Tuesday, January 19, 2010
Discursive and Embodied Jazz in Days Gone By
In the beginning was the Word....And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us--John 1:1, 14.
One wag has said that sentimentality is caring about something more than God. If true, that would be idolatry, an offense to God, reason, and even to oneself, since one was designed for better things. Thus, it is best avoided. Nonetheless, one may savor--or even pine over--the goodness of things now rare or extinct. We should applaud the past as well as hissing it when necessary.
That brings me to Stan Kenton's 1959 album, "Standards in Silhouette," which I just acquired for a welcome low price. As I was listening to these mellifluous melodies and sonorous solos, placed into Kenton's unique orchestral voicings, I was also reading--and there was much of great interest to read on the back cover as well as on both sides of the album jacket. An introductory essay explained the mood of the album as "blue." Each piece of music was thoughtfully described in a short paragraph. There was a black and white photograph, but it did not dominate the back cover. Prominent was the claim that this recording was "full dimensional stereo," which was only then breaking on to the scene. In fact, the very concept of stereophonic music and something of its technology was explained on one side of the album jacket. I marveled at the clarity and seriousness of the prose. It was assumed that the buyer of this record was interested in how stereophonic differed from monaural sound representation. One was also instructed that a special "cartridge" was needed to play stereophonic albums. A monaural cartridge (and needle) would not do; in fact, it could damage a stereophonic album. However, a stereophonic cartridge and needle would not damage a monaural record.
Now, this may seem like ancient and rather boring musical and technological history, but consider how discursive and embodied it all is. Albums took up space and offered room for words, if desired. The words and music complemented each other. The words (both about the technology and the nature of the music itself) introduced and augmented the music. If one listened intently and read the descriptions (of the music ) and explanations (of the technology), one's sensorium would be taken up with the event a rich and multidimensional manner. You would be taken up and taken in.
Fast forward (to use an outmoded technological expression based on tape recordings) fifty years and consider the means by which most now usually listen to recorded music. Subtract both the embodied and discursive quality. First, the CD, which was smaller, taking up less space, having no album jacket, and using technologies more opaque than groves and needles. Second, consider music put on digital files on iPods and so on. "There is no there there," as was once said about Oakland. The music's medium is now disembodied completely. Sound is produced, but not housed in any form that is graspable, visible, or tangible. One downloads music, not entire albums necessarily. Then one creates one's own play lists, instead of listening to the ordering of music as conceived and recorded by the artist.
What has happened? Well, more than I can write here. But consider miniaturization (a large- scale trend applicable to most technological change) and dematerialization. CD were smaller than albums. The iPod is smaller than a CD and holds oceans of data (if the metaphor is apt). Sounds is still presented through a technology, but the medium itself has radically altered from what I described in the second paragraph is this essay. This, I aver, affects the experience of music qua music. The idea of a "concept album" (such as "Standards in Silhouette) is nearly lost, given the dematerialization which allows for rearrangement of musical units. And whereas one might carry around an album and let friends read the essays on the back cover and dust jacket, no such thing is possible with an iPod. Some CDs come with booklets that may contain significant essays. This is often true with vintage jazz records by the likes of Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and John Coltrane. I often read fine essays by Nat Hentoff, Gary Giddens, Francis Davis, and others. Yet even here, the feel, the materiality of the record album is diminished, even if not lost entirely. And, of course, if you bracket the problem of pops, albums sound better than CD and CDs sound better than iPods.
Given this phenomenology and ontology of the jazz record album (that's what I was discussing, to use pompous philosophical language), I pine for this kind of embodiment and discursiveness (or textuality). But if one haunts the right stores and retains the necessary technologies (my 1973 Pioneer turntable and tube amplifier), these discrete sublimities may still offer their (dated and delicious) charms.
Now, who wants to have a record party?