In Music, the Exception Becomes the Rule
In his book “The Classical Style,” Charles Rosen makes a cool point. He sets it up by saying:
“The history of an artistic ‘language’… cannot be understood in the same way as the history of a language used for everyday conversation. In the history of English, for example, one man’s speech is as good as another’s. It is the picture of the whole that counts, and not the interest, grace, or profundity of the individual example.”
In other words, together we all create what is known as the English language.
But music, he says:
“…stands the history of a language on its head: it is now the mass of speakers that are judged by their relation to the single one, and the individual statement that provides the norm and takes precedence over general usage.”
In other words, individual artists define what is known as the music of a particular time.
He makes his point in reference to Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven; but the same thing could easily be said about The Beatles and their definitive role in popular music of the 20th Century.
The Beatles: Masters
The Beatles’ recordings arguably demonstrate the limit of what is possible in their particular form of both songwriting and record-making, and so I was pretty skeptical when I heard that remastered versions of all of their records were coming out.
I find it hard to swallow the idea that new technology (that didn’t exist when the Beatles made their recordings) can somehow improve upon the work they did. The limitations that inhered in the original records can’t be looked at simply as obstacles; they were a part of the actual art. The distortions, flaws and frequency constraints of their technology were the very materials that made up the records, just as much as the ranges and timbres of the instruments or of the Beatles’ voices were.
And yet, although I grew up listening to my parents’ vinyl copies, which came out during the Beatles’ career, I listened to second-generation cassette versions and 1980’s CD versions of the Beatles’ records more than anything else. So it’s not like I can claim that the versions I am used to are closer to some ideal original version than the new remasters are.
And to further complicate things, Apple has also released a box set of remastered mono versions of the albums. Since the Beatles’ generally only stuck around for the mono mixing sessions and let others handle the stereo mixes, should we consider these mono versions to be the definitive ones?
The deeper we go, the more distant an answer becomes. And if you want to get really serious about this, consider that each stereo system, iPod, or turntable performs the source material in a unique way; and so even if we could find the definitive version of something, it would never sound the same twice.
The Beatles: Good
I still don’t put much stock in the idea that today’s technology can improve on yesterday’s art, but I actually don’t think that point really applies here.
What strikes me more is this. There aren’t many artists whose recordings are interesting in the first place, and there are still fewer whose recordings can retain their power in so many various versions, whether the mono vinyl, the 80’s CDs, the 70’s cassette played in an old-fashioned tape player on the middle seat of a rented car on a summer vacation, or new remastered digital versions.
Whatever form is closest to what the Beatles heard (and it’s probably some version of the vinyl, since they worked exclusively on analog media), the recordings they made are pretty much spectacular in any form.
The remasters seem to have been done very conscientiously, and they are worth hearing for sure. I hear things that weren’t audible in the other versions I’ve encountered, and it’s interesting. Some mistakes and flaws are more apparent, actually, but the music retains its power and charm.
I suppose that’s how it works with any masterpiece.