Thoughts on Music #22 (Mark Katz)

"...before the advent of recording, listening had always been a communal activity. In prephonographic times it had been for the most part neither practical nor 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. Nevertheless, the practice came to be accepted. In 1931, one writer touted its advantages: "“Alone with the phonograph, all the unpleasant externals are removed: the interpreter has been disposed of; the audience has been disposed of; the uncomfortable concert hall has been disposed of. You are alone with the composer and his music. Surely no more ideal circumstances could be imagined.” Today, solitary listeners are everywhere, in living rooms, dorm rooms, bathrooms, offices, cars, and anywhere they might take a portable player. But there is still something strange about seeing people in public places, plugged into the earphones of the players they tote around as an emphysemic might carry an oxygen tank. (For many, in fact, music is as necessary as oxygen.) Journalist Paul Farhi wonderfully captured that strangeness, evoking images from the classic horror movie Night of the Living Dead: “It is so familiar now that we don’t see or hear it anymore. It is the look and sound of the Walkman dead: the head cocked at a slight angle, the mouth gently lolling. From about the skull comes a tinny low buzzing sound, like metallic bees. The eyes flicker with consciousness, but they don’t see. They’re somewhere else.” Perhaps we should not wonder that solitary listening was once considered unusual, but rather that it should have come to be so widely, unremarkably practiced. The same is true for the act of listening to music far removed from one’s home or culture or of experiencing music whenever and with whomever one wishes. In each case, the portability of recording has made the once unimaginable commonplace."
-Mark Catz, Capturing Sound: How technology has changed music, Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 17-18.

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