Recordings Alone: Part I, Introduction

Albert Grantowski

[June 2002.]

To live well you have to hear what there is to hear. –John Cage

Most recordings of music and sounds are records of events, analog or digital versions of sonic waveforms. Played on a home hi-fi, they yield approximations of the original waveforms, imperfect copies or descriptions of original works. A very small number of recordings are themselves originals. Played over an appropriate system in an appropriate venue, they produce the music intended by the composer. Let’s call these recordings alone.

The designation is adapted from Peter Kivy’s collection of essays, Music Alone. Music alone denotes “pure,” instrumental music, music without lyrics, program, purpose, or reference. Music alone is not “about” anything, save maybe music. Analogously, a recording alone is not “about” a prior sonic event; it is the piece itself.

As Bernhard Günter says of his music, a recording alone “only exists on a soundcarrier” and cannot be performed except by playing the soundcarrier. But the playback system must be of a kind intended by the composer, and the soundcarrier (tape, LP, CD) must carry the original work. Commercial recordings of Varèse’s Poème électronique, for example, are not recordings alone appropriate to home playback. They are stereo versions of an original three-channel, site-specific tape piece. Stockhausen’s commercial recordings of his multi-channel electronic works may or may not qualify, depending on how one interprets his intentions in creating the two-channel versions.

Recordings alone for the home fall into two categories. Research may identify more.

  • Music with no step in the recording process in which acoustic or electronic instruments are played and recorded with a microphone. Morton Subotnick’s Silver Apples of the Moon, recorded line-out from an analog synthesizer, James Whitehead’s JLIAT Still Life #5, composed by writing binary data directly to a PCM file, and Bernhard Günter’s music made with samplers, computers, and sequencers are examples of this category. (Thanks to Tom Hamilton and Morton Subotnick for correcting an error in my description of Silver Apples in an earlier version of this article.)
  • Music that uses found, acoustic, or electronic sounds recorded with a microphone and processed and edited so that the intended piece is a tape or computer file converted to CD or record, e.g., Tod Dockstader’s musique concrète.

The concept of a recording alone occurred to me as a slightly absurd counter to the critical listening attitudes of audiophiles: A recording alone can’t be judged by its fidelity to an original because it is the original: A hi-fi system playing a recording alone can’t be judged by its capacity to recreate an original because there is no original to re-create. (I assume here that there is no satisfactory way to operationalize the notion of accurately reproducing the sonic information on a recording medium.) Putting aside its therapeutic value as a means of learning to hear what there is to hear rather than what one’s hi-fi is doing, is there any value to the concept of a recording alone? Is it merely an arbitrary parsing of the universe of music and sound (like music played on Saturdays) or does it do real work (like Romantic music and computer music)?

I have only begun to identify examples of recordings alone, but I don’t think there are commonalities in the aesthetics and intentions of composers who create recordings alone. Tod Dockstader is driven by the demands of the musical material with which he worked — taped sounds. James Whitehead works directly with digital code. Morton Subotnick recognized that many people will never hear live performances of his work and so composed pieces expressly to be played on a home hi-fi. John Cage and Lejaren Hiller use the home stereo system as a way to involve the listener in creating a unique musical event. Christian Marclay’s A Record uses vinyl’s vulnerability to dings, scratches, and other accidents to create unique sonic objects.

Recordings alone do not seem to make up a genre of music marked by the shared intentions of or influences on its creators. Recordings alone, then, may be nothing more than the name of this series of record and CD reviews. Which is, actually, just fine with me.

The category defines a path of musical discovery and rediscovery for myself and, I hope, for the reader. It cuts a swath through computer music, musique concrète, tape music, and other forms of new and experimental music from this and the last century. Maybe it extends back to the dawn of recorded sounds in the late 1800s. Maybe someone carved initials in a wax cylinder or poked holes in a metal disk and called it music, or something. I like to think so. This review series is experimental in a sort of Cagean sense in that I don’t yet know what pieces or how many fall into the category.

Sources:

Rice, C. (1997). Interview with Bernhard Günther. Halana, #3 (http://www.halana.com).

Kivy, P. (1990). Music Alone: Philosophical Reflections on the Purely Musical Experience. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.