the medium--the fact that you can lovingly clean and fondle LPs (but not CDs)--as much as it has to do with their sound. But I'm venturing into dangerous territory here.

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Bethesda, MD: Hello, Mark. Since my days as a music major and student of "electronic music" in the late 70's, it seems that the recording industry has pursued the goal of greater fidelity in recorded music. (I finally accept the idea that vinyl is dead.)My question: do you think the iPod represents a backward step in the search for higher fidelity? What's next?

Mark Katz: I think you may be right about the iPod representing a step backwards in the quest for fidelity. That's because iPods (and their brethren)use mp3s as their medium. MP3s compress sound (and sound quality), and a lot of engineers really hate that sound. But it seems that people don't really mind. Here's a crazy idea--maybe pop bands will start producing their music to sound like compressed mp3s to meet the expectations of their iPod-wearing listeners.

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College Park, MD: Hi Mark,

I had an electrical engineering friend who spoke once about how we don't know how the compositions of classical musicians sounded in the eras in which they were created. He said that scales and tuning of instruments had changed over the centuries. Is this true? Can you comment?

Mark Katz: Yes, tuning has changed quite a bit over the centuries. Standard pitch is higher now and the size of the intervals between notes in the scale has changed, too. There's a recent book called Temperament (sorry, don't know the author) that might interest you.

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Herndon Virginia: In what way has technology adversely impacted on music?

Mark Katz: Lots of people think recording technology has had really negative consequences for music. People point to the reduction in the amount of amateur music making and the growing sameness in the styles of classical musicians. I don't disagree completely with these views, but I think the situation is more complex. For example, the rise of home studios (mentioned earlier)represents an increase in amateur music making.

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New York City, NY: Concerning the Grateful Dead. Forbes magazine once pointed out that they were brilliant businessmen as well. By emphasizing the fact that each concert was different, they encouraged fans to attend as many as possible. The live show was not a recreation of a recording, and allowing fans to swap live recordings emphasized the fact that each show was different. One reason they were the most lucrative live band when they toured and Jerry Garcia was still alive.

Mark Katz: Great point. Thanks!

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Dublin Ireland: I would be interested to hear how in Western music at any rate recording technology has made fundamental differences to music in its structure etc. Has anything arisen that would for example have the impact of 'equal temperament' or the development of the Piano-Forte? What I wonder, in terms of fundamental impact, comes near those developments in recent times? Thank you very much.

Mark Katz: Thanks for a great question. In terms of classical music recording tends to promote an approach to performance that values shelf-life (the ability to be enjoyed repeatedly over many hearings)versus spontaneity. Practically speaking this can mean steadier tempos and fewer idiosyncracies (like really noticeable slides between notes). In jazz and other types of popular music the fact that three-minute recordings were the norm forced musicians to be more concise, structure their works more carefully, and rein in improvisation. These "phonograph effects" (as I call them) are pretty profound, though less readily noticeable than the change in temperament you mention.

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Leipers Fork, Tenn.: Its a bit ironic that the music industry seems to have forgotten that it owes its origin to the development of technology: Without Mr. Edison's invention, there would have been no way to record and market musical performance. As late as 1896, the Supreme Court held that "music" recorded on rolls for player pianos was not copyrightable, and the copyright laws were amended to take account of Edison's invention. Yet the music industry seems to be intent on "fixing" or even rolling back recording technology in order to make it easier for the industry to police its monopoly. Here in Nashville, you find music executives arguing that people will cease writing music if technology isn't stopped, as though there was no music before Edison and the Copyright Act of 1909. Considering the poor quality of what the industry produces, that might not be such a bad thing. Perhaps music would go back to being art rather than an industry.

Mark Katz: You make a very good point here. The music industry (or parts of it) seems intent on expanding copyright to infinity and stopping or slowing some very creative technological advances (like file-sharing). Too bad, really.

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Baltimore, MD: Hi Dr. Katz,

First, this is a great book! I didn't know that much about

the history of technology as it relates to music, and you

cover a lot of ground in a very readable way.

I'm wondering what kind of reaction you've gotten from

other academics to the ideas in your book, in particular

the idea that the demands of recording actually

popularized certain styles of music performance. Thanks!

Mark Katz: Thanks so much. Overall, the response has been very positive. However, certain ideas in the book have generated some controversy. One in particular is my argument that the prominent and continuous vibrato we hear in classical violin playing today is what I call a "phonograph effect." I suggest that in the early decades of the 20th century violinists started using more vibrato because, among other things, it helped them project their sound better to early recording machines. (There's more to it than that, but I'd run out of time if I tried to explain it all here.) The idea that something so integral to string playing (and singing, too) might have arisen as a response to something so mundane as poor recording equipment is certainly going to be unpalatable to some. But as I say in the book, sometimes necessity is the mother of aesthetics.

(By the way, I should say that I'm not the only or first musicologist to study recordings as evidence of trends and practices in performance-see, for example, the excellent books by Tim Day and Robert Philip.)

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London, UK: People somtimes say: if only we had a recording of Bach playing the D Minor organ Toccata, if only we had a disc of Mozart playing the C Minor Piano Concerto! That would resolve everything! But we know how Elgar played Elgar and Stravinsky played Stravinsky and - by and large - we don't want to hear their music like that nowadays. What can the historian of performance tell the performer?

Mark Katz: Great question! Historians of performance can tell performers a good deal about how musicians played in the past and can explain certain what practices and attitudes were prevalent when (though things get pretty murky the further back we go). But I don't think they should tell performers how they *should* play. Instead, they can offer them possibilities. As I violinist who has studied early violin recordings, I might tell other violinists to listen to some recordings of Fritz Kreisler from the 1920s and 1930s. Notice his elegant use of portamento (sliding), hear how he often plays just a little before or after the beat to heighten the tension of a phrase. Why not try this out yourself? It might enhance your playing. But I wouldn't insist that the only way to play Kreisler's Caprice viennois is to how he himself played it.

You make a good point about composers' recordings. We often wish we could hear recordings of Bach and Mozart performing their own music (I do!), but at the same time the recordings that we do have of composers like Elgar and Stravinsky (or Hindemith or Copland) are far from the most popular versions of their works. One reason is that composers are not always the best performers of their own music (Stravinsky is an example). Another reason has to do with changing performance styles. Modern orchestras don't play like the orchestras of Elgar's day, and the sound of Elgar's orchestra would strike many listeners as unpleasantly old-fashioned.

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Anonymous: "Maybe pop bands will start producing their music to sound like compressed mp3s to meet the expectations of their iPod-wearing listeners."

In the '50s and '60s, weren't pop bands trying merely to sound good on transistor radios? I think Phil Spector usually produced records in mono for that reason. (Point being, times change and the technology is part of that.)

Mark Katz: Thanks--good point.

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Reston, VA: With the advent of i-Pods and MP3 players, personal listening devices seemed to have reached a pinnacle. Individuals now have the ability to listen to their entire music collections wherever, whenever. I was wondering if Professor Katz has any thoughts about whether there are still more technological advances in store for our personal listening devices.

Mark Katz: I'm not sure we've reached the pinnacle yet. OK, here's a really crazy idea. The iPod imPlant. No need to carry bulky traditional iPods when you can have all your music in a dime-sized subcutaneous implant. (Not covered by insurance, though.)

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Harrisburg, Pa.: What is the shelf life of CDs? I am told some discs will begin to lose quality after a few years. What is the deterioriation rate of recordings on new technologies, and should this be a warning that we will need to preserve our recordings onto a new medium in the future?

Mark Katz: All recording media deteriorate--it's unavoidable. I just leaned over my desk at the Sound Archive here at the British Library and asked an expert. He says CDs generally last for about 100 years.

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New York, NY: Given the vast quantities of sound recorded on obsolete formats throughout the 20th century and contained within various underfunded archives throughout the world, do you think the government should make a much larger investment in developing and funding programs for migration of that content to digital repositories for greater access and preservation?

Mark Katz: Yes, I do. But funding is always scarce. Libraries around the world are scrambling to preserve deteriorating recordings (and films, too). There will probably never be enough government money for these projects. I think funding will have to come more and more from the private sector.

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New York, NY: Hello Dr. Katz, I used "Capturing Sound" this spring in a music business class I teach at NYU. Amond other benefits, the book gave students a very good sense of MUSIC making, as distinct from RECORD making.

Do you think that "listening in cyberspace" will mean that the quality of a recording doesn't matter anymore?

Thanks a lot!

Mark Katz: Thanks for using my book! I'd be interested to hear more about your class.

The quality of recordings seems not to matter *too* much to the millions you listen to mp3s. It only has to be good enough, though what exactly that means I can't say.

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Washington, D.C.: I think Dvd Audio's and SACD's are the future of digial music, but they are having a difficult time catching on. It is a shame, these new discs are the closest thing i've heard to the natural and warm sound of a record. Just like I won't watch a movie on tape, I'm finding that I won't listen to music on CD. What has to happen for this format to become popular?

Mark Katz: I think the popularity of mp3s might have helped dampen the market for SACDs. Another problem is that there are competing formats out there, which confuses consumers.

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NYC, NY: I read that the advent of downloading has revitalized the pop single. Do you think the "studio produced masterpiece" era of the pop album that began more or less with Sgt. Pepper is over?

Mark Katz: I've heard this, too. We're definitely in an age of singles. But with every trend comes a counter-trend, and I wouldn't be surprised if the album becomes revitalized at some point.

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Fairfax, Va.: Haven't had a chance to read your book yet, but do you believe that technology influences how music is composed, performed and enjoyed -- just like people believe that an observer influences an event by his presence?

Mark Katz: Yes, definitely!

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Boston, MA: I'll pose a question to you that I've wondered about: If the recorded music industry migrates to using MP3 files, do you foresee this as a loss because of their inherently lower fidelity compared to CDs and records?

I always thought most legitimately sold MP3s sounded about as good as FM radio, which is fine for every day listening. But, when you get a chance to sit down and direct all your attention to well recorded CDs and records on good equipment the experience is very vivid.

Is true- hi-fi audio going to go away?

Mark Katz: Good question, and it seems other people are wondering/worried about this, too. I'm not sure that hi-fi is dead, though. Perhaps mp3s and other compressed formats can be improved to the point that they are similar to what we hear from SACDs nowadays. But I'm not a sound engineer, so I can only speculate.

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Arlington, Va.: I read a review of your book in The New Yorker recently. I was struck by the description of how the phonograph changed the way people sang -- different pitches were stressed because they came through the recording process better. With digital technology, are we heading in a reverse process?

Mark Katz: I'm not sure what excatly the reverse process would entail, but digital recording has its own demands and possibilities. Even with the most advanced technologies musicians will perform differently for recordings than in concert. Thanks for your question!

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Tampa, FL: I know rock musicians dramtically change they way they play in the recording studios. At least they used to; seems like a lot of them are nothing but lip-synchers, so they don't have to change anything. But other than correcting wrong notes, isn't playing Beethoven's 7th symphony the same whether in concert or in the recording studio? There are exceptions, but they should be rare. For instance, Severance Hall in Cleveland supposedly had very dry acoustics, so Szell had to compensate. Also, I understand Heifitz used close-in micorphones, giving him a different sound (Pearlman said it removed the warmth from his playing). So how would a violinst change his playing technique for the studio? Different dynamnics? Different fingerings?

Mark Katz: I think I mentioned that violinists might use more vibrato in the recording studio--that's one possibility. Another change is that musicians tend to shorten pauses between phrases and sections in a piece when they play in the studio. That's because you can't see what's going on, and a pause that might be dramatic in concert might just be dead air on disc. I've heard this from many musicians.

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Earlysville, Va.: I was at a concert a few years back, and one of the performers used a cello made from some sort of metal -- graphite? Anyway, the sound was very good, but I don't know how different it was compared to a wooden instrument. Do you talk about this in your book?

Mark Katz: No, this isn't something I address, but I've seen instruments like this. I don't think they've really caught on, though.

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New York, NY: Hi Dr. Katz! Thank you for doing this chat. As you point out, even as we walk down the street, we can hear recorded music everywhere, which I would assume is a very different experience than music in older times, when the only music performed was live. In general, do you feel that recording has eroded the audience for live music or further whetted the public appetite for music? Do you see the dynamic between live music and recordings changing more in the future?

Mark Katz: I think the dynamic between live and recorded music is definitely changing, but I don't think (unlike Glenn Gould)that live concerts will ever die out. That's because live and recorded music allow listeners to experience music in very different ways. (A main point of my book.) And I hope all of you continue going to concerts!

By the way, you can read Gould's essays about recording in Tim Page's Glenn Gould Reader. Interesting and provocative stuff.

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New York City, NY: Extending your insight that recorded music allowed listening to music to become an individual as well as a social experience -- did that alter the music? And was there a similar change when the walkman and then the ipod replaced the boombox and transistor radio and made listening to music a private experience in public?

Mark Katz: Well, some electronic music composers write music intended to be heard over headphones, so that would be one change. But I have to say that I hadn't thought about this possibility before. Thanks for the question!

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Bethesda, Md.: With the rise of the Internet and peer-to-peer file-sharing networks, the recording industry has found itself in a protracted legal struggle over protecting copyrights. How did the first mass-production of music change the "industry" at-large, and do you see similarities to what's happening now with the online piracy wars?

Mark Katz: Wow, I'm already out of time. This is a great question, but I can't really answer it properly here. I do think, though, that we would find some very interesting parallels between what's going on in the industry now and what happened in the industry a hundred years ago.

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washingtonpost.com: Mark, thanks for sharing your thoughts. What are you working on now?

Mark Katz: Right now I'm at the British Library doing research on 20th-century violin playing. Next up I have a music and technology reader coming (co-edited with Tim Taylor and Anthony Grajeda) and then a book on hip-hop turntablism with Rayvon Fouche.

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Mark Katz: It's already after noon! Thanks so much for sharing your comments and questions, and my apologies if I didn't get a chance to answer your question. And thanks to the people at washingtonpost.com for everything. Take care!

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