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Setting the Record Straight: A Material History of Classical Recording

by Colin Symes
Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT, 2004
340 pp., illus. 41 b/w. Trade, $39.95
ISBN: 0-8195-6721-3.

Reviewed by Stefaan Van Ryssen
Hogeschool Gent


Colin Symes, who is a lecturer in the Australian Centre for Educational Studies at Macquarie University, argues convincingly that recording is a whole lot more problematic than picking up some sounds and pressing them in some vinyl or a compact disc. Every recording entails a myriad of choices and even though the dominant discourse has been that a recording should approach the unmediated sound of the concert hall, the actual intervention of human agents and mechanical devices turn the final record or CD into a single link in a long chain of transductions connecting the musician to the audience and back again. All along its trajectory this product is subjected to cultural biases and carries an overload of messages and meanings. Symes’ goal is to lay bare the underlying currents that shaped the history of classical recording, doing so by focusing on the material aspects of the recording industry: from tinfoil and wax cylinder to CD and sample, from the LP sleeve to the writings in The Gramophone.

For most melomaniacs, the liner of a CD box and the label at the center of a long playing are merely peripheral to the experience of the sacrosanct music itself. Nothing, in their view, should come between them and the music. Quite right, because that is exactly what the music industry has been trying to achieve: Let them think that what they get is the real thing. It is ironic that the most outspoken advocates of this view of the unspoilt ecstatic experience are precisely the ones who shape listening habits, expectations, and evaluations. Recording companies and classical music magazines, each with their own ‘private’ goals of making profit, encapsulate the music itself with a whole range of texts and symbols that unavoidably stain a ‘virgin’ reception.

A Material History of Classical Recording traces the history of the material carriers of the cultural prejudices that shaped our listening from the early inventions of Edison and Berliner to the websites of today. Through quotes, examples, and anecdotes Symes succeeds in unrolling a broad carpet of trends and tendencies in the recording business. How and why were LP sleeves designed the way they are? What problems do the so-called jewel boxes pose for conveying the messages the label wants to get across? How is classical music advertised? What are the norms music magazines have enforced? These and many questions about the narrative architecture of classical recording get a thorough treatment. But two questions or problems remain to be solved. One——and certainly not a minor question for those in the business——is how new evolutions like the MP3 standard and the iPod will affect the paratextuality that was necessary to keep the audiences on track. Stripped of a printed cover and unaccompanied by a booklet, how can a recording of a Mozart Concerto or a Barber Sonata get the necessary (pedantic or prejudiced) gilding to make it palatable to a shifting audience? The author hints that there will no longer be a need to ‘set the record straight’, but I cannot accept that as an answer, considering the huge amounts of money that are at stake and the fact that he convinced me of the unavoidability of paratextual messages to keep the mill running. Maybe the convergence of cellphone, PDA, and MP3 player——something the author probably couldn’t envisage at the time of writing——will spawn a new kind of embedding. Or maybe the utterly disgusting ‘visuals’ that some computer media players generate will shift the focus from textual to visual encapsulation? Classical recording has, of course, already found an answer for the aficionado in the music DVD where the listener gets an even stronger illusion of ‘being there’, but this might not be the way future generations want to experience classical music. The second question concerns the parallel material history of popular recording. Is a straightforward translation of the classical story possible? Or is there an entirely different relationship between texts and music and, if so, what does this tell us about the evolution of high and low culture toward a new hierarchy? I do look forward to Symes’ answers.



Updated 1st January 2006

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