Will Ashon’s book Chamber Music is about the Wu-Tang Clan’s 1993 album 36 Chambers. Here, he talks with Greg Milner, author of Perfecting Sound Forever – a book that gives a history of recording technology, from gramophones to Pro Tools.
They discuss hip-hop, audiophilia, and the blurred boundary between recording and creating music.
I think what perhaps fascinated me most about Perfecting Sound Forever is the way in which it collapses the distinctions between what I think would normally be considered the three different stages of creating and consuming recorded music, which could be loosely defined as 1. composing music; 2. recording a performance of that music; and 3. playing that recorded performance back. While it seems like a commonplace of modern studio music (in the wake of dub and hip-hop) that these stages interrelate and overlap, reading your book it becomes clear that the interaction between these elements is actually key to understanding all recorded music, going right back to Thomas Edison himself.
Do you accept that characterisation? Was this something you were aware of when you started the project, or was it something that only became apparent as you researched and wrote? How and when did it become clear to you and how did that shape the book you finally wrote?
I’ve never thought about it in precisely those terms, but I think you’re right. In the context of the history of recording, I’d say it becomes blatant when magnetic tape becomes a standard recording medium after World War II. The slapback echo that Sun Records popularized (but did not invent) is a good illustration. Slapback echo is a form of reverb created by recording an output signal onto tape, while also simultaneously routing that signal through the tape machine’s playback head and then back again to the record head. The small delay caused by this extra signal path creates an echo, but this echo exists only on the tape – that is, it can’t be heard in the room. On a song like Elvis Presley’s ‘Blue Moon’, the sound is so intrinsic to the song that it’s hard to imagine it being a ‘composition’ apart from its recording. And as for what the record records, it’s hard to argue that it’s capturing a performance, since that echo would not have been heard by anyone in the room with the musicians, since it couldn’t be said to exist until a split-second after the fact. The sound (and hence the song) depend on ‘playing the record back’, since it is only through immediate playback of the performance as it’s occurring that the sound is even created.
But yes, I think this is something Edison picked up on. One of the interesting things about the Edison ‘tone tests’ – the hundreds of public demos in which audiences were convinced there was no distinction between a live performance and an Edison recording – is that the singers at those demos were instructed to imitate the ‘pinched’ sound of the voices on the records. It’s a small but radical inversion of what seems like the logical way to approach the idea of recording, as occupying a middle ground between the performance it records and the act of playing back the recording. The recording itself is now in some sense the initial act, the foundation, and everything else flows from it.
Speaking of collapsing distinctions, Chamber Music really is a new way to approach writing about a classic album. The way you use Enter the Wu-Tang as a bellwether event that reveals truths about its immediate context (Staten Island / NYC in the early 90s), as well as larger concepts relevant to the history of hip-hop, African-American music in general, film, philosophy, social science, etc. is a real high-wire act. In fact, that ‘etc.’ is doing a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence, since it’s hard to convey to someone who hasn’t read the book how all-encompassing it is. Your account of Wu-Tang Clan musician RZA’s business acumen and its relation to the history and mechanics of drug-dealing in the era went so far beyond the standard ‘was a drugs-dealer before turning to music’ trope that I feel like I’ve read a thousand times in music journalism. I also now feel I understand how music publishing works! (Well, mostly – there’s still something about it that seems impossibly ephemeral.)
As someone who knows an order-of-magnitude more about hip-hop than I do (I was one of the millions who, back in ’93, glommed on to Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, and didn’t recognize the importance of Enter The Wu-Tang until much later), do you think this collapsing of distinctions was something many of the music’s innovators thought about consciously at the time?
I think you could describe hip-hop as an aesthetics of reversal – distinctions tend to be turned on their head rather than collapsed (although the effect is often to collapse them in the process). You can see that in the use of language – ill, def, bad, etc., all used as the opposite of their apparent meaning – in the practice of signifying more generally, and particularly in making new music from the scraps of old music. Even the scratch involves reversing the needle in the groove of the record. To some extent this use of reversal is probably true of all subcultures but I think in hip hop it became a systematized and self-conscious outlook.
Perhaps the most feted example of this re- or reverse-wiring is the use of the turntable as a musical instrument – apparently converting something made to reproduce music into something which can produce music. But as you show in your book, this is perhaps best understood as a change of rhetoric or emphasis rather than a technical innovation. After all, you quote Edison himself describing his Diamond Disc phonograph as a ‘musical instrument’, as early as 1913. So it seems that hip-hop’s ‘reversal’ is best understood in this case as a ‘rediscovery’ of sorts.
I loved what you had to say about ancient conceptions of music and the human voice as ephemeral in essence – you quote Walter Murch saying ‘sound was the definition of that which cannot be trapped’. You could go on to argue that what hip-hop does more than any music before it is grapple with what it means when music has become an artefact, an object. You could even go as far as to argue that scratching is an attempt to liberate sound from the medium of its imprisonment, though that perhaps does more metaphorical than descriptive work. It does make me think, though, of the anecdote you tell about Edison trying to build a machine which communicates with the dead – a reversal of polarity, in that records certainly allow the dead to communicate with the living.
All of which leads me on to ‘audiophilia’, which I suppose could be defined as the obsession with “perfect” sound reproduction so beloved of hifi buffs. You situate it as a kind of sexual neurosis when you quote the psychiatrist Dr Henry Angus Bowes describing it as a desire for ‘sterile reproduction without biological bother; in severe cases, the audiophile’s record collection becomes a symbolic harem’ (1957) – which sounds to me a lot like reproduction (in the biological sense) without life. Could you tell us a little bit more about the ongoing pull of audiophilia and in particular the attraction of ‘high fidelity’, which you both manage to question (fidelity to what exactly?) while at the same time acknowledging its sway . . . ? I wonder if this ties into a broader conclusion of the book, one that you raise in relation to Alan Lomax: that ‘sound technology is always ideological’?
One of the odd things about talking about a book that I finished a decade (!) ago is that you’re reminding me of things I’d forgotten were in there. That Edison comment, for example. The original turntablist!
As for audiophilia . . . what fascinated me about the original audiophile moment that sprang up during the immediate post-War years is that it was a mass-culture phenomenon. Home-and-garden magazines actually ran articles about optimal speaker placement! Millions of people were engaged in the audiophile’s quest for aural ‘truth’, although really it was a pursuit of the ultimate lie: a recorded sound that so perfectly mimicked the original sound in nature that the listener was transported to the concert hall. It was a ‘reverse’ aesthetic that to some degree was traceable back to Edison – except that Edison would have been appalled by the very idea of concert-hall realism in recording. He felt that recordings should capture the pure music –the idea of capturing the room, with its reverb and other distorting qualities, was anathema to him. He wanted recordings to capture the ‘pure’ music, divorced from that distortion. I think he would’ve had much more admiration for the flat ‘dry’ recording aesthetic that took hold in the 1970s, perhaps best exemplified by the albums of Steely Dan and the recording engineer Roger Nichols.
So if audiophiles were actually pursuing a fidelity so true that it was false, what of the people who at the same time were using magnetic tape to create the opposite of the audiophile ideal? Ike Turner’s (possibly apocryphal) story about discovering the joys of distortion after his amp fell off a trick on the way to the studio is this pursuit in microcosm. Whether tape was used to create new sounds (like the slapback echo effect we discussed earlier) or to create an entirely new life-form via multitracking, essentially inventing a beast with no real connection to a real-world event, you could say this abandonment of the audiophile ideal was a pursuit of a more individualistic ‘truth’, no less a form of fidelity than that pursued by people who wanted to feel like a train was rumbling through their living room.
Of course, today, audiophilia exists in a confused state, which is one reason it’s the provenance of such a small subset of listeners. I’m no audiophile, myself, but I admit that I’m still attracted to the idea of a record capturing (or giving the impression of capturing) an event. There’s something about that almost geometric sense of space that a recording is capable of reproducing that still holds an excitement for me.
But back to this notion of ‘fidelity’ actually being the pursuit of a lie, and ‘infidelity’ therefore representing the pursuit of a truth. One thing you do very well in your book is to show how RZA could so carefully construct a sound that seems so immediate and in-the-moment. You talk about that finger-snap in ‘Wu-Tang Clan Aint Nuthing ta F’ Wit’ and how it occupies a strange place in the overall rhythmic thrust. I went back and listened to it for the first time in a long time and I was struck by what a weird dissonant presence it is. (Weirdly, it reminded me of something similar that Brian Eno does on ‘St. Elmo’s Fire’, this tock-tock percussive thing that extends throughout the song.) It’s a little detail, but it helped me appreciate how intricate this album is, how much it expresses a world view from a particular place and time.
Just to bring things a little more full circle here, I thought you made brilliant use of Jonathan Sterne’s observation about how a technology is ultimately a collection of techniques. His example is the phonograph – and how the question of when it stops being a playback device and becomes a musical instrument can’t be answered ‘through a priori reasoning’, because those terms ‘are derived in reaction to the practices affiliated with the technology – the practices that essentially make the technology in the first place’. I think Edison, so keen on presenting his phonograph as both playback device (chronicler of truth) and musical instrument (creator of truth) would wholeheartedly agree.
‘Hip-hop, as an intricate collection of techniques, is a technology,’ you conclude. ‘Part of what we’re doing in this book is figuring out what the exact purpose or use of this technology is.’
I’m not going to ask you to answer that question here (people should read the book and find out!), but I was wondering if you might expand on this a bit here. The techniques of hip-hop are always evolving – does that make it an inherently unstable technology, and is that where much of its aesthetic excitement derives from?
In all honesty, I’m not sure what the answer to that question is anyway! I’m much better at asking questions than answering them.
I always felt that to the extent that hip-hop had an essence or a central orthodoxy it was to be fresh – that is, the purpose of everything a participant does is to move the crowd by giving them something they’ve never heard/seen/experienced before. Hence, hip-hop’s central technology is as a creator or adapter of new techniques. Hence, as you suggest, it’s inherently unstable. The orthodoxy is to try the unorthodox. In the book, one of the ways I characterise this is as the misuse of technology.
However, searching for the ‘new’ always implies a kind of shadow commentary on the ‘old’ – you can’t have one without the other. For quite some time now, the ‘old’ on which hip-hop has commented is hip-hop’s own former iterations. At which point, what’s old and what’s new becomes much harder to distinguish. The technology you’re constantly trying to repurpose is exactly the technology you’re also using. It’s a bit like an infection which needs to keep its host alive in order to survive.
It’s something which has made me rethink that famous Miles Davis quote, ‘I have to change, it’s like a curse’. I always thought the ‘curse’ part was hyperbole, but I’m beginning to see what he meant. Autotune used as an effect (rather than for tuning purposes) is a good example of this. You write about how Cher’s ‘Believe’ was the first record to use it in this way, but obviously it’s an effect that was widely adopted in hip-hop and R &B, much to my personal despair. You quote Tom Lord-Alge saying it ‘starts to sound like baby seals honking’, which is harsh, but fair.
Despite having written Perfecting Sound Forever ten years ago, your book still feels very current. Although I myself have been out of the music business for a few years now, I’m not aware that anything has yet usurped ProTools. However, on the delivery side, it’s interesting how streaming services are changing conceptions of the ‘album’ – while the CD caused albums to get longer (as well as louder! – a brilliant section of your book), streaming seems to be shrinking both individual track lengths and the length of the ‘album’ (witness Kanye’s series of one-a-week ‘albums’, each sub-thirty-minutes).
This is a bit of an unfair question, but do you have any sense of what might happen next? Or of changes currently going on which I’ve missed?
It’s funny – in going back and looking at what I wrote in PSF, it’s clear that I thought music had reached some sort of plateau with MP3s and other lossless compression. It apparently hadn’t occurred to me that music could get even more disembodied, to the extent where it wouldn’t even be bound to anything we actually hold onto, even if that thing is just a bunch of code on our computers or phones. Ubiquitous streaming was, in retrospect, the obvious next step in the progression. I can still understand the appeal – and even the utility – of owning vinyl. But having in one’s possession any digital format, especially CDs, seems really gratuitous. I mean, setting aside issues with sound quality, as well as the very real sense that Spotify and its ilk are giving musicians a new kind of raw deal, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to consider having a music ‘collection’, when Spotify gives everyone instant access to so much of the world’s music. (And whatever it doesn’t have, YouTube almost certainly will.) And once we stop thinking of ‘owning’ albums, it’s not much of a leap to wonder why even bother thinking about music being organized into albums.
Which is all a long-winded way of saying that I really have a hard time wondering what will come next. In the preface of PSF, I jokingly (or not) refer to a future when we’ll download music into our minds. That seems weirdly antiquated in a way – why do we have to ‘download’ anything? – but I have a hard time thinking of what the next step will be. How can music get any more flexible?
You are the rare writer about music who has done serious time in the trenches of the music industry, such as it is (or was). Are you still in touch with that world? Are indie labels feeling the pinch, or is this a boon time for smaller labels since it’s so much easier for people to hear more kinds of music?
I think the advent of streaming has been very interesting. Obviously it’s great for the major labels, who are paid by companies like Spotify for access to their catalogues. As this isn’t strictly a payment for any use of any particular artist’s work it doesn’t have to be passed on as royalties, so is, in effect, money for existing – a huge bonus payment which balances the books and should mean they are able to take bigger risks (though, unsurprisingly, this isn’t how it tends to work out).
For smaller labels the picture is more mixed, as it is with anything connected to the internet, where ‘everything’ is being offered but there aren’t the hours in the day for music listeners to get through everything. As a result, the taste –making/filtering that was previously done by print press, radio and, to some extent, by labels, is now being done by Spotify and the other streaming services. Many people now find new music through playlists, so what those companies put into playlists has a massive effect on what we all hear. Ohio State University did some interesting work on how this has shortened the length of song introductions (tracks that get skipped are traditionally moved down or off playlists), but I think it’s making tracks shorter overall, too – it’s not that uncommon for current hip-hop tracks to clock in around 2 minutes 30 and they don’t tend to ‘end’ so much as stop dead.
But alongside this, Spotify’s interest in ‘mood’ playlists (where the common theme in the music isn’t genre so much as what you might use the music to soundtrack ) has also led to a massive increase in the commercial viability of solo piano music, for instance (on a Mellow Moods or Sunday Morning playlist or some similar abomination). So rather than offering an idealised level playing field, the algorithms and assumptions at work lead to increasingly bland and homogenous music. That’s how I see it anyway.
I wanted to end with a thought, if I may, which perhaps follows on from this. Before I began Chamber Music, I’d started to think of writing non-fiction as a very hip-hop kind of a process – a matter of collaging other people’s thoughts and opinions, hopefully in a way which makes something new out of them through patterning them (or smashing them together). But reading your book, PSF, has maybe opened this out further for me.
The book makes you think about what recorded music is – a representation of an actual reality, a representation of a constructed reality, or a duplication of reality, for instance. What you show is the way in which technology – and our assumptions about that technology, as well as about the reality we seek to represent with that technology – affects the final ‘reality’ of the recorded piece. And that’s as true for the books we write as it is for the music we make. I wonder if this is something writers, particularly non-fiction writers, should be thinking about and addressing with more urgency – the way what we write when we try to address ‘reality’ is being shaped. I’m not sure how easy it is to get beyond that shaping, those assumptions, but perhaps the least we can do is try to show the structure of it.
Will Ashon’s Chamber Music: Enter the Wu-Tang (in 36 Pieces) is out with Granta Books this November.
Greg Milner’s Perfecting Sound Forever was published with Granta Books in 2010.
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