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The Recording Angel

The Recording Angel: Music, Records and Culture from Aristotle to Zappa, Second Edition

Evan Eisenberg
Copyright Date: 2005
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    The Recording Angel
    Book Description:

    First published in 1987 and now considered a classic,The RecordingAngelcharts the ways in which the phonograph and its cousins have transformed our culture. In a new Afterword, Evan Eisenberg shows how digital technology, file trading, and other recent developments are accelerating-or reversing-these trends. Influential and provocative,The Recording Angelis required reading for anyone who cares about the effect recording has had-and will have-on our experience of music.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14584-7
    Subjects: Performing Arts

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface to the Second Edition
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Chapter One Clarence
    (pp. 1-8)

    From the outside Clarence’s house looks like the others in this part of Bellmore, Long Island. The tiny plot of crabgrass may be a shade browner than average, but there is nothing remarkable until you step up to the door, which has a hole stuffed with rags where the lock should be; ring the doorbell, which does not ring; knock; and see materialize, behind the small square of glass, a face. A navy-blue watch cap is pulled down to the eyes, whose lashes glisten with rheum. The square Yankee jaw, peppered with a rash, expands in a smile, and the...

  6. Chapter Two Music becomes a thing
    (pp. 9-28)

    When Theognis made this claim, all of Greek tradition backed him up. It was no secret in the sixth century BC that the poet could grant immortality. He kept the file on heroes, on sages, on beautiful women and boys, and so gave excellence a great incentive. But although the poet had always controlled immortality, it was only recently that he had got a share in it. The work of the oral bard had been anonymous, a thread in tradition’s embroidery. Writing corrected this, since it could preserve not only the actors and argument of a tale but the teller’s...

  7. Chapter Three Tomás
    (pp. 29-34)

    Tomás and I had a rendezvous at a thrift shop near my apartment. He was looking for a tuxedo. With practised fingertips he raked the drab racks and, like a magician, pulled out a plausible suit. He disappeared, reappeared. ‘My dear, what do you think? The colour is too blue. But it fitsperfectly’. Tomás shoulders were broad, his waist small. He was working out three hours a day at the Columbia University gym. With his classic square-cut features and this new black-and-white, triangular torso – T-shirt beneath the tuxedo – he was elegant as a theorem of Euclid.


  8. Chapter Four Ceremonies of a solitary
    (pp. 35-56)

    The novelist Compton Mackenzie, the first great amateur of the gramophone (as the British call it, distinguishing Berliner’s disc player from Edison’s cylinder player) spent most of his adult life on tiny islands that he leased or purchased. His magazineThe Gramophonebegan publication in 1923 from his home on the island of Herm in the English Channel. A few years later, on nearby Jethou, the walls of his music room went up around a new Balmain equipped (as his wife put it) with ‘the largest gramophone horn then known to man’. When his record collection outgrew Jethou he built...

  9. Chapter Five The social record
    (pp. 57-70)

    One summer evening in 1910 Leo Tolstoy, whose grandfather had begun each day with an aubade played by his serfs, returned the favour by giving the peasants of Yasnaya Polyana a serenade. Calling them to assembly on the village green, the aged count showed them a box with a horn sucking out. He fussed with the box, and out of the horn came the sound of a balalaika orchestra. The muzhiks gaped. Then, at the Count’s prompting, they began to dance a hopak.

    The summer before, a moody youth named Sergei Prokofiev had written his girlfriend Verochka:

    Recently civilization has...

  10. Chapter Six The Cyrano machine
    (pp. 71-81)

    A Trobriand Islander told Malinowski, ‘The throat is a long passage like thewila(cunnus) and the two attract each other. A man who has a beautiful voice will like women very much and they will like him.’ The ethnographer, who had heard many stories of seduction by song, observed that ‘in the Trobriands, as with us, a tenor or baritone is sure of success with women’. Not every man can be so lucky; not every man can have a velvet throat or the knack of unpacking his heart in lyrics. Failing that, he must find either a Cyrano to...

  11. Chapter Seven Glenn Gould
    (pp. 82-88)

    My generation might be forgiven for harbouring a grudge against Glenn Gould, since he left the concert stage before we had a chance to hear him. In fact, we were too busy listening to his records to mind. His records proved to us that classical music was not all sentiment and decorum, dressing up for concerts and pleasing one’s teacher; that it could be sharp-boned and lonely, giving the same ecstasy as a chemistry set, a chess game or rain rushing the breach of a car window. And his writings, if we had noticed them, could have given us a...

  12. Chapter Eight Phonography
    (pp. 89-131)

    The word ‘record’ is misleading. Only live recordings record an event; studio recordings, which are the great majority, record nothing. Pieced together from bits of actual events, they construct an ideal event. They are like the composite photograph of a minotaur. Yet Edison chose the word deliberately. He meant his invention to record grandparents’ voices, business transactions and, as a last resort, musical performances. The use we put it to now might strike him as fraudulent, like doctoring the records.

    One might compile a whole lexicon of deceptive phrases connected with the phonograph. When we hear a familiar voice on...

  13. Chapter Nine Nina
    (pp. 132-143)

    ‘Why don’t you tell me what you want me to say,’ Nina said, ‘and I’ll say it as best I can.’ She took a long drag on her cigarette and the smoke ascended endlessly. We were sitting on the rug in the middle of the room like children, with two vodka-and-tonics and a tape recorder between us. This studio apartment is very nearly a replica of Nina’s childhood room, whose shell remains some seventy blocks uptown. The big brass bed and petite blond piano come from there, and possibly the two Firenze posters in their tall brass frames, a Renaissance...

  14. Chapter Ten Canned catharsis
    (pp. 144-171)

    ‘Instrument’ was the word enthusiasts used in the 1920s and 1930s when referring to their phonographs. It was artfully chosen. Grown men seriously interested in music did not want to be thought of as playing with toys. And the early phonograph was widely considered a toy, or at best a machine, and not the sort of thing with which a gentleman amateur of music ought to concern himself. It was understood as a sort of music box – a supremely versatile one that, in the words of a Berliner advertisement, ‘talks distinctly, sings any song with expression, plays the piano,...

  15. Chapter Eleven Saul
    (pp. 172-185)

    Saul’s second love was his stereo system, a rambling Tiergarten of woofers, tweeters and electronic crossovers that ruled the living room of his Forest Hills apartment. At the far end, where the windows must have been, there were bass enclosures like fortresses on which midranges, trebles and supertrebles perched like turrets. At the near end, to keep the room from listing, were terraces of electronics overgrown with knobs and bulbs. The turntable had two arms. From the intervals of wall, nudes in oil peeped out, rosy and abashed, selected for amplitude of thigh. There was no room for records; these...

  16. Chapter Twelve Deus ex machina
    (pp. 186-210)

    There was a time in my life when I needed a daily tenor sax fix. In a pinch, a four-measure break in a pop record would do; and it was remarkable that the oceanic power of the saxophone could be injected so quickly and deeply by means of the phonograph. The sound was a distillation, a serum. It was as if what Sonny Rollins called the ‘dignity of a big man with a big horn’ were akin somehow to the dignity of a big stereo, careless of its power.

    ‘Is it not strange,’ asks Benedick on hearing the fiddler, ‘that...

  17. Afterword to the Italian edition (1996)
    (pp. 211-216)

    In the decade since this book first appeared, the most visible change has been the shrinking and rainbow-coloring of the disc. When I was writing, the compact disc was a strident interloper; today it has so thoroughly triumphed that vinyl is left to the very poor, the very rich and the very odd.

    By itself, this is not a fact of much importance. Sonically speaking, the jump from analogue to digital is narrower than that from mono to stereo, to say nothing of the leap from acoustic to electric. Like electric recording, digital made some enemies with its early stridency....

  18. Finale quasi una fantasia (2004)
    (pp. 217-240)

    From the outside, the Aurels’ house looks a lot like the others in this part of Skylawn, Upper Long Island. The garden is, perhaps, in more urgent need of attention: it has been weeks, evidently, since anyone checked the settings on the holograms. The holly-hocks are foreshortened and the tint of the violets has slipped toward magenta.

    Like most suburbs of Earth, Skylawn sprawls across miles of geosynchronous orbit, its spectacular views of ‘downtown’ (the home planet) keeping unreal-estate prices high. Inside, I find a typical subearthan home: fraught with interest, of course, but as an ethnomusicologist of the future...

  19. Index
    (pp. 241-246)