Monday, January 19, 2009

Reproducing sound: Theorizing the Otological Gaze

By the early 1930s, sound reproduction technology had virtually revolutionized the entire praxis of musical production and listening. Thomas Edison’s groundbreaking though crude invention of the phonograph in 1877 had already become historicized in a series of further technological advancements that saw the advent of Emile Berliner’s gramophone, the invention of electrical recording, the introduction of the portable microphone and the proliferation of domestic radio sets. Needless to say, sound reproductive technologies had a staggering impact on existing musical communities, as well as the creation of new ones. Apart from mere practical possibilities, more importantly, these technologies manifested new ways of thinking and conceptualizing the immediate landscape of reality, providing surfaces for generating new subjectivities and epistemological structures for understanding and perceiving a world on the cusp of modernity.

For the first time in history, sound recording and reproductive technology through the gramophone and the portable record shattered the traditional social architecture of concert-life, driving a cleft between the performer and the receiver. As Michael Chanan notes, these new techniques of reproduction created a “distance, both physical and psychic” that created a new dimension of relations that privileged the dislocated sonic event over the located, embodied and visual concert setting. This is not to say that the loss of the visual dimension sat well with all consumers. Confronted with the uncanny experience of disembodied voices and invisible instrumentalists, a critic writing in 1923 noted that some listeners could not:

“… bear to hear a remarkably life-like human voice issuing from a box. They desire physical presence. For want of it, the gramophone distresses them.”

Case studies in the Unheimlich aside, other promoters of early sound-recording technology made ideological peace with these queer machines by attempting to normalize their presence in contemporary society. The “Edison Reality Tests” commonplace in gramophone shops as early as 1916 paired the listening experience with detailed manuals on how to compensate the loss of the visual through mental imaging, effectively teaching potential owners to acclimatize themselves to these altered aural experiences. The Victor Company, on the other hand, set about “domesticating” the gramophone by altering its physical design to appear more furniture-like than alien, at the same time advertising these commodities as “essential” home appliances. The eventual transition of the gramophone from the uncanny to “banality” was in no small part buoyed by changing attitudes in scientific discourse on the anatomical body which recast audition as a mechanical (albeit disembodied) function in the late 19th Century.

Despite the relative ease and speed at which gramophone culture was absorbed by society, the cleft that had been driven between performer and receiver was not so easily resolved. Theoretically, a double-sided mirror had been wedged between the traditional relation of the performer and his public – an aural, otological one. For the musician-performer, this otological mirror promised to faithfully reflect the sonic fruits of his labor through a flip of the switch, allowing him instant re-cognition of his work. On the other side, the manifestation of musical works in a “tangible” product and its portability into the sphere of the private allowed new consumers to produce reflections of themselves by reflecting personal musical tastes. In other words, the other side of the otological mirror provided consumers to produce their own musical subjectivities, expressed through the selection, purchase and collection of recordings.

Not all musicians took kindly to this otological mirror of reflection. While these new modes of reproduction offered musicians the opportunity to hear themselves as others heard them, some musicians expressed anxiety when their experience of their musical ideal-ego failed to overlap with the otological one. Saint-Saëns, reviewing a recording of himself in 1900, was appalled to discover “two grave mistakes” in execution and rhythm. Other reproductive technologies such as the automatic reproducing piano which reached its popularity peak in 1925 caused similar abjection to recording artists. Listening to a recording of himself in 1913, Max Pauer was shocked to find that he was “making mistakes that [he] would be the first to condemn in any one of [his] pupils”. At the same time, other performers found satisfaction in the returning gaze of the otological mirror. Pianist Eugen d’Albert was surprised at how “astonishing and deeply affecting” it was for him to sample his own playing, while Josef Lhévinne considered the Welte-Mignon reproducing piano rolls to have reproduced his “exact interpretation … with absolute accuracy as to tempo, touch and tone quality”.

It did not matter whether the otological mirror sought to reaffirm musical subjectivities or to deny them – what mattered more was the reception of these methods of sound reproduction as legitimate mediums of (re)presentation either as metonymic placeholders of performers, or faithful reproductions of them. It was as if the reflection of the musician’s gaze returned in the otological mirror was so with the scrutiny of the machine’s ear that a new compromise, indeed a new aesthetic standard of performance had to be fashioned in order to please these “listening machines” and the new dimension of listening practices they enabled. That is, rather than pleasing the audience in the traditional concert setting, recording artists had to please the listening economy of the machine and its auxiliary enabling of immediate, repeated listening – musicians now had to grapple with a technologically-driven otological gaze.

Contrary to other popular theoretical writings about the visual, disciplining gaze, the otological gaze does not denote the panoptical function of a “big Other”. Rather, the otological gaze indicates a new platform of self re-cognition that effectively, through the medium of the sound reproductive apparatus, allowed the musician to survey (and thus discipline) himself. Under his own gaze returned to him through recordings, the musician could subtly alter his own performance practices to suit the medium that sought to re-present him in public. Understandably, the permanent, repetitive nature of records demanded a whole new standard of perfection never before imagined through the concert scenario. Rachmaninoff admired the possibilities offered by the recording studio because it allowed him to strive for “artistic perfection” through repeated takes. Clifford Curzon expressed the reverse sentiment: “if you can’t risk a wrong note, your right notes are apt to mean less.” Indeed, under the oppression of the otological gaze, many musicians felt out of place, including Arthur Grumiaux and Sviatoslav Richter, who was “frightened” of microphones. Poulenc also ironically noted that both musicians and composers alike had been reduced to “victims of the treachery of the ‘wax’”, indicating the old process of recording directly onto wax cylinders.

Under the “treachery” of the otological gaze, performers found their minds and bodies further disciplined by a new restrictive economy imposed by the studio recording process and microphones. During the pre-electric microphone days of acoustic recording, performers often found themselves in cramped, uncomfortable working conditions, since the ‘listening reach’ of early recording devices were severely limited. The typical working studio is described by Mark Katz as “usually small, windowless, overheated [to keep the wax cylinders pliable], and empty, save for a large megaphone-shaped horn and small red light or perhaps a buzzer attached to one wall.” Singers had to vacillate between spots marked in chalk on the ground to avoid overloading the capacity of the recording instrument while orchestras (if ever rarely recorded) were squashed together in awkward positions to achieve the best sound balance dictated by the economy of recording technology. While conducting a recording of his composition The Planets with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1923, Gustav Holst recalled how the cramped conditions of recording caused horn virtuoso Aubrey Brain to break down thirteen times “as a result of the almost unbearable physical discomfort”.

Rather than being masters of their own surveillance, the recording studio phenomenon also gave rise to two new “masters” which musicians were responsible to under the otological gaze – the recording engineer and the record producer. Under the studio setting, recording became what Timothy Day calls a “cooperative” effort, which further dispersed the autonomy of the performing musician. Recording engineers were masters of a new sonic “tacit knowledge” of which performers were assumed to be deprived of, gatekeepers of a discursive (and epistemological) world to which musicians had little or no control over. Producers such as Fred Gaisberg and Walter Legge were the undisputed kings of the recording studio, mediating between the interests of recording engineers and the interests of the artists. By 1909, HMV’s world-famous trademark of a dog gazing into a gramophone with the caption “His Master’s Voice” couched a hidden irony – it was, in fact, the musician who was the domesticated dog, disciplined and house-trained by several studio “masters” to perform new tricks under circumstances demanded by the otological gaze.

Before the introduction of LP (long playing) technology in 1948, the material characteristics of 78rpm Shellac discs imposed a physical and temporal restriction on musical reproduction. As Mark Katz points out, 78rpm discs were limited to barely “four and one-half minutes of music continuously” which had immense bearings on the presentation of music on these discs. The short recording time allowed by these discs encouraged recording industries to favor musical works of shorter time spans, while simultaneously discouraging the recording of works of larger temporal girths. As a result, vocal works (which best suited the recording bandwidths of early recording technology) were almost unanimously favored over symphonies, sharing a large slice of the recording pie along with other short piano or violin solos. Composers who wanted their longer works recorded often found their feathers ruffled by the propositions of the producers.

Ferruccio Busoni, for example, who loathed the recording process, complained in 1919 that “They [the producers] wanted the Faust waltz [which lasts a good ten minutes] but it was only to take four minutes!” Fitting the “work” uninterrupted on one side of the disc meant “quickly cutting, patching, and improvising”, or relent to awkward discontinuities in the work which Adorno vehemently called “atomized listening”. Performers who chose the former had to exact painful cuts on their recorded repertory, sometimes excising whole chunks of bars in service of the machine’s limitations. Sir Henry Wood’s 1922 recording of Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony dispensed with nearly half the music, while Elgar trimmed his Cockaigne overture to a third of its original length. Other performers who opted for the latter attempted to remedy the musical breaks as best they could. Stokowski inserted an unwritten ritardando before each disc break in order to “finish each record off gracefully”, in contrast to Ormandy, who simply played as if no cut-off was approaching. Ultimately, the temporal limitations of 78rpm recording complicated issues of musical autonomy, authorship and ontology. Could Sir Henry Wood’s truncated ‘Eroica’ still be considered an authentic Beethoven “product”? If Elgar reworked an original symphony under the otological gaze, was it a legitimate product of musical creativity, or a lesser by-product of technological limitation? Could “atomized listening”, divorced from its temporal position in a flow of a larger work still hold phenomenological legitimacy?

Despite these restrictions, French theorist Michel Foucault reminds us that any disciplinary form of restriction is ultimately a productive endeavor, potentially leading to new products of social inhabitation and acculturation. Performing under the otological gaze led performers to internalize new “changes in interpretation and performance styles”. As the soprano soloist Martina Arroyo recollected, singers like herself made small unconscious adjustments of their techniques under the otological gaze of the microphone, reducing the violence of her rolled R’s when recording. Similarly, a reduced ‘intimate’ style of working with close microphones literally spawned the “soft crooning” technique that was to characterize the singing qualities of “crooners” such as Rudy Vallee, Bing Crosby, Perry Como and Frank Sinatra. More than ever, the repeatable nature of sound reproductive technologies prompted a shift in the conceptualization of musical ownership and authorship. Since similar musical works were being circulated in the economy of records, performer identity and authorship became linked to interpretative styles (and peculiarities) rather than mere virtuosity. As Katz warns:

“With sufficient repetition, listeners may normalize interpretive features of a performance or even mistakes, regarding themselves as integral not only to the performance but to the music. In other words, listeners may come to think of an interpretation as the work itself.”

Coupled with a growing music industry hinged upon the proliferation of records, success became matched with marketability rather than actual musical-ability. Michael Walter, for example, notes with amusement how Marlene Dietrich “proved that her special style was to sing deficiently” although “these defects added up to a special, artless, in a word authentic style”. Dietrich’s popularity, of course, was co-driven by the ubiquity of radio sets flooding domestic life in the 1920s, constructing new social platforms for listening outside the guarded sanctity of the concert hall. In other words, the production of music entered a new domain of power-relations, which were to be determined by the tastes (or distastes) not of traditional music-patrons, but a growing sphere of the ‘masses’ that comprised of a new class of listening communities.

Prospects for musicians under the order of the otological gaze were not always grim. On the contrary, the recording industry was almost solely responsible for catalyzing the popularity of Jazz in the 1920s. The popularity of reproducing pianos in 1919 USA abetted the growing popularity of the “ragtime” genre, allowing amateur pianists to hear more difficult works played out in the comfort of their own homes, while an all-white group of five parading under the title “the Original Dixieland Jass Band” secured their nation-wide popularity through record sales, making history as the first jazz-inspired band to sell 1 million records in 1917. By 1923, jazz had reached such heights of demand that the first recordings of Morton, Bessie Smith, Oliver Bechet and others quickly appeared in shops.
Apart from Jazz, sound recordings allowed composers to broaden their musical horizons by studying the music of other cultures. Alton Adams, for example, received his earliest musical inspirations by listening to 78rpm recordings of John Philip Sousa on Virgin Island, while Darius Milhaud, writing in 1924, opined:

“Thanks to the phonograph, I will be able to play the discs of black music – recorded and published by blacks- that I bought back from the United States. It is truly very precious to be able to study the folklore of the world thanks to this machine.”

The American composer Colin McPhee first took interest in Balinese culture when he received recordings of Balinese Gamelan music in 1929, and interest that would propel him to spend an extended residency in Bali from 1931 which profoundly affected his compositional style. On the other side of the globe, China’s first radio station “Radio Shanghai” began broadcasting in 1923, flooding listeners with Chinese, Japanese and “much Western dance music”. Such a proliferation of music on a global level is but an indication of the power of sound reproductive technologies in effecting transcultural modes of listening and appreciation. By the 1930s, Arnold Copland admitted that “an entirely new public for music had grown up around the radio and the phonograph”, testifying to the depth at which these initial technologies had conquered – indeed imperialized – everyday life.


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