Temporarily closing the file on the history and philosophy of recorded music, I want to mention Evan Eisenberg's marvelous book The Recording Angel, which has just been reissued by Yale University Press. It's a rhapsodic and ambivalent history of recording, at times enthusiastic about the possibilities of the medium and at other times skeptical of their impact on the art. The only way to sum it up is to provide some sample quotations:
Now the Symphony of a Thousand could play to an audience of one. Now a man could hear nocturnes at breakfast, vespers at noon, and the Easter Oratorio on Chanukah. He could do his morning crossword to the "One O'Clock Jump" and make love right through the St. Matthew Passion. Anything was possible; nothing was sacred; freedom was (barring complaints from neighbors and occasional desperate holding actions such as the Russian synod's 1912 ban on the recording of prayers) absolute. It was the freedom, once the cathedral of culture had been wrecked, to take home the bits you liked and arrange them as you pleased. Once again a mechanical invention had met capitalism's need to recreate all of life in its image. The cathedral of culture had become a supermarket.
We have all become like Prospero, able to conjure up invisible musicians who sing and play at our pleasure. Part of the fun is our sense of power. We can manipulate the poker-faced, flawless Heifetz. We can shut up Streisand. We can boost the basses and cellos of the Berlin Philharmonic, defying Karajan's meticulous balances.
[Arguing with Glenn Gould's defense of Muzak]: It is true that background music gives the listener "a direct associative experience of the post-Renaissance vocabulary," and a smattering of non-Western vocabularies as well. The problem is that the associations are all wrong. Muzak is nowhere near as neutral as it pretends.... We associate atonality with horror and anxiety; this may help a score like Wozzeck to succeed but dooms much of Schoenberg and Webern, whose attempts at serenity seem guilty by association. In the same way, the language of Debussy comes to express only sensuality, the language of Mozart only old-world grace, the language of jazz only insouciance. Each language is reduced to a couple of phrases, and with our huge vocabulary we cannot say anything, only quote. The alphabet soup that the mass media (including records) make of good music quickly spills back into the world of good music. Soon our best composers find that they cannot speak, or can only speak in quotes, ironically or pathetically.
The record listener is a child of the supermarket. His self-expression is almost entirely a matter of selecting among packages that someone else designs. And he tends to think that these packages exhaust the possibilities. That kind of freedom can be tyrannical.
People seem more comfortable dancing and courting to mechanical music. The charitable interpretation is that it lets them be alone with each other. The other interpretation is that it lets them be alone.
In the final section, Eisenberg moves beyond pessimistic pronouncements to extol the phonograph's ability to multiply musical meaning, with Schopenhauer, surprisingly, as his chief guide. There are further twists in the new edition, in which Eisenberg weights the pros and cons of music in the form of MP3s. It's a book well worth reading.