Can it really be 100 years since the invention of the phonograph? Despite all the advances in communications of the past few decades, the "talking machine" is still one of the wonders of modernity. The advent and commercial expirtation of recordings has had an incalmlable effect on our musical life. The immense growth in musical literacy is a direct effect. Trends such as the Baroque revival would be unthinkable without the phonograph. Phenomena such as the orchestra NBC created expressly for Arturo Toscanini in 1937 have been byproducts. The whole contemporary range of musical electronics - from tape recorders to musique concrete to electronic synthesizers like the Moog - sprang from the same source.
But at the salute of Edison's brainstorm in the current issue of High Fidelity reminds us, the marvel has been with us for a century and is now half as old as the nation itself. The excellent collection of articles, a mixture of homage, history and aneodote, also calls to mind just how much water has passed under our technological bridges in the meantime.If the phonograph and its scientific successors, one is led to speculate, have had this much impact on our artistic media in the past hundred years, what awaits us in the next hundred?
The most provocative entry in the Edison tribute is a year-by-year chronology of audio and related developments from Edison's breakthrough, on Nov. 29, 1877, to the present. One ticks off the years in a bewildering blur as the motion picture, the wireless radio, the vacuum tube, television, talkies, the long-play record, frequency modulation, color TV, the tape recorder, cable television, videotape, stereo, satellite transmission, quadrophonics and the videodisc come into existence, to mention only the most conspicuous highlights.
All these innovations are concerned with the storage, retrieval and transmission of "information." As such, they are also attempts to extend and amplify those most fundamental implements of information processing, the human faculties of ideation, memory and speech. Even before the invention of writing men had found ways of preserving the products of their imaginations in painting and carvings, song and dance and ritual.
The quest goes on. We've gone past the printing press and photography to such contemporary communicative aids as the billboard, the bumper sticker and the T-shirt logo. In each case, the manner and means of recording deeply affect the matter recorded. As photography altered the aims of painting, so the movies have changed the nature of drama and television has modified the film perspective. Sound recordings have completely revised the patterns and expectations of our listening, and consequently, our composing as well.Inevitably, future technological novelties will have equally powerful and perhaps even more sweeping effects on the arts of the future.
There's been much talk of late of a coming videodisc "revolution." Should it actually materialize in the next decade or so, artists will surely be among the first to explore its potential. Consider, for example, what new sort of opera, drama or ballet might result if such works were created specifically for videodiscs, combining the reach of television and the permanence of recordings, with almost unlimited format possibilities. Or take holography. Artists - painters, sculptors and filmmakers mostly, so far - have already been tinkering with this new "lenseless photography," which captures images in three-dimensional depth of such starting realism that these "pictures" can almost be mistaken for material objects. If what has been produced thus far along these lines seems primitive, it is easy enough to extrapolate to a virtually unlimited spectrum of possibilities.
The column you are now reading is not being composed as a typewriter, in common with many other pieces of journalism these days, it is being "key-boarded" into a video display terminal (like a miniature TV set) as a prelude to computerized typesetting. The point is that "writing" so produced is inevitably affected by the intervening technology. Seated at my video console, I can call up, remodel, transpose and otherwise manipulate my prose with an ease and celerity that would be out of the question with the speediest typewriter - I can, in other words, experiment with a vast range of options more or less instantaneously.
At the same time, a price is paid - I cannot see the work-in-progress all at once, without interrupting the work to obtain a "print-out" (in hard-to-read computer characters), which is, in effect, a transfer from one medium to another. This limitation imposes both conscious and subliminal influences on the writing itself, just as a digital watch implies a conception of time altogether different from that of a dial clock. Perhaps there is a kind of Newton's law of action and reaction operative here - every technological advance entails sacrifice as well as progress. The "writing" that emerges from video typography is apt to be television-era prose - quick in impact, blunt in style, keyed to rapid scanning and interruptions, and rather skimpy in context. If it doesn't come out this way, it is because a conscious effort has been made to reduce the constraints of the medium.
I'm reminded of Isaac Asimov's "Visi-Sonor." The Visi-Sonor is a kind of glorified accordion that makes its appearance in Asimov's "Foundation" trilogy, one of the most entertaining and imaginative science-fiction epics. The Visi-Sonor embodies a conjecture about the kind of artistic performance one might encounter umpteen centuries from now. It makes music, but it also summons visual imagery to the mind ofthe hearer, all at the beck and call of the Visi-Sonor player - it's the cosmic equivalent of an audio-visual synthesizer.
Asimov is positively briliant at describing the kind of "music" that issues from a Visi-Sonor, as if he were taking into account not just the technological properties of the Visi-Sonor itself, but everything that interstellar travel, hyperspace, superatomic motors and the rest of such futuristic baggage connotes in the way of artistic ambiance and taste. He may or may not be proven clairvoyant in the matter of the Visi-Sonor, but he's surely on the right track in his esthetics. Art is forever destined to bear the traces of the tools that made it.