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Classical Music Hyper Production and Practice As Research

Stokowski's technologically-rendered ideas of musical text

For cases of recording techniques affecting the notion of musical "text" most substantively,we need to look to Leopold Stokowski. Courtesy of developing recording technologies, Stokowski's textual beliefs went far beyond traditional post-Kantian textual-critical attitudes. According to Stokowski's sense of history and music-making, we can draw ever more meaning from the musical texts of the past, and the greater the music the more imperative it is for us to go beyond what the composer herself might have had in mind. As he wrote in 1943 in his essay "Recorded Music" (and reprinted in the book "Music for All of Us"):

"Physicists, engineers, and musicians will combine to improve continually the recording of music. The first step is to make recorded music exactly like the original. The next is to surpass the original and, through future possibilities of recording, to achieve the dreams of musicians — of making music still more beautiful and eloquent — music they heard within themselves but which was unattainable in the past. … everything will be possible in the realm of sound — and music will reach new heights of tonal quality, power, delicacy, beauty."

Stokowski's sense of musical hermeneutics becomes twisted at times to his utopian vision — but in a way characteristic of technologically-oriented musicians. In reference to recording Beethoven's "Pastorale," he suggests that studio-technological capabilities can help make the score truer to its own self: "certain important features of the music only dimly heard or even inaudible in a concert hall can be brought out with the full eloquence and richness of tone which is their true nature." Problems of balance and scoring can be corrected in Beethoven's thunderstorm scherzo: "Because of the inherent lack of balance in the orchestration, I have never before heard these phrases [for bassoon, clarinet, and oboe] given their due prominence and tonal importance." But Stokowski's most interesting example of technology-based anti-fundamentalism concerns interpretive "impossibilities" in Musorsgky's Night on Bare Mountain in the Rimsky-Korsakov edition. Here he lamented the fact that in concert performance the furious descending scale in the strings at Musorgsky's last big climax is never the decisive moment it "ideally" should be:

"These downward-rushing tones should sound like an avalanche — beginning loud and increasing in tonal volume the lower they go.In the concert hall this is impossible to achieve because the instruments have more strength of tone in their higher registers than in their lower, so that no matter how much the players try to increase the volume as the tones become deeper, exactly the opposite happens — the volume of the tone becomes less. In Fantasia we were for the first time able to achieve the ideal in this music — increasing the tone as the scale passage descended — because recording for motion pictures puts techniques at our disposal whereby the 'impossible' can sometimes be achieved.When these techniques are further developed the whole idea of 'impossible' will be forever set aside — because everything will be possible in the tonal sphere."

Stokowski offers a marvelously contradictory Platonism where textual meanings ("these downward-rushing tones should sound like an avalanche") surface whenever and wherever technology allows them. Textual criticism here becomes a kind of game where meanings are incumbent upon the techniques used to ferret them out — a practice many critics would condemn as self-serving or at least tautological, and which pragmatically inclined minds would say simply embraces the tried and trusty "hermeneutic circle" for what it is. In the Musorgsky, Stokowski needed recording technology to close his own hermeneutic circle, since — contrary to his assertion — the composer's original score and Rimsky-Korsakov's edition both indicate a diminuendo at this descending scale, not an "increase in tonal volume." Whether this shows the conductor intentionally falsifying the score or simply misremembering it in pursuit of a personal mise-en-scène, is ultimately irrelevant. But we still feel compelled to ask: just who may ascertain that Beethoven's wind lines should have "due prominence" while the composer's score is itself marked by an "inherent lack of balance in the orchestration"? 

Textual philosophies have changed dramatically over the three decades since the likes of Stokowski, Glenn Gould, and Herbert von Karajan have passed from the scene. Developing audio technologies made acoustic space available to these three technologically savvy auteurist musicians as a substantive, a creative tool. The specifically *recorded* as opposed to *written* text, as the former developed in the 1950s and 1960s, was able to liberate these single musician-hermeneuticists from the authority of community-held tradition. But the pendulum has now swung the other way, and more recent audio advancements have — in tandem with new ideas of musical-cultural authenticity — taken audio space away again. A minimalist approach to recording first appeared in the early 1950s with Mercury engineer C. Robert Fine's single-microphone technique, and led to an aural purist culture at about the same time popular music developed multi-tracking. Several other classical labels, Telarc and Reference Recordings among them, took up this kind of purist approach and made it a house trademark. The audio-technological progressivism that once aided creativity has thus been pressed into serving transparency — and effectively underlined earlier brands of aural creativity in retrospect, isolating them, and making them sound mannered and perhaps even neurotic. At the same time, changed attitudes toward authorship and modernism have made written-ness and creative vision passé, to the point where Stokowski's, Karajan's, and Gould's arbitrary freedoms with musical texts have somehow become conflated with their — what now sounds like — sonic arrogance. The risk is that their particular brand of textuality, as heard in our current time of objective and obsessive "atextuality," will only sound odd or defective.

N.B. (1) In the interests of time, I've plagiarized quite a bit of the above from the first chapter of my book "Absolute Music, Mechanical Reproduction." (2) Stokowski refers specifically here to recording for movie soundtracks rather than studio recording more generally, presumably because at that time (1943) recording onto film offered possibilities that wouldn't become possible with pure audio productions until the introduction of magnetic tape around 1950. (3) I use the "hermeneutic circle" phrase in Umberto Eco's sense: "…the text is an object that the interpretation builds up in the course of the circular effort of validating itself on the basis of what It makes up as its result. I am not ashamed to admit that I am so defining the old and still valid 'hermeneutic circle.'" (Eco, "Overinterpreting Texts," in Interpretation and Overinterpretation, ed. Stefan Collini (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p.64.)
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