Saturday, May 3

Review: Books. Also: Music is noise, nicely arranged

What: The Recording Angel - Music, Records and Culure from Aristotle to Zappa
How: Non Fiction
Who: Evan Eisenberg
When: 1987
Grade: C+

I purchased this book originally because it had a chapter I needed to read for my degree. The engaging tone and interesting subject matter encouraged me to keep it, and read the whole thing at some point. Well, now I have.

First off, the subtitle is pretty misleading. There's very little information about music further prior to the Rennaissance, and it's very Euro-centric. It's a shame, because there's huge scope for exploration in those areas. However, the book makes clear early on that its focus is the recording of music, and how it's altered our attitudes towards it. It alternates between interviews with acquaintances of the author and chapters on the history and philosophy of music.

The interviews were by far the more interesting chapters, but the limited range is unfortunate. All of those interviewed are collectors of some kind, from various backgrounds. The viewpoints of people within the industry could have broadened this, but would have required a more active form of research, which the author seems shy of. In the interviews, they discuss why the indiviudals became collector, what they listen to music for, and how far they will go in their collections. Some have filled their houses with records, other with music systems, and some with only a few choice pieces. It is interesting to see how these audiophiles approach their love from various angles, but we are left bereft of teh opinions of any person who is not an audiophile.

Equally, the philosophical discussions are very heavily biased towards the audiophile, and while the author avoids explicit musical snobbery, that it exists is a constant topic. How music ought to be listened to, which music, where, and why. Can we listen to Handel in the bath? Should one listen to monastic chants while making breakfast? Could one play Blues in a church? Does it matter?

The main thrust of the book (and the one that I studied it for) was the impact of the recording. It is likened to the invention of the printing press, or even the written owrd, and not wrongly so. It's quite a large concept to wrap your head around, in these iPod days, that only a hundred years ago music was almost entirely a social event, and could not be produced on demand. Unless you were a musician (and had a singular taste for solos) then there was no way to be alone and listen to music. Unless you were wealthy enough to have a minstrel always on hand, you could not have music unless prearranged and scheduled. The point comes up again and again, and is thoroughly explored, which pleased me. Of course, considering the publication date, the walkman is a relatively new invention, and the impact that the internet has had on music is completely absent. It's a shame, because I think Eisenberg could go far explorin these areas, and I hope that the book is rereleased containing such discussion.

Eisenberg's tone is fun and engaging. The intimacy he has with his interviewees is not to be overlooked, and the personal tone is present throughout the book. It is, of course, a book intended for audiophiles (which I am not), but it is accessible to those who aren't; however, it does feel lacking as a result. Obviously, when writing a book like this, one mst limit oneself in some way, but the areas left unexplored leave nasty shadows, and in places it feels more like a deliberate decision not to stretch himself, rather than a determination to stay on topic. I found it hard to concentrate when Eisenberg chose to delve deeply into philosophies that were only relevant if you already shared his attitudes.

Overall, it's a very enjoyable read, but it has several shortfalls, and best belongs on the shelves of those with a mass of musician biographies and a room dedicated to records.



I confess:

I don't care about music. I listen to it, almost constantly, but I don't care about it. It doesn't move me. I don't ascribe any ceremony to it. I enjoy it, but I don't love it.

The above book was a bit of an odd choice for me, I'll admit.

With books and DVDs, I get rid of those I dislike. I don't want them to sit next to favourites, to pollute my cramped shelves. With music... I have piles of CDs (in a sadly literal sense, since I still haven't bought more racks for them, and they don't fit in my room), most of which I'm at best ambivilant to. I've still got the first ones I bought. It's partly my nature as a bit of a hoarder, but also because I don't feel strongly enough to give them away, despite the fact I don't listen to them any more.

I picked up Holst's The Planets today, because after a recent discussion I decided they might be nice to write to. Also, it's only of the only classical suites I can easily recognise. I like classical music, but I can't tell my Beethoven from my Brahms, and most of those I can name have appeared on television adverts.

Actually, most of my recent purchases were due to TV ads. That's my main motivator, these days, when buying music. I listen to the radio every morning, but even when I really enjoy a track (I'm Gonna Be a Rockstar, for example) I rarely make an effort to purchase it. I don't download music. I don't listen to it while I'm surfing the web. I don't notice when it's not there, to be honest.

I know several audiophiles who would love The Recording Angel. I know people who buy favourites in both CD and vinyl, so they can listen to the CD and hoard the vinyl. I know people who give every writing project a separate soundtrack. I know people who think Best Of collections are a crime against music.

I like Best Of collections, because it saves me wasting money on albums that I may only like a few tracks on. I like compilations, too; the Happy Songs album, or the Hist of MoTown, or Celtic Forever. I'm actually not very keen on most albms, because there'll usually be a few songs I hate, and I have a few CDs purchased this year that I've not listened to all the way through, because I love the first tracks, and don't care about the middle, and I usually reach my destination before the end. I don't make many playlists, because I find the making of them quite dull.

If I remember, I do put music on when I'm writing. I think my writing playlist at the moment contains indiscriminate Enya, Einaudi, Vashti Bunyan and Medieval Babes tracks. Whole albums plonked in, despite the fact there are several distracting or disliked tracks amongst them. I avoid tracks with lyrics (or lyrics I might start listening to, anyway), and try and stick to classical or new age music. I dodge anything with a noticeable mood to it, whether happy or angry (I don't have much sad, because I don't like angsty music any more than I like angsty writing). I use it more to block out other sounds than to creat sound itself.

Music is another thing people can make you feel like a poor writer over. It's another thing I occaisonally feel compelled to lie about. Not being touched by music is, apparently, like not having a soul. Well, maybe I don't, because I'm never touched by poetry, either, and that's apparently another symptom. I don't assigned songs to characters, or use music to produce the right mood, or require it to write. I much prefer the sound of rain, to be honest, but if could only write during thunderstorms I'd be screwed.

Music is noise nicely arranged. I'd be lying if I said I wouldn't miss it if I went deaf, but it wouldn't be the first thing I missed. I appreciate its presence on the radio (much more so than DJ chatter), and I feel odd when I don't have it when walking, but it simply doesn't affect me when writing.

To be honest, when I'm writing, you could switch from Mars to the Spice Girls, and I prbably wouldn't notice. I'm listening to myself, then.

1 comment:

Katey said...

Catching up here after a month of travel/sickness wherein I disappeared. Mostly just to say that whoever said this, "Not being touched by music is, apparently, like not having a soul," is clearly trying to compensate for their own inner fear that they don't have a soul themselves.

People need to get over themselves. I'm particularly bothered by the kind of audiophile who thinks they're special because they listen to certain things-- they make the rest of us look bad (and arrogant.) I mean I'm definitely a crazy ass audiophile, I had no choice, my parents are both music teachers. But good god. What a stupid thing to say to someone.

Anyhow, I don't believe in the soul in the first place. But even if I did, I'd still think that was stupid. Patronising nonsense!

-Katey