Christian Michel holds talk-and-discussion evenings at his London home on the sixth and twentieth of each month. If you want know more about these events email him at cmichel@ cmichel.com. I am doing the talk at the next one, the first of 2008, on January 6th. My chosen subject will be: the history of music making in the twentieth century. I have just sent an email to Christian about my talk, from which he will concoct his email invite to all his regulars. I am still thinking about what I will finally say and would greatly appreciate input from the Samizdata commentariat on the subject. So here is my email to Christian:
An extraordinary interlude – an aberration, you might say – in the history of music is now drawing to a close.
The musical opportunities created by modern electronics, in the form of electronic recording, radio, and then later of actual electronically powered musical instruments, were responded to by the music profession in two profoundly contrasted ways.
The “classical” fraternity concentrated first on popularising – and then on recording in opulently perfect sound – their resplendent back catalogue.
“Pop” music has been just as profoundly shaped by electronics. Indeed, it is the creation of electronics.
The most fundamental effect of electronics on “pop” music has been that popular music (by which I mean the old folk traditions) has no longer been obliged to rely either on musical literacy skills, or, for those in whom such skills were lacking, memory. “Folk” music always teetered on the edge of oblivion, relying as much of it did on the human brain as its hard disc, so to speak. And folk musicians were forced to concentrate on remembering the old songs, having little brain space to create new ones (folk music before recording was rather like literature before printing. Written manuscripts were about as perishable as the people who created them, for they lasted about as long).
Recording, for folk/pop musicians changed everything. No longer did the lowest class of musician depend upon their own memories to keep their previous creations and inherited repertoire alive. They could compose at their instruments, and record it, confident that it would then survive, and they were thus liberated to get on with creating the next would-be hit. And pop musicians were as uninhibited in their use of new, electronic instruments as the classical fraternity were mostly stand-off-ish about them (I know: Boulez, Stockhausen etc. They’re worth a mention).
This is a complicated story. Technology takes time to develop and get cheap, and it’s still hurtling along of course. Electronic recording (and CDs) took nearly a century to get good enough to do justice to Beethoven, Bruckner, Mahler and Wagner. At it took a similar time to get cheap enough for working class teenagers to play with it in bedrooms and garages.
The classical recording enterprise is now basically concluded. Oh, there are still occasional gems to be found in among the dross at the battle of the barrel. But, the great works are now recorded, and re-recording them again and again cannot count for as much now as making similar recordings did fifty years ago when classical fans were still hungry to hear their core repertoire. “Classical” musicians must now look to create new repertoire of a sort that can earn them a living, the inverted commas there being because a lot of them won’t really be “classical” musicians anymore and are becoming a lot more like pop musicians, from whom they have much to learn. The music profession will once more be a single (if huge and sprawling) entity, full of varieties of taste and of technique, but without that cavernous gulf that divided it during the twentieth century (in this respect it resembled and resembles politics. Discuss).
I could go on, and on the night I will, but I’ll end by briefly discussing my qualifications to do this talk. Well, first of all, I am a music fan, possessing an small-to-average sized pop CD collection and a gargantuan classical CD collection, having been a classical collector and listener all my now long life. I was a teenager during the sixties musical revolution. I have also been studying the history of the means of communication and information storage for as long as I can remember. I am no great shakes as a musician, although I did play the flute in my school orchestra, and I had a fabulous treble voice as a boy, which I used to sing in choirs of various kinds, at home around the piano and at school. But in the end, I’ll just have to hope that my audience finds my talk illuminating and enjoyable. For the truth is that they know most of the facts pretty much as well as I do. The question is, will I make more sense of those facts for my listeners? I’ll try.