We should be on by now

A couple weeks ago, in preparation for reviewing Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, I did something that most critics or performers have probably done when faced with a similar prospect: I listened to Rachmaninoff’s 1939 recording. I have it on a pretty good Naxos transfer which is now out of print, but as the link indicates, it’s not hard to find at all. Now think: this is the chronological equivalent of a critic/listener/performer in 1909 having access to a recording of Beethoven playing the “Emperor” concerto. Piano nerds, at least, don’t take Rachmaninoff’s recordings for granted—once you discover them, they and the scores end up their own synoptic Two-Source Hypothesis—but I don’t think we realize how much their existence says about our relationship with the musical past.

In fact, I think what Rachmaninoff’s recordings show—what the advent of recorded music shows—is that our perception of a musical past is, in many ways, an illusion. In general terms—

The perceived difference between the musical past and the musical present is a symptom of the limitations of information technology.

As information technology improves, the distance between past and present shrinks. You can make a taxonomy of musical examples. Nearly the entire corpus of surviving Ancient Greek music fits on a single web page, with tempo and tuning largely educated guesses. Chant and medieval music exists in more complete sources, along with more detailed instructions. Western classical music is documented in standardized notation and fuller contemporary accounts. Music written since 1900 has increasingly—an with increasing fidelity—been recorded by or, at least, under the guidance of the composer.

That brief rundown might be considered coincidental—the steady progress of information technology, directional over time, corresponding to how “old” a musical epoch seems to us. But much musical scholarship of the past century has been devoted to, in a way, improving the backwards compatibility of more rudimentary information technology. If we know more about how Renaissance music, or Medieval music, or Ancient Greek music is supposed to sound, it’s because scholarship has filled in gaps that make performers better able to assemble the existing instructions—notation and treatise—into realized music that exists in the present.

In other words, all music—regardless of age—is ideally immediate and timeless, and as the technology of reproducing music—regardless of age—improves, the “pastness” of music falls away.

I already see the two implicational poles of this with the digital reproduction and distribution of music—old music ceases to gain an advantage from the imprimatur of age, but also ceases to suffer in comparison with music of greater chronological novelty. (This is, I think, why concerted efforts to bring classical music into alignment with pop music, to make it “appeal to new generations,” always come off as tinny to my ear: they’re trying to solve a “problem” that’s fading away on its own, and, ironically, dating themselves—the technology advances faster than the solution.) As the reproduction converges on the fidelity and immediacy of live performance, and as those reproductions become ever-more immediately available, the “dead white guy” factor of classical music diminishes. It’s like Faulkner famously said: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Here’s another card in this file, one I will almost certainly be returning to in the next few months. Brian Wilson finished his unfinished masterpiece, the aborted “SMiLE” album, in 2004, ending over thirty years of fan speculation via bootlegs and homegrown reconstructions. Nevertheless, additional bootlegs and reconstructions of “SMiLE” have continued to surface since 2004. Why? Because of information technology—the raw materials of the original “SMiLE” sessions, once released into the digital world, have proliferated such that anyone with Internet access has near-instant access to them. Fragments of music originally thought lost have made their own way, to the point where they’re constantly re-introduced into the present, refusing to be pinned down to 1967 or even 2004. Mahler’s piano rolls, Rachmaninoff’s 78s, studio tapes from the 1960s—they’re all here and now. And, as the present continually renews itself, only more so.


  1. Maybe not exactly pertinent, but I couldn’t help but think, reading this post, of the weirdness of intellectual property law as it pertains to recordings. Like, didn’t most of those Naxos Historical discs go out of print because Naxos got sued? Strange to think that, if Beethoven had somehow recorded the Emperor Concerto under present-day copyright law, his recordings would’ve been controlled by the record companies until well into the 20th century.And same deal with SMiLE—aren’t the fanmade completions, combining the old Beach Boys sessions with Brian Wilson’s Nonesuch recording, actually a lot better than that slightly insipid, legal version?Or maybe I’m just reading too much Boing Boing.

  2. Another offshoot here is that, from what I remember, the Rachmaninoff recording comes off as rather unusual compared to the received tradition about how Rach 3 goes – and, even accepting that he has some authority as the composer (the “some” is important there), I still hear his recording as out of fashion and, thus, old-fashioned – which is odd, because his approach is actually less Romanticized than the traditional interpretation. It simply sounds like a product of a bygone era – and perhaps of a future era, but not this one.Of course, part of the appeal of his recordings is that they give us a fresh, new perspective on something familiar, in much the same way the first “historically informed” recordings created excitement because they made Bach and Handel sound new.I’m not sure I agree that the existence of recordings narrows the distance between past and present as much as you say, although I may be missing your point. One could argue that the accumulation of a “recorded canon” has helped to keep interpretations stuck in the past. Surely without recordings, performances of standard rep would be less uniform, but then the standard rep might not be so standard. The phenomenon of composers documenting interpretations of their works can be particularly problematic, because it could have the tendency to stymie innovative approaches. Think of the infinite variety of approaches to Bach we can have, partly because the scores are so non-prescriptive – and certainly because we don’t get to hear how he performed.What did you think of the Rachmaninoff recording? I have to admit that, from what I remember, it would fall fairly far down on the list of recordings I’d want to hear again and again, but maybe I should give it another shot.

  3. Dan: Indeed, the rabbit hole of IP law knows no bottom.For the record, I enjoy the Brian-completed SMiLE immensely. What’s interesting, though, is that in one way it’s <>fueled<> more fanmade completions—because much of the SMiLE material finally sounds as good, audio-quality-wise, as we always wanted it to.Michael: I don’t think composer-sanctioned recordings necessarily limit interpretive possibilities. (After all, very few people play Rachmaninoff’s concertos like Rachmaninoff did.) In fact, I think the increased immediacy of information technology works <>against<> historical style pigeonholing. Early-music performance practice is a lot more natural and performer-oriented than in the early days of the historically-informed movement. I think the more we know about a style, the more we internalize it and begin to push its envelope. I’m a big fan of Rachmaninoff’s recordings—everyone else sounds a bit self-indulgent after that. My second favorite is probably Van Cliburn: despite the vast difference in pianistic sound, his interpretation has the same reticent quality.My undergrad piano teacher (Dmitry Paperno, the best unknown pianist around) always emphasized that Rachmaninoff was more of a classicist than people liked to think. (He saved the <>Pravda<> announcement of Rachmaninoff’s death and had it framed in his studio. It was literally a quarter of a column inch of 7-point text.)

  4. I like your characterization of all music as “immediate and timeless.” Philip Auslander was recently on campus here talking about Benjamin’s idea of “reactivation,” noting how listening to a recording makes earlier music a new event. It’s something I enjoyed pondering after the talk, and revisiting here.I suppose the point I take issue with is that the pastness never exactly falls away. It’s still there, it just doesn’t have exclusive control. The thing that really intrigues me is how recordings accumulate in a way live performances don’t. It’s more than a two-source hypothesis- you have the score, a multitude of recordings, and increasingly musical samples used in mashups, films, other numbers. Some of these are new, some are old, but they all still exist. But I’m not sure we ever get over the idea that this music has a history, especially as the history becomes concrete and traceable via technology.

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