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Favorite Things: Broken Sounds/Telephone Bach

This series is a good opportunity to wonder why so many of my most moving experiences listening to music have been moments involving imperfect, marred, or broken sounds. In classical music, in particular, a heavy emphasis is placed on ideal acoustic conditions when “listening correctly.” High fidelity recordings, as Colin Symes demonstrated in his 2004 book, Setting the Record Straight: A Material History of Recording, have been sold on a faulty ontology: the possibility of perfect mimesis of perfect sounds born within a perfect sonic space. The goal of such recordings has been to replicate the experience of “the best seat in the house.” Beyond the implications for recordings themselves, that turn of phrase also assumes that there is such a thing as the perfect form of a sound. Concert halls are designed and judged by acoustic magicians based on some apparently [quasi-]scientific and somehow indisputable claims of achievable sonic perfection that can be heard while sitting fourth-row center, orchestra. Recording engineers pull their hair out fussing over microphone placements in order to capture that idealized acoustic glow on magnetic tape or digital whatever.

And yet, one of the most moving moments I ever had listening to a piece of music was when someone played for me an aria from a Bach cantata over the telephone. It should be mentioned, I think, that I was twenty-two years old, and the person in question was a young woman with whom I was infatuated. There can be no doubt that such youthful passions played a role in the moment. It should also be mentioned that this was before cell phones. We were both, in other words, fixed in place. In two separate places, yes, but neither of us was strolling the city or eating in a restaurant. In 1992 there was still something intimate about a phone call. You were, the two of you, distant and detached. Yet you couldn’t stray far from the hole in the wall that somehow led twisted cables through the city from your room into hers. I knew exactly where she was sitting in her apartment and she likely knew exactly where I was sitting in mine. We were cabled together.  The music was being played over her record player’s speakers with a phone held up to one of them. The result was a thin whisper of music. A pathetic mewling with no bass line and hardly a clear rhythmic attack to be heard. A whisper of a shadow of something grand.

Yet I hold that sound in my memory with more force than almost any of the hundreds of live concerts I have attended or perfect recordings for which I have so carefully calibrated my speakers.

Collectors of old records often feel a special surge of emotions when they play a scratched, damaged piece of vinyl. I think the phone sensation was similar. The intrusion of the mechanism of the sound, in this case the tiny tinny speaker in the headset of a 1980s touch-tone, the uninvited insistence of its un-mimetic falseness, cannot help but remind us of distance and loss. Its faintness begs your attention, your participation, both in your straining to hear it, reaching out toward it, and your filling in the gaps in the music that it simply cannot manifest on its own. 

Loss of fidelity implies loss of presence and viscera and vigor. This idea is not new. It is, of course, part of the collective obsession over recordings, and photographs, and film on the part of an entire generation of critical theorists, Barthes and Benjamin and Adorno and others. There is no space to rehearse all that in a piece like this. Rather, I would leave it to Pascal Quignard in the script for the 1991 film Tous les matins du monde, based on his own novel. When asked, finally, by his teacher St. Colombe (Jean-Pierre Marielle), for what purpose is la musique, Marin Marais (Gerard Depardieu) struggles sheepishly through every conceivable answer: For God, for glory, for love, for the sorrows of love, for other musicians, for music itself. Non, non, non. Finally he stumbles into the right direction: “One must leave a drink for the dead… a refreshment for those who have run out of words… for lost childhood…for the time before we were born… before we breathed… or saw light.”

In recent years, musicology has become more attuned to hearing through the grainy, half-present sounds of early acoustic recordings… the deep past of recorded sound. After a century of obsession over scores and the inscribed “voice” of the composer, the history of performance and recording, the (equally inscribed) voice of the interpreter, has finally become a topic of serious study. The terribly limited, crackling, thin-spectra recordings of artists who died before WWI are now being mined for what they can tell us about turn-of-the century interpretive styles and what those styles can tell us about turn-of-the-century people. It is a lot to ask of such broken sounds, history writing at its most optimistic. But even such practiced and focused analytical ear training cannot help us avoid the periodic uncanny shiver when some desiccated sound pops into our lives from a scarred or inadequate piece of equipment or unintended event. Like Proust’s madeleine, in those moments the rush of a truth surrounds us, the truth of what a remnant signifies. The remnant nature of an inadequate sound makes it impossible not to hear the distance between present and past, presence and absence.

In music, that hopeful ideology of high fidelity tries hard to undercut that truth. It’s the “sound itself” that matters, the abstract quantifiable perfection of the sonic spectrum, more than the bodies or instruments or spaces involved. That detachment of sounds from the person making them, of recordings from their moment and space, can be a safety valve to drain away the mournfulness of the sonic still life. You can, perhaps, pretend that Horowitz’s wry smile and muscular fingers never withered away from his bones if the sounds on the CD are still so alive and so perfect.

Helen Watts was twenty-nine in 1957 when she made my telephone recording. Gloriously young for a singer of Bach. And I can, if the mood is right, hear a twenty-nine-year-old when I play that same recording on my Hi Fi. But played through a telephone no such fantasies are possible. A telephone as a speaker is a Brechtian shattering of theatrical illusion. I cannot leave this moment to go back to her, or pull her into this moment with me. I am here and she is old. (“Old” then. Dead today). She sounded that night like a faded photograph would sound if it spoke. I have never again felt such an urgency listening to music. I wished it would never end.

Back to Quignard: A few moments later, teacher and student retrieve the viol of Madeleine, St. Colombe’s dead daughter and Marais’ former lover. In a tiny detail that always breaks my heart, Marais takes a moment to wipe away the years of dust that have accumulated on her instrument. There can be little sadder than a dead musician’s instrument. A violin case tucked in a corner. Boxes of reeds sitting on a desk never to be played on. And dust. Perfect little still lifes if you have an artist’s eye. Still lifes play a big part in Quignard’s novel as well, reminding that no matter how vivid, all still lifes are scribblings of things that have since crumbled into dirt.

“Death,” St. Colombe tells us, “is the sum of what it steals from us." What it gives him in return is an obligation to commemorate through the performance of obsessive reproduction. Conjurings of a type then, recordings, even the most “perfect,” are the dusty vibrations of people lost.

“All the world’s mornings never return.” Old telephone speakers just aren’t capable of lying to us about it. Hearing music that way cannot help but give a shudder of something more real than “high fidelity” could ever be.

A link to that recording

Michael Markham is an associate professor of Musicology at the State University of New York at Fredonia and a regular contributor on classical music at the Los Angeles Review of Books.



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