The Red Hot Peppers records are the prototype for a school of phonography that includes Ellington, Monk, Mingus, Zappa, Miles Davis and The Beatles – master builders who would mean much less to us if their work had been done only on paper. Evan Eisenberg – The Recording Angel
(As per my last two posts, I recently read The Recording Angel, Evan Eisenberg’s book on the significance and influence of recording, recorded music, and recordings as things. This week’s post continues to explore the ideas from that excellent book, specifically the idea that records are examples of an art form best described as “phonography,” or the art of making recordings.)
I don’t know about you, but I have for many years used the word “song” to refer both to the composition and the recording of the composition. I’m sure we all do this, like for example when we’re driving with friends and a long-forgotten record comes on the car radio, prompting someone to say “this song is so incredible,” or “I love this song.”
We use the word “song” as shorthand to describe something that encompasses both the song and the recording, and while it’s sometimes true that the song we’re hearing in that car is in fact a great song, I am certain that there are also many times when it would be more accurate (if a little bit tedious :)), to say “this record is incredible,” or “this is a great recording.”
I’m thinking for example of some old hit song that might be kind of silly, dated or just somehow dubious as a musical or lyrical piece of writing, but which still carries real power, impact, and maybe even deep truth. That truth may be coming from the recording, not the actual song as written, and the piece may well be deriving most of its identity and power from some artistry, achievement or serendipity in a recording studio.
Looked at from a certain angle, these records are no less good because they are good as recordings, they are simply good in a different way (one might argue that a great recording that also carries cliched words and/or music is a bit of cultural pollution, but that’s another subject…).
As it is, if we adopt this viewpoint, then we have to admit that our experience of recordings far outpaces our experience of songs, in the sense that we mostly hear the songs as recordings (and if we go to see a performer in person, we are then experiencing another form of mediation: the performance). The song then is possibly an abstraction: an ephemeral lead/lyric sheet delineating the words, melody, and harmony, without locking it into any one iteration.
Personally, this resonates with me. I like the way this notion disengages the contents of the song (the words, harmony, melody, etc) from any particular version of them, and therefore allows for two simultaneous dimensions to coexist: the song and the record.
I also like considering the resulting [slim] possibility that none of us has ever really heard a song in its purest form….