by carl wilson

Must-to-Read: Brahms, Cowbell, Scissors

DJ Wol-P and the intact if not-so-fab four (1969).

Alex Ross, on "the record effect" in this week's New Yorker, starts slow but builds to stupendousness round'bout the phrase, "like Heisenberg's mythical observer," & gets into the gritty of how recording altered classical performance as we know it today. Mark Katz and Robert Philip serve up grist, but it's what Alex does with it too: "Classical music, with its softer-edged sounds, entered the recording era at a disadvantage. The age of the cowbell had begun," and later, "Most of all, classical music in America suffered from being a reproduction itself, an immaculate copy of European tradition. Weve been listening to the same record for a century and a half." His steely take-down is aerating that classical/notational carcass mightily.

Also, first turntablists? Stefan Wolpe, 1920, and Kurt Weill, 1927. Sorry, JC (1939). (But don't sweat it.)

Quibble: Very near the end Alex claims that "the Beatles broke up three years after they disappeared into the studio," a retirement from live performance he implies was in 1964 or 1965, but actually happened in 1966. Even then, Abbey Road came out in 1969 and Let It Be in 1970, with the group's dissolution coming at the end of that year. [Edited to correct: My bad. The piece said that the B's breakup happened 3-years-plus-a-few-months not after Gould's retirement from performance but after his 1966 essay on the subject. I misread it the other way around. So maybe there's a few months' discrepancy, but, uh, never mind.]

Anyway, Alex's point on the part live experience plays in the rude health of a band remains piquante, but I very much doubt that more touring would have kept the Beatles intact. That kind of success just makes rapid moo shu gai pan of people - Dylan broke up and there was only one of him!

Larger quibble: "Records cannot be entirely to blame, [Philip] admits: otherwise, similar patterns would surface in popular music, which, whatever its problems, has never lacked for spontaneity." A similar "feedback loop" of trying to sound like the music on other hit records operates in popular music. It's just that pop has an in-built bias in favour of novelty, having to do with a capitalist model, cycles of overthrowing elders etc., all of which are absent in the culture of notational music. In the absence of that bias, recording standards very likely would freeze pop in time, too; with that bias, recording standards become another vector along which to change.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, June 01 at 05:50 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (6)



Dammit. I spotted my mistake - I mistook Alex to be saying that the Beatles' retirement from the stage came a few months after Gould's, when he actually said that it was a few months after Gould's essay two years later. I was really tired yesterday. Sorry, Alex! I put up a retraction.

The upshot of my comment on reproductive cycles in pop, by the way, was meant to suggest that Philips didn't need to be so self-criticial - without the pop pressure to change, records almost *are* enough to explain all the effects he describes. Records are huge. The inherent conservatism of an elitist form gradually being overwhelmed by populist forms comes in there too of course. But that's thanks, again, to records - among other features of 20th-century history and economics.

Posted by zoilus on June 2, 2005 02:06 PM



You're right, Alex's piece is *rockin'*! And your write-up is the shizzle, but I have one quibble with your quibble -- capitalism's novelty biz is all over the notational composition scene, but you and Alex are right, the performance-of-the-standards scene isn't so novelty-driven. What's really interesting is that some of the most commercially successful players have used novelty-type image-marketing, either calculating or because they couldn't help themselves or somewhere in between, and there's nothing wrong with either -- Kronos, Nigel Kennedy, Glenn Gould.

I proposed "European-derived Institutional Music" as a new name for classical, but "notational" is catchier. "Institutional" because of its history of being dependent on institutions -- church, court, state, university, capitalist charitable foundations. Taxonomy -- that & death will always be with us. Our urge (which I strongly feel) to DIVIDE.

Posted by John S. on June 2, 2005 11:21 AM




Thanks, sir, for the kind words and mellow quibbles. I'll hold my ground on the Beatles: I said they played their last live show / disappeared into the studio "a few months" after Gould's essay of early 1966, and they apparently decided to break up at a meeting at a meeting in September 69. Four years would have been safer, maybe, given the haziness of the disappearing into the studio conceit. This ending was the best escape hatch I could find, and maybe it was more like the one on "Lost."

Good point about different sorts of "feedback loops" in pop. I was going to get into that, but decided to leave it alone, so as not to stir up a hornet's nest. (As Mr. snobby farty Classical Music, I gotta watch my step.) Seems like these originality - reproduction cycles are simply sped up so that they happen in a decade or even a year rather than a century.

DJ Wol-P is the shit (is bananas)! Notation roolz!


Posted by Alex Ross on June 1, 2005 11:14 PM



Raoul - I mentioned '64-'65 because Alex says the Beatles did this "a few months" after Glenn Gould did the same in 1964. That convenient elision doesn't bother me, it's just that Rubber Soul (which I think of as the transition, too) actually came out in late 1965. Plus, "more or less" broken up isn't what the piece said, and they didn't officially break up till Dec. 1970 and were active on Let It Be and Apple Corp. business through that year. Put together, the little untruths make it sound as though the Beatles broke up in 1968, which is a big untruth.

Bob - Thanks for the compliments. "Notational" is Alex's own term, which I use mostly in deference to him, but I think is better than "classical" or "academic" or "concert" or "serious" music (all tending to claim superiority to other music). Notational refers to music where the written score is the paramount, controlling interest. (That doesn't cover all "contemporary classical" work, but most of it.)

For more on that subject see Alex's more-or-less manifesto, "Listen to This":
as well as this interview:

Posted by zoilus on June 1, 2005 09:36 PM



Please define 'notational music" using words other than classical mmusic.

Great topic... that's why I tune in

Posted by Bob Pawliw on June 1, 2005 09:18 PM



Um, I think the Beatles last live show was in '66 and they were more or less broke up by '69, I'm guessing that's what he meant. *Rubber Soul*, the conventional wisdom has it, marks their "disappearance into the studio," not the '63 or '64 music.

Posted by raoul on June 1, 2005 09:13 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson