General Reading 9 - Passage 3

Mary had a little gramophone

Edison's 'talking machine' turned music from a
performing art into a recording industry

Music has always existed but until the late 19th century it could not be caught. It could not be tamed or owned. It belonged to the air. Then on December 6 1877, Thomas Edison finished the first prototype of his talking machine, a device that could record the human voice onto a tin foil roll and play it back in scratchy low fidelity. Edison chose as his test material the words of a nursery rhyme Mary had a tittle lamb, speaking them into the horn of his memory machine. What the inventor thought he had created was a tool, which would allow us access to the past, to make and listen to 'records' of past events and achievements in the archival sense of the word.

But inventions are rarely used as they are intended, and Edison's would, within decades, leave its spoken word intentions behind and fundamentally alter the role of music in society. Edison's phonograph would turn sound into an artefact, as well as an experience. Though its effects would be far-reaching, it took decades for the phonograph to transcend its beginning as an electrical curiosity. This ryas partly because the reproduction quality of early machines was so low and partly because Edison, being a little deaf; was not very interested in using it for musical purposes.

But others began to sense the phonograph's true value. The first piece of music composed specifically for recording was in 1904 and within two decades, composers as famous as Stravinsky were writing Cor recording rather than for performance. By the middle of the century, in popular music at least, the record had become the object, and the performance a secondary reproduction of it.

The most significant turning point, however, came not on the creative side, but on the consumer one. In 1906, the Victor company released the first phonograph designed as a piece of household furniture, in 'piano-finished' mahogany. It retailed for $US 200. Until this point, record players had existed mostly in public places, in the cafes of Europe and the saloons of America. The spread of the record player would have an effect on music similar to that of the Gutenberg printing press on the written word. It would democratise music, making it intersect with the everyday lives of ordinary people.

The previous two centuries had already seen a move away from the dominance of ceremonial and ritual music (written for public events or religious needs) towards the realm of pure art, music for its own sake as expressed by the likes of Mozart and Beethoven. The record player would force music to go further, to answer the needs of daily life, to become entertainer, informer and friend, to provide joy, calm and energy, to furnish everything from ambience for airport lounges to identity for teenagers.

In doing this, it wouId reverse a power relationship that had existed since music's first note. In the post-phonograph world, the listener has the power to decide what to listen to, when to listen to it and where to listen. Until the record, the ways in which music could be approached were prescribed by others. But the phonograph changed all this.

Recorded music was also boosted by the spread of radio in the first half of the 20th century which brought music into the homes of ordinary people. The next significant milestone was the introduction of magnetic tape in the late 1940s which changed the concept of how music could be made. Until this point, records had been based on the notion of `bottled' live performance. Magnetic tape allowed disparate pieces to be edited together.

About the same time, the vinyl record replaced the breakable shellac, with the 78 rpm giving way to the 33(1/3) rpm record for classical works and popular albums, and a smaller version for singles. These formats, which coincided with the rock explosion, lasted only three decades, phased out after the arrival of the CD in the mid-1980s. Multi-track recording popularised in the 1960s continued music's move away from 'performance' and allowed instruments and vocals to be recorded separately and spliced together, creating room for overdubs of musical and vocal parts, and making it easy to fix bad notes or piece together elements to create an illusion of the whale.

More recently, an even greater leap has been brought about by the invention of digital recording tools. Today's music is recorded on equipment that did not even exist a generation ago. Computers mean that 'recordings' can now be made without a microphone, without tape and without anything recognisable as an instrument to anyone over the age of 35. A significant amount of popular music is no longer written, but constructed. This technique, often referred to as sampling, has allowed composition to become a process of appropriation and re-contextualisation.

The recording methods of the early 20th century, as revolutionary as they were, now seem imbued with simple, traditional, almost rustic virtue. It is no longer necessary to be able to read music or play any kind of instrument to put together a sang. Anyone can push a button on a drum machine. Anyone can recycle a great guitar Tiff or flute loop from an old 45. Some see this as desecration. Others see it as a triumph. It may well be both. More likely it's just the opening notes of a symphony we can't even imagine yet.


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