Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music

By Zak, Albin J., III | Notes, March 2006 | Go to article overview

Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music


Zak, Albin J., III, Notes


Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music. By Mark Katz. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. [xiii, 276 p. ISBN 0520243803. $19.95.] Index, notes, compact disc.

It is a curious fact that the enormous changes in musical culture precipitated by sound recording began to attract the attention of music scholars only after many decades. This was due not simply to music scholars' focal interest in music of earlier centuries and of non-Western societies, but to a fundamental misconception of the medium. Viewed widely as a mode of representation rather than a commingling of medium and content, each affecting the other, sound recording was relegated conceptually to a primarily functional status, a tool for documentation and dissemination. Such a conception was supported historically by advances in recording technology that aimed at ever greater transparency. High-fidelity recording sought to render the medium silent, directing the listener's full attention to the recording's content. But the attempt to remove sonic distraction was itself a distraction. For no matter how skillfully the illusion of transparency was propagated, sound recording's effect on musical life was indelible practically from the beginning.

Over the past fifteen years, interest in sound recording has fostered a rising tide of historical and critical commentary well symbolized by the Centre for the History and Analysis of Recorded Music (located at the University of London), an organization devoted to musicological projects focused on sound recording. Both riding this tide and pushing it further, Mark Katz's Capturing Sound is an eclectic exploration of the "phonograph effect" (p. 3), the multidimensional influence of mediated sound on musical life. The book owes something to Evan Eisenberg's Recording Angel (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1987) in its broad scope and entertaining array of anecdotes. Capturing Sound, however, is both more specific musically and less involved with philosophical musing. Katz writes in a straightforward way accessible to all music lovers, yet his writing is founded on solid scholarly evidence. Further user-friendliness is provided by an accompanying compact disc containing many examples illustrating issues discussed in the book.

Katz opens his argument with a list and description of "distinctive and defining trait [s] of sound recording technology" that account for "phonograph effects": tangibility, portability, invisibility, repeatability, temporality, and manipulability (p. 9 ff.). Each of these traits influences sound production and perception in fundamental ways that distinguish recording from live performance, a distinction that "identifies the source of all phonograph effects." As such, one of the book's narrative threads is the historical and conceptual interface between recording and performance, the ways in which their differences and their interactions shape musical practice and reception. As Katz summarizes: "every manifestation of recording's influence, whether the act of solitary listening, the length of certain jazz works, or the flare scratch (and turntablism in general, for that matter), may be traced to the traits of recording that distinguish it from live music-making" (p. 189).

Having defined a set of practical and conceptual reference points, Katz examines widely divergent evidence of phonograph effects scattered across continents and historical time. Each of seven chapters explores a set of issues raised by a particular manifestation of the music/technology interface. We learn of the pedagogical hopes for the phonograph in early twentieth-century America, where many promoted the machine's promise to bring "good music" (i.e., classical music) to a broad public (chapter 2). Next, Katz takes up recording's influence on the development of jazz, as well as the historiographie value of jazz recordings (chapter 3). Moving to classical music performance practice, Katz presents a detailed study of changes in violin vibrato over the first half of the twentieth century attributable, he argues, to the "exigencies" of recording, notably the trait of invisibility (chapter 4). …

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