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Walter Benjamin Essays On Music

With sound and music studies in mind, I recently re-read Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Benjamin famously suggests that the mass reproduction of art has stripped it of its “aura,” which he defines as the mystical emanation surrounding an aesthetic object that identifies its authenticity. Proposing three stages of art, Benjamin explains how this aura originates and decays: in the first stage, art is appreciated for its cult or ritualistic value; that is, someone would create a unique piece of art (like a sculpture) for worship.  Second, following this religious stage is a secular one, where people value art for its aesthetic beauty. Benjamin claims that during the Renaissance and for three centuries thereafter, aesthetic objects retain their aura. (Think of any famous Renaissance painting; there is still a spiritual presence surrounding that very object, which is why, in part, we revere them.) In the third stage machines begin to mass-produce art, and the aesthetic object’s aura disappears. Once art is made for reproduction, Benjamin explains, the “authentic” product is no longer valued, and the original will become indistinguishable from its innumerable duplicates. He gives the example of a photo, which does not carry the same presence as, say, a Renaissance portrait; we value the photo for its (reproducible) content, not for its original print. As Benjamin writes, “one can make any number of prints; to ask for the ‘authentic’ print makes no sense” (256).

But has mechanical reproduction totally diminished art’s aura? My immediate counter-argument to Benjamin’s history of art is the vinyl record. I have what may be a very subjective response to vinyl: when I hold one of my records, I can sense the very aura Benjamin describes. Yet maybe my feelings aren’t so unique; the recent resurgence in record sales cannot be attributed only to the (often debated) difference in sound between vinyls and CDs/MP3s. There is an allure to records — no other format (CDs, cassettes, and, especially, digital music) has the same cultish appeal.  Even though records are mass produced, their form — not to mention the music they hold — still carries some cultish and aesthetic value.


Posted in Popular Culture, Sound Theories and tagged Almost Famous, Aura, Summary, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Vinyl, Walter Benjamin on by kevinjstevens. 5 Comments

Looking for the Band:

Walter Benjamin and theMechanical Reproduction of Jazz


KarlCoulthard, University of Guelph


In his essay“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjaminengages in an intriguing dialectical analysis of the manner in whichtwentieth-century technology has affected how art is produced, distributed, andconsumed. On the one hand, he states that mechanical reproduction can destroythe “aura” of the original artwork, displacing it from “its presence in timeand space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be” (220).Benjamin also acknowledges, however, that mechanical reproduction can have aliberatory effect through the manner in which it “emancipates the work of artfrom its parasitical dependence on ritual” (224). These theories can be appliedin particularly illuminating ways to the study of the development of jazz inthe twentieth century. In his essay, Benjamin makes a crucial distinctionbetween “manual reproduction,” which actually reinscribes the authenticity ofthe original work by virtue of its secondary status as a “forgery,” and“technical reproduction,” which disrupts and challenges all concepts ofauthenticity (220). Benjamin analyzes this distinction primarily within thecontext of visual art, however, where the “original” work exists in a physicaland tangible form that can be compared with its reproductions. Jazz, in itsearliest incarnations before the music became available on phonographrecordings, generally existed only during the instant of its performance, aperformance characterized by spontaneity and improvisation. Lacking even therepresentational records of sheet music, a jazz performance, once completed,was gone, never to be repeated in the same way again. As such, since jazz couldnot be manually reproduced, once it was technically reproduced, the music waseven more profoundly alienated from its aura of originality than were mostother art forms, to the extent that one might question whether an “original”jazz performance exists outside the medium of mechanical reproduction. As soonas jazz recordings were made available to a wide audience, these mechanicalreproductions became one of the primary ways through which jazz was studied andinterpreted, by both critics and musicians. Thus what now constitutes jazz isthe product of a dialectical development whereby an improvisatory art form,highly resistant to reproduction within the performance environment, wasintimately and profoundly affected by the mechanical reproduction of sound.


The subjectof jazz represents a particularly challenging problem for Benjamin’s conceptionof the age of mechanical reproduction, as it does not readily fit into one ofthe basic dialectics on which his essay is based. Benjamin divides art into twoessential categories. One category is what might be described aspre-reproduction artwork: forms such as painting, architecture, and sculpturewhose ritual and cultic aura is destroyed or dissipated when technicalreproductions remove the work from its original physical and temporal setting.The other is what Benjamin describes as “the work of art designed forreproducibility” (224): art such as film and photography that has thetechnology of mechanical reproduction built into its very structure, and thus,lacks the originary condition necessary for the possession of aura. Jazz,however, seems to occupy a unique position straddling the boundary betweenthese two categories. As jazz had been in existence for several decades beforeit began to be widely recorded in the 1920s, it does not really fit into thecategory of a “work of art designed for reproducibility.” Nevertheless, thebirth and development of jazz is now primarily associated with the birth anddevelopment of sound recordings. Prior to the first recordings, few musicalideas in jazz were written down and the music existed almost exclusively withinthe transitory space of performance. As a result, this early jazz has beeneffectively lost to the historian. I do not intend to suggest that there is noconnection between prerecorded and recorded jazz; clearly, recorded jazz is theproduct of a complex transmission of musical ideas from one musician to anotherthat extends well back into the “prehistory” of the music. Without the recordsof sheet music, however, this aural transmission cannot be studied with any ofthe degree of scholarly precision that is customary in the study of Westernclassical music. Thus for most listeners unrecorded jazz is unknown jazz(Priestly 14). This circumstance is symptomatic of a significant perceptual gapthat exists not only between jazz from before and after the advent of soundrecording, but also between live and recorded jazz in general.


In examiningthis gap in our understanding of jazz, one must first endeavour to reconstructthe environment of “prehistoric” jazz. Benjamin states that one of the keyelements in ritual art is a sense of distance: “Unapproachability is indeed amajor quality of the cult image. True to its nature, it remains ‘distant,however close it may be.’ The closeness which one may gain from its subjectmatter does not impair the distance which it retains in its appearance” (243).Early jazz, lacking a written text, was supremely distant in that the musicitself had no tangible appearance at all. This quality gave jazz its owndistinct aura, one that both limited and enhanced its ritual power. Existingonly during a brief moment in time, the impact of a jazz performance wasnecessarily limited to those individuals who witnessed it, it being impossibleto convey the essence of such an experience through any verbal retelling of it.The intangible nature of jazz, however, also meant that a performance couldhave an extraordinarily powerful effect upon those who were listening. Benjaminclaims that the ritual work of art “was, first and foremost, an instrument ofmagic” (225). In performance, the unpredictable improvisations and erraticrhythms and syncopation of jazz could present all the mysterious and ineffablecharacteristics of ritual magic to the uninitiated listener, and the impact ofthis “magic” could often be far more profound and lasting when there was no wayto revisit the experience.


Jazz in itsostensibly ritual forms also had many significant limitations, however, mostnotably the fact that the music could not be preserved for the study andenjoyment of future generations. The unnotated music of jazz is an excellentexample of what Michael Chanan defines as “musica practica [. . .] music by ear rather thanmusic by the book” (13). Music by ear is musical knowledge that is transmittedby direct aural interaction between musicians and, consequently, its repertoirespans only two or three generations at most. Such music is also greatlyconfined spatially, being accessible only to those who are able to physicallyattend its performances. Prior to the development of the phonograph, variousdifferent musical styles were generally confined to the social groups in whichthey were produced. By the 1910s, however, music from a vast number of differentethnic and immigrant groups had been recorded and distributed in the UnitedStates and Europe (Garofalo 326). Similarly, early jazz was generally heardonly by those who frequented the saloons and brothels where most of the musicwas performed. As a result, when the first jazz recording was made in 1917,most Americans, even though the music had been developing in their country forover twenty years, had never heard jazz. Yet, in the span of another twentyyears, the phonograph and radio would carry jazz across the world, not only tocountless scores of listeners, but also to future jazz musicians who mightotherwise have never encountered this music. Thus, mechanical reproductioncreated an enormous potential not only for the distribution of jazz, but alsofor the creative development of the music.


One of thefirst major impacts of sound recording on jazz was the introduction of Westernconcepts of intellectual property rights. Musicians previously unconcernedabout ownership suddenly felt compelled to be fiercely protective of theirmusic. In 1916, Victor Records offered New Orleans trumpet player andbandleader Freddie Keppard the opportunity to make the very first jazzrecordings. Keppard refused, telling them “We won't put our stuff on recordsfor everybody to steal” (Kraft 61). Ironically, it was precisely its initialresistance to commodification that made jazz so vulnerable to the new industryof sound recording. One of the major arguments used during this period tojustify affording copyright protection to sound recordings was that soundrecordings reproduced musical ideas that already existed as commodities in theform of sheet music and had, therefore, previously been legally recognized asintellectual property. However, since much of the jazz performed in the openingdecades of the twentieth century was never written down, and therefore had noprevious embodiment as a commodity, there were no preexisting legal concepts ofproperty that record producers had to contend with when selling recordings ofjazz. From a commercial perspective, the recording was the original embodimentof jazz from which all future concepts of property and authenticity werederived. Through the medium of the sound recording, a once intangible andelusive art form was transformed into a physical and reproducible commoditythat effectively negated its previous existence.


The idea ofsound recordings being the authentic embodiment of music was certainly notunique to jazz. The phonograph was first sold to the public in 1896, and fromthe beginning, the standard for this new piece of technology was to create “theillusion of real presence” (Thompson 135). In order to convince the public thatthe musical experience of listening to a recording was as good as, or indeedpreferable to, attending a live performance, the Edison Phonograph Companyembarked on an aggressive advertising campaign that portrayed the phonograph asbeing itself a musical instrument rather than a reproduction (Thompson 142). Itis important to note that at this point the development of sound recordingtechnology was primarily governed by a desire to recreate the live sound of theconcert hall.


The firstphase of this campaign began around 1900 and was characterized by the slogan“Looking for the Band,” under which the Edison Company presented a variety ofadvertisements depicting children, “primitives,” and other supposedly“innocent” individuals being completely dumbfounded upon hearing music comingfrom a phonograph. The purpose of this campaign was to show that recordingtechnology was so advanced and sophisticated that only the most civilizedWesterner would not, upon hearing a sound reproduction, be compelled to searchfor the “real” band. In this way, the phonograph was depicted in terms of“technological impartiality and receptivity,” as an invisible medium providingdirect contact between the artist and the listener (Gitelman 266-67).


To furtheremphasize the concept of the phonograph as a musical instrument, between 1915and 1925 the Edison Company held thousands of demonstrations across the UnitedStates of what they called “tone tests.” During one of these demonstrations anEdison recording artist, preferably a female vocalist, would sing alongside arecording of her voice. Usually at some point the lights would be dimmed andthe vocalist would walk offstage leaving only the recorded voice performing,ostensibly creating a situation whereby the audience would assume a humanpresence where there was none (Thompson 131-32). The following is a sample advertisementof the tone test circulated by the Edison Company:


Proved! Yesterday! to Walla Walla! No Difference! The end ofthe concert found the audience absolutely and completely convinced through itsown personal experience, that there is no difference between an artist's livingperformance and its Re-Creation by the New Edison – that listening to theNew Edison is, in literal truth, the same as listening to the living artists.(Thompson 159)


The natureof the tone test illustrates an intriguing development in the evolution ofsound recording. Female vocalists were preferred for tone tests because theprimitive recording technology of the time captured their voices better thanthe sound of any other instrument, and, since a recording obviously cannot adaptduring a performance, in order to make the demonstration convincing, thesevocalists were forced to alter their singing styles to match the sound of therecording (Thompson 156). Thus, while the sound of the phonograph wasostensibly governed by the sound of a live performance, it is clear here thatthe reproduction was now beginning to dictate the sound of the performer: theimitation had, in effect, become the original.


Thisdevelopment proved to be even more pronounced for jazz than it was for classicalmusic. Once recordings of jazz became widely available in the 1920s, itsaudience increased exponentially; however, it was an audience that mostly hadonly encountered jazz through the medium of the recording. Thus, people whowere inspired to attend live jazz performances after hearing jazz records cameto these performances with certain preconceptions, often expecting to hear thesame music they had heard on the phonograph. Perhaps even more significantly,an entirely new generation of jazz musicians were inspired to pursue this artform by the music that they heard on jazz records. Without recordings, it wasextremely difficult to study the musical styles of particular jazz musiciansunless one was effectively apprenticing and playing with them. The phonograph,however, created a “democratic educational potential” (Peretti 152) wherebyanyone who could afford the machine and a few records could listen to andanalyze the style and improvisations of particular musicians over and overagain. As a result, in the decades following the first jazz recordings, theinfluence of recorded jazz came to be felt more and more strongly in the arenaof live jazz. Recordings became the “source” of a significant portion of thejazz that has been performed in the twentieth century.


Benjamin is,of course, highly suspicious of the kind of claims that were made by the EdisonPhonograph Company and other record companies regarding the “technologicalimpartiality” and “authentic embodiment” of their medium. In describing the mediumof film, Benjamin explains how, “it is impossible to assign to a spectator aviewpoint which would exclude from the actual scene such extraneous accessoriesas camera equipment, lighting machinery, staff assistants, etc.—unlesshis eye were on a line parallel with the lens” (232-33). Similarly, in the caseof a studio sound recording, a spectator observing the recording process inreal time would witness a scene filled with microphones, amplifiers, andrecording engineers. Only by placing his or her ear to the speaker andlistening to the finished product on the record would the spectator be able tohear the ostensibly “real” music. Thus the phonograph, like film, represents amedium in which the technology is meant to be invisible, or in this case, inaudible:“it offers, precisely because of the thoroughgoing permeation of reality withmechanical equipment, an aspect of reality which is free of all equipment”(Benjamin 234). Benjamin is also quick to point out, however, that this“equipment-free aspect of reality” is, in fact, “the height of artifice” (233).The “illusion” of reality created by the phonograph is precisely that, for, aswith film, the art that has been preserved on phonographs was profoundlyaffected and altered by the technology of mechanical reproduction and oftendiffered from the live music of its time in significant and fundamental ways.


One of themost obvious effects of sound recordings is that they radically alter the spaceof performance, both for the performer and listener. The mental process ofimprovising, while the result of highly developed musicianship, can also be ahighly spontaneous process for many jazz musicians. During a performance, theenergy and mood of the audience can profoundly affect the musicians and themusic they produce. In the studio, however, the jazz musician is removed fromthis environment, lacking, like the film actor, “the opportunity of the stageactor to adjust to the audience during his performance,” as his “part is actednot for an audience but for a metal contrivance” (Benjamin 228, 229). Theaudience is also removed from the performance environment and placed in theposition of listening to music that is played, essentially, by a metalcontrivance. They cannot experience the physical and visual presence, the“aura” of the musicians, nor can they interact with them and directly affectthe music that is being produced. In its live forms, jazz is fundamentallyabout process rather than product, both for the performers and listeners(Johnson 3). Thus, the different process of performing jazz in a studio altersboth how the music is produced and presented and how it is received.


There iscertainly no shortage of problematic aspects that one can find in the earlyrecording process. The space of a live performance carried with it a certainfreedom from scrutiny that many musicians felt allowed them to be bolder andmore spontaneous, to experiment and take the kind of risks that are necessaryto push the envelope of their art form and create fresh and innovative music.The unforgiving posterity of the phonograph, on the other hand, unnerved manymusicians, for it meant that every mistake they made, every note they missed,could be heard over and over again by thousands or even millions of people.Perhaps, more significantly, it also meant that the musicians themselves couldlisten to their performances from the perspective of a spectator, thus altering“the nature of interpretation” (Chanan 7). Within the space of a recordingstudio, individual takes are frequently studied and scrutinized, equipment isadjusted to improve the sound balance, and musicians are given a myriad ofinstructions on how to improve and “perfect” their performance. Yet, thepursuit of a perfect product seems rather antithetical to the spontaneousspirit of jazz. Theodor Adorno, though certainly no fan of jazz, complainedthat a “perfect, immaculate performance” was “realized in precisely thatspontaneity which is sacrificed to fixation” (284), and many other critics alsocharged that sound recordings caused musicians to be more conservative withtheir performances and stifled their creativity (Chanan 120). Music that wasonce fresh and innovative had now, supposedly, become stale and predictable.


If soundrecordings altered the nature of musical interpretation, they altered even moresignificantly the nature of listening. In a live performance, improvised jazzis always, to a certain degree, new and unfamiliar to an audience; however, arecording, even a live one, would seem to reify this spontaneous process andturn it into a fixed text, allowing listeners the opportunity to memorize andbecome familiar with improvisations. As Chanan asserts, this process ofreification has often created a public desire for repetition whereby performersfeel obliged to abandon “interpretation and its elements of spontaneity [. . .]precisely to ensure that the concert performance shall indeed be a copy of therecord, and the concert-goer will not be disappointed” (118). Such expectationscould be extremely frustrating for many jazz musicians, as they not onlyinhibited their improvisational creativity, but also tended to typecast themwithin a certain style and repertoire, making it difficult for them to exploreother musical avenues without alienating their fans. In addition, beginning inthe 1920s, many musicians began trying to learn to play jazz by imitating therecordings of their idols. A prime example of this is the now famous openingtrumpet cadenza played by Louis Armstrong on his 1928 recording of “West EndBlues.” It is unlikely that, before this recording was made, Armstrong had everplayed that cadenza in quite the same way as he does on this recording. Sincethis recording was released, however, Armstrong’s solo has been transcribednote for note and hundreds, if not thousands of aspiring trumpet players havedevotedly practiced it, trying to mimic precisely the rhythms, dynamics, andintonation of the recording. This development seems very peculiar within thecontext of jazz, since such precise repetition hardly seems improvisatory, nordoes it emphasize the distinct, individual style of the performer: one of thedefining characteristics of the jazz soloist (Gioia 16). Also, given thesometimes aggravatingly impartial nature of the phonograph, the devotion ofsome fans and musicians to the recordings of their idols has often meant thateven recorded mistakes were copied and imitated, much to the chagrin of these“idols” (Millard 102).


The impactof recording technology on jazz was further complicated by the development ofradio. One of the most significant impacts that radio had upon jazz and popularmusic was to introduce the concept of corporate advertising. Right from theearliest radio broadcasts in 1906, music was used by broadcasters to attractlisteners. At first, the poor quality of recording technology dictated thatradio stations broadcast mostly live music, and broadcasters, under thepretense of giving musicians free advertising, were able to solicit unpaidperformances. Musicians’ unions, however, quickly began demanding wages for anyradio work. Thus in order to mitigate their own costs, broadcasters beganselling airtime to commercial advertisers (Kraft 63-68). Initially, thisarrangement appeared to be a highly beneficial one for musicians, as itprovided them with steady work and wider exposure. In the mid 1920s, however,remote-control broadcasting was introduced, allowing individual concerts to bebroadcast live across the United States. Now advertisers needed to broadcast ononly a small number of programs in order to reach a large audience and,consequently, many orchestras in rural areas and smaller urban centers wereleft unemployed (Kraft 68-70). In addition, in 1930 a process known aselectrical transcription (ET) allowed for the creation of slow-spinning discswith fifteen minutes of programming on each side, as opposed to the earlier 78rpm discs that would only hold about three and a half minutes. This technologyallowed for the manufacture of discs with prerecorded advertisements or blankspaces into which advertisements could be inserted. By 1932, 75 percent of allradio stations used transcription disks, and by 1939 these “canned” broadcastsaccounted for the bulk of programming on most smaller stations (Coleman 40).The obvious economic savings of prerecorded advertising would eventually allbut eliminate live radio performances (Kraft 78-80). Thus the impact of radiocombined with that of the phonograph actually had the effect of reducing ratherthan expanding employment opportunities for many musicians.


Equallydisconcerting for jazz musicians, at least those who were fortunate enough tofind employment, was the manner in which their music and their careers weregoverned by the demands of corporate advertising. For example, from the 1920sthrough the 1940s, jazz composers, most notably Duke Ellington, createdhundreds of songs that were all roughly three minutes in length. Thisdevelopment has been primarily attributed to the limitations of early recordingtechnology. ET discs, however, while not as technologically sophisticated orcommercially viable as LPs, certainly provided the basis for the distributionof longer recordings well before the release of the LP in 1948. Interestingly,during this period jukebox operators accounted for a third of all records sold(Kraft 78), and by the late 1930s many radio stations had adopted the discjockey format. Both of these groups often refused to play songs that werelonger than three minutes because they “interfered with commercials” (Peretti162). Such commercial resistance could hardly have helped with the developmentand sale of longer recordings and their attendant technology. In addition,since many record companies regarded “black” music as unsellable by itself,those musicians who made their living recording music for advertising werecertainly not about to be given many opportunities to record jazz.1By the mid-1930s, with the “swing” craze in full force, music advertising hadbecome an immensely lucrative, multi-million dollar industry. While numerousexcellent jazz recordings survive from this period, much of the music the bigbands were required to play could hardly be considered jazz at all. Even famousorchestras like those of Ellington, Basie, Goodman, and Miller made asubstantial portion of their income playing trite and cliché popular songs toadvertise everything from hand soap to war bonds. Musicians could often beheard complaining that “we do not sell music; we sell programming” (Chanan 17).


Clearly, thecommercialism of the recording industry has had many negative and creativelydamaging effects on the production and development of jazz. Nevertheless, themisuse of the creative potential of sound recording by commercial interestsshould not be used as an excuse to criticize or dismiss the medium itself.While the phonograph was seen by some to stifle freedom and spontaneity inmusical performance, it also demanded new standards of professional competence(Chanan 127). The proliferation of recorded music across the United States andthe world permanently raised the bar for musical performance, requiringmusicians to maintain an extraordinarily high and consistent level ofexcellence. Before recordings, people whose musical experience was necessarilylimited by their geographic location or economic status could be far moreeasily impressed by “virtuosos.” However, once the sounds of those who wereundisputed masters on their instruments,—musicians like Louis Armstrong,Coleman Hawkins, and Art Tatum, for example,—were heard in living roomsacross the world, every musical performance would be rated against this newstandard. While many recordings presented watered down distortions of jazz, thefear of posterity, while extremely stressful, also motivated many musicians toperform some of their best work for the phonograph, and this music was alsostudied by scores of others.


Of course,even if the musical quality of some recordings was high, there is still thecriticism that these recordings turned improvisations into closed texts andencouraged only strict imitation from other musicians, thus inhibiting thecreative development of jazz. This attitude is, however, unjustifiablypatronizing to most jazz musicians. While there were undoubtedly some musicianswho failed to comprehend the spontaneous nature of jazz from its records, therewere also many others who used these early recordings as an educationalfoundation from which to develop their own performance styles. A three minuterecording is an extremely reduced and restricted version of a jazz songcompared to its live manifestations, where additional choruses and extendedsolos can expand it into a ten or twenty minute piece. Thus early jazzrecordings are very much like written scores of jazz standards that, containingonly head arrangements and chord progressions, merely provide an outline uponwhich the spontaneity and improvisation of jazz performance is based. Arecording like “West End Blues” was not simply imitated, but expanded andadapted into numerous different renditions by later jazz musicians. From thisperspective, the jazz recording is no longer a closed text severed from therealities of musical development, but an integral part of a dynamic and fluidcreative process that, by virtue of its tangible form, can continue toinfluence the musical development of countless future generations while alsoproviding historians with invaluable “records” of this process.


The removalof the musician, in studio recordings, from the performance environment hasalso been far from universally regarded as being a negative development. Manymusicians, both before and after the advent of sound recordings, found havingto tailor their performances to audience expectations and preconceptions to beextremely frustrating and creatively stifling. Many also found the pressure oflive performance, where one is expected to sound “perfect” every time, to befar more intense than that of studio recording, where musicians are allowednumerous attempts to perfect their performances. Glenn Gould, for example,claimed that sound recording was the ideal artistic medium for music, one wherecomposers and musicians could experiment and expand their art free from therestrictions and the stress of having to entertain an audience, and refused to performlive for most of his career. He believed that the opportunities for “editorialintervention” provided by sound recording, where musical performances could beclosely scrutinized and continually improved upon, allowed musicians to pursueand achieve a level of skill and creativity that would have been impossiblewithin the limitations of live performance (Chanan 132).


Furthermore,from Gould’s perspective Benjamin’s claim that the film actor performs only fora “metal contrivance” seems rather short sighted. In fact, the film actor has arather specialized audience present to view her performance, including adirector, assistant directors, lighting technicians, costume designers, makeupartists, etc. Likewise, in the recording studio engineers, producers, othermusicians, and the performers themselves all work together to refine andimprove the quality of the music recorded, thereby forming a highly skilledaudience that affects the performance in a far more deliberate and constructiveway than an audience at a live concert ever could. Hence, while recordingscannot duplicate the sound of live performance, some would argue that they areactually better than the real thing.


The exampleof Glenn Gould highlights a significant and intriguing debate concerning whatconstitutes the “real” within musical performance and expression. Perhaps thestrongest and most vehement criticism that has ever been leveled against soundrecordings is that they are unnatural, that they have removed the human elementfrom the production and transmission of music and replaced it with coldpassionless machinery. It has also been argued, however, that “the moment manceased to make music with his own voice alone the art became machine ridden”(Dellaira 28). From this perspective then, there seems to be little differencebetween transmitting musical ideas through microphones, phonographs, andspeakers and communicating them through strings and brass tubing. Manyadvocates of mechanically derived art have claimed that it is, in fact, thestage, with all of its inherent limitations, that is a distortion of reality,and that it is only through media as film, photography, and sound recordingthat we can actually experience the “real” (Kittler 37). Film technology, forexample, can make the slightest whisper clearly audible, thereby allowingShakespearean actors to convey emotional subtleties contained in theircharacters’ soliloquies in ways the actors could not in a live theatreperformance, where they must project in order to be heard. Concerningphotography, Benjamin states that it “can capture images which escape naturalvision” (220), thus making it a more objective, and therefore, real medium thanthe painting, which is completely derived from human perception andinterpretation. In terms of music, as the technology of microphones and soundmixing improved, studios were able to capture on record subtle musical elementsthat would have been inaudible in a live performance. Today, with compact discsand digital technology, many listeners argue that the quality of recorded soundis now vastly superior to that of most live performances.


On thesubject of the relationship between painting and photography and betweentheatre and film, Benjamin states that “Earlier much futile thought had beendevoted to the question of whether photography is an art. The primaryquestion—whether the very invention of photography had not transformedthe entire nature of art—was not raised. Soon film theoreticians askedthe same ill-considered question with regard to film” (227).


One couldreadily make the same statement about the relationship between music and soundrecording. While photography and film have mostly overcome these prejudices andbeen recognized as separate and equal art forms, no such distinction has yetbeen widely recognized between music and sound recording: indeed, there isstill no one generally recognized term to encompass what I will refer to asaudio art, and literature on the subject is somewhat sparse.


In any majorCanadian or American university library, a subject heading search under“photography” or “motion pictures” will yield thousands of entries. In theTRELLIS library catalogue (which services the universities of Guelph, Waterloo,and Wilfrid Laurier), however, I found only twelve entries under the heading of“sound in art,” and searches in other library systems under this and relatedheadings such as “audio art” and “sound art” yielded no more than a few dozenentries at most.


Scholarsexploring the field of audio art often begin by addressing this identityproblem. In Wireless Imagination, Douglas Kahn laments “the absence of anything remotelyresembling a coherent tradition of audio art” (ix) and criticizes “theprivileging of music as the art of sound in modern Western culture” (3).Similarly, in Sound by Artists Dan Lander states that “a theory of phonography (recordedsound) has yet to emerge” (12) and that “it is difficult to identify an art ofsound precisely because of its historical attachment to music” (10). While bothauthors begin on this unfortunate note, the collections of essays theyintroduce reveal a large and growing critical community,2 one whosework reveals not only how far the art of sound recording goes beyond theboundaries of music, only one of many raw materials available, but also howthis technology can be used to redefine the nature of music. If sound recordingtechnology can be used to expand the usage of auditory data and stimuli beyondwhat is naturally possible, why should this technology not also be used toexpand the art of music beyond what is possible in live performance?


There arenumerous cases one could cite whereby sound recording technology has been usedto create “impossible performances” (Dellaira 19). In the arena of jazz,however, one of the most famous and successful examples is pianist Bill Evans’1963 album Conversations With Myself. Even in jazz there are certain inherent limitations tolive performance. In the liner notes to Conversations, Gene Lees quite effectivelyarticulates the particular impediments that Evans and his producer Creed Taylorwere seeking to circumvent in this album: “It is no reflection on musicianswith whom Bill Evans has worked to say that in general they limit him. If abassist delays a split second too long in responding to something he does, asuperb musical idea may be lost, or at least diminished. It is no reflection onthem because they are human and therefore not mind readers.” This sentiment isalso echoed by Evans himself: “Another condition to be considered is the factthat I know my musical techniques more thoroughly than any other person, sothat, it seems to me, I am equipped to respond to my previous musicalstatements with the most accuracy and clarity.” Thus, seeking to create a moreprecise kind of “group” improvisation, Evans made a series of recordings thatinvolved two separate overdubbings. He first recorded a single track, then asecond track while listening and reacting to the first one, and then a thirdtrack in which he reacted to the combined sound of the first two tracks. Thisprocess created an extraordinary situation in which the listener hears musicproduced by three separate musicians, but only one mind.


In terms ofits creative use of recording technology, Conversations with Myself is a truly revolutionary album.While essentially “unreal,” the music contains all of the crucialcharacteristics of jazz, including spontaneity, improvisation, and a distinctlyindividualistic sound, and it presents them in a fresh and original context.This unique blending of live musical elements with recorded sound illustratesnot only the creative educational potential of the sound recording medium, butalso the ability of jazz to transform this medium. As an art form dedicated toinnovation and reinterpretation, jazz can, in instances such as the recordingof this album, inject its spirit of artistic development into the media throughwhich it is conveyed and expand their creative boundaries along with its own.


The historyof jazz in the twentieth century stands apart from other contemporary artisticdevelopments on account of its complex interrelationship with the evolution ofsound recording technology. The visual art forms Benjamin discusses in hisanalysis of the age of mechanical reproduction are all essentially fixedelements embodied within a single medium. Painting and sculpture are physicalobjects that, even in their degraded reproduced forms, present images of ritualart, while film and photography are wholly constituted by the technology ofmechanical reproduction. Ever since it encountered the medium of soundreproduction, however, jazz has existed in a kind of dual state developing bothinside and outside of the recording space. More significantly, this developmenthas involved a highly fluid movement of musical ideas and concepts between thismedium and that of live performance. The sound recording captures certainelements of a jazz performance, which are then studied by other musicians,reintroduced into the performance space in a new context, and recorded again.While this process is unfolding, however, those elements of jazz that areunique to live performance—the interaction between musicians and the waythey respond to their audience—are also continuing to evolve within thisspace, influenced by ideas from both media. In addition, as sound recordingtechnology has improved, jazz has developed artistic processes unique to therecording space, ones that also influence and are influenced by liveperformances. Thus, since jazz remains only partially structured by thetechnology of mechanical reproduction, it can be argued that its “aura” hasonly been partially destroyed. This observation should prompt us to reconsiderwhether the destruction of the aura of other art forms by mechanicalreproduction is as absolute and final a process as Benjamin implies.





1For some innovative perspectives on the economics of jazz, see Collier, whoargues that contrary to prevailing popular and scholarly opinion, live andrecorded jazz was primarily patronized by, and therefore directed towards,white Americans; and Kofsky, who presents a bold and astute study of the roleof race and racism in the jazz recording industry.


2See also Kahn (Noise, Water, Meat), Furlong, and Augaitis.





Adorno,Theodor W. “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening.” TheEssential Frankfurt School Reader. Ed. Andrew Arato and Eike Gerhardt. New York: Urizen, 1978. 270-99.


Armstrong,Louis. “West End Blues.” Louis Armstrong: The Complete Hot Five and HotSeven Recordings. Rec. 28 June 1928. Columbia, 2000.


Augaitis,Daina and Dan Lander, eds. Radio Rethink: Art, Sound, and Transmission Banff, AB: Walter Phillips Gallery, 1994.


Benjamin,Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations. Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schoken, 1968. 217-51.


Chanan,Michael. Repeated Takes: A Short History of Recording and its Effects onMusic. New York: Verso, 1995.


Coleman,Mark. Playback: From the Victrola to MP3, 100 Years of Music, Machines, andMoney. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 2003.


Collier,James Lincoln. The Reception of Jazz in America: A New View. New York: Institute for Studies in American Music, 1988.


Dellaira,Michael Richard. For the Record: Recorded Objects and the New Listener. Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms International, 1991.


Evans, Billand Gene Lees. Conversations with Myself. Liner Notes. Verve, 1997.


Furlong,William. Audio Arts: Discourse and Practice in Contemporary Art. London: Academy Editions, 1994.


Garofalo,Reebee. “From Music Publishing to MP3: Music and Industry in the TwentiethCentury.” American Music 17 (1999): 318-53.


Gioia, Ted. TheImperfect Art: Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.


Gitelman,Lisa. “Reading Music, Reading Records, Reading Race: Musical Copyright and theU. S. Copyright Act of 1909.” Musical Quarterly 81 (1997): 265-90.


Johnson,Bruce. “Hear Me Talkin' to Ya: Problems of Jazz Discourse.” Popular Music 12 (1993): 1-12.


Kahn,Douglas. Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1999.


Kahn,Douglas and Gregory Whitehead, eds. Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio, andthe Avant-Garde.Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1992.


Kittler,Friedrich. Grammophone, Film, Typewriter. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1999.


Kofsky,Frank. Black Music, White Business: Illuminating the History and PoliticalEconomy of Jazz. New York: Pathfinder, 1998.


Kraft, JamesP. Stage to Studio: Musicians and the Sound Revolution, 1890-1950. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996.


Lander, Danand Micah Lexier, eds. Sound by Artists. Toronto: Art Metropole; Banff, AB: Walter Phillips Gallery, 1990.


Millard,Andre. America on Record: A History of Recorded Sound. New York: Cambridge UP, 1995.


Peretti,Burton W. The Creation of Jazz. Champaign: U of Illinois P, 1992.


Priestley,Brian. Jazz on Record: A History. London: Elm Tree, 1988.


Thompson,Emily. “Machines, Music, and the Quest for Fidelity: Marketing the EdisonPhonograph in America, 1877-1925.” Musical Quarterly 79 (1995): 131-71.

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