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More music and and more armchairs



I’m currently reading Capturing Sound. How technology has changed music. by Mark Katz. He lists portability as one of several traits of recorded music, and points towards uses of music that we now take for granted, but that once were novel (pp. 16-17):

Recordings (…) can move easily within our daily lives, detaching music from its traditional times, venues and rituals. While hardly noticeable today, such possibilities were once considered radical. In 1923 British writer Orlo Williams made what would today seem an oddly superfluous argument: that it should be perfectly acceptable to listen to recorded music at any time of the day. He offered a scenario involving a wealthy bachelor, and intercut his description with the imagined resonses of a hidebound reader.

He comes down to breakfast at half-past none: he skims the headlines of his paper over the kidneys and reads the feuilleton over his marmalade. Then, if I am right, he lights a large but mild cigar, sinks into an armchair, and rings for the butler to set the gramophone going. “My dear fellow…” you say in expostulation, “how absurd … how would anybody … I mean … can’t you see?” I apologise. Imagination, yours at any rate, boggles at the thought: yet what I see in alluring clearness, is a gentleman tastefully attired, smoking in an easy but not to soft a chair, while ten o’clock on a sunny morning, he listens to Caruso issuing from a little cuboard in a mahogany cabinet.


Today, of course, the morning listener raises no eyebrows; in fact, listening to the radio or recordings during breakfast is for some as ingrained a habit as breakfasting in silence must have been for people of earlier eras.

The portability of recordings has also allowed listeners to determine not only when and where they hear music, but with whom they listen. Solitary listening, widespread today, has been an important manifestation of this possibility. The practice, however, has not always been common. In the 1923 article just cited, Orlo Williams wondered how one might react upon walking in on a friend who is listening to recorded music … alone. His answer illustrates the puzzlement that may once have met solitary listening.

You would think it odd, would you not (…) as if you had discovered your friend sniffing cocaine, emptying a bottle of whiskey, or plaiting straws in his hair. People, we think, should not do things “to themselves”, however much they may enjoy doing them in company: they may not even talk to themselves without incurring grave suspicion. And I fear that if I were discovered listening to the Fifth Symphony without a chaperon to guarantee my sanity, my friends would fall away with grievous shaking of their heads.

Even if a bit melodramatic, Williams’s remarks remind us that before the advent of recording, listening had always been a communal activity. In prephonographic times it had been for the most part neither practical or possible to hear music alone. Listening was a culturally significant activity, for music accompanied central communal events, including birth or death rites, weddings, and religious festivals. Solitary listening, then, contradicted centuries of tradition.


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