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PHILHARMONICA. International Music Journal

Scientific Views on the Importance of Sound Recordings for the Historiography of Jazz

Rykunin Vladislav Vyacheslavovich

Postgraduate at the Department of Theory and History of Music of Moscow State Institute of Culture

141406, Russia, Moskovskaya oblast', g. Khimki, ul. Bibliotechnaya, 7

Other publications by this author










Abstract: The subject of this article's research is the importance of sound recordings as an evolutionary source in the historiography of jazz. The importance of sound recording in the evolution and the study of jazz cannot be overestimated. It is much more significant than in the case of any other kind of music art. Sound recording is of great scientific value and jazz heritage's leading resource, which is an opinion held by most jazz researchers. The development of jazzology has led to scientific viewpoints that raise questions about the reevaluation of the role of sound recording. The research method used is the analysis of various scientific views on this problem, which helps readers understand the specificity of jazz sound recording. The author considers the opinions of researchers G. Schuller, J. Rasula, E. Clarke, M. Butterfield, and A. Batashev. This list of names shows that there’s only one Russian researcher who is studying this problem. The scientific novelty of this research lies in the author’s exploration of a relatively unexplored topic. The research has revealed the presence of contradictory scientific views that should be further studied.  


Matthew Butterfield, Eric Clarke, Jed Rasula, phonogram, sound recording, pop music, jazz, Evan Eisenberg, Gunter Schuller, Alexey Batashev

"Jazz – oral culture in the era of recording" (A. N. Batashev) [1, p. 93]

Recording technology was created in parallel with jazz and continues to influence how this music evolves and changes. Recordings have become ubiquitous in jazz, thanks to their ability to preserve improvisational performances of musical compositions that can be widely distributed and repeatedly listened to. What is especially important for jazz is that recordings allow for the dissemination of elements of performing practice, for which it is difficult to use traditional musical notation. As E. V. Strokova writes: "Specific nuances that create a jazz sensation such as swing, drive, timbre features, dynamics, and many intonation features of jazz 'children-tone,' 'off-pitch,' vibrato subtleties, microtonal pitch deviations, cannot be captured through generally accepted notation" [3, p. 135]. Scholar and performer Paul Berliner noted: "Although experienced improvisers consider published materials to be a valuable learning tool, they warn less experienced performers not to become too dependent on them. Students cannot determine the accuracy of the arrangement or its reproduction without comparing it to the original recordings. Moreover, no matter how useful they may be for mature musicians who can interpret them, all arrangements create an incomplete or basic idea of a performance and give less experienced musicians little information about the main stylistic features of jazz" [5, p. 98].

A Beethoven or Schoenberg score is the final document, the blueprint from which interpretations can be created that differ only slightly from each other. Jazz improvisation recording is something that has happened once, and in many cases, is the only available version, which thus becomes "defining," even though it was never intended to act in this capacity [12, p. X]. Having stated this theoretical position on sound recording at the beginning of his book Early Jazz, Gunther Schuller established a point of view that has become fundamental to the historiography of jazz. He points out that we find recordings attractive primarily because they allow us to record and repeat a single performance. Following the book by Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction, the consequences of such a fixation of an ephemeral phenomenon seem quite obvious. Through sound recording, the performance is preserved so that it can be mechanically reproduced in contexts that are divorced from the usual conditions associated with it [2]. The recording serves to fix the live performance, to make it freeze so that it can be returned to again, viewed from different points of view, "the sound is frozen in the recording so that it can be heard by their descendants" [10, p.53]. In the historiography of jazz, sound recording is most often considered a tool for preserving material: it provides an opportunity to gain access to the historical past.

The recordings provide a sound illustration of jazz history, in which great performers and musical masterpieces can be identified using traditional musicological analytical and historical methodologies. The resulting canon allowed the study of jazz to establish itself as a serious scientific discipline. Therefore, it is not surprising that, in the fundamental works of jazz scholars, the subject of research is recordings.

In turn, the development of jazzology has led to the emergence of scientific views that raise the question of re-evaluating the role of sound recordings for this particular type of musical creativity, concluding that from a historiographical point of view, recordings are a very problematic source.

Jed Rasula expresses this position in a 1995 essay entitled The Memory Carrier: The Seductive Peril of Sound Recording in the History of Jazz. Rasula considers historians' approach to records as their primary source material to be uncritical and unscientific [11, p. 140]. According to Rasul, the recordings actually hindered the writing of the history of jazz since historians believed that the story they were trying to write was already written and voiced in the recordings [11, p. 136]. He admits that jazz recordings are an important factor in the lives of jazz musicians, although this creates problems for historians who try to trace the origins and influences, and that, despite openly admitting reluctance, all jazz historians rely heavily on recordings [11, pp. 141; 143-144].

The fundamental problem with the history of jazz regarding recordings is that they cannot be understood as something that creates an idea of a live (unrecorded) performance, that is, an "authentic" performance of jazz [Which, unfortunately, "…is only a surrogate of the 'live presence' of the actual performance, although they are often used in this way in jazz studies"] [11, p. 135].

The difference between the image of reality created by sound recordings and the reality they actually reflect requires further study. A concert recording is somewhat unusual in the sense that studio recordings are usually considered the basis of the jazz canon. However, the critic Evan Eisenberg believes: "Only concert recordings record the event; studio recordings, of which is the majority, do not record anything" [8, p. 89].

Musicologist Eric Clarke wrote: "Deep down, we feel uncertain about whether to treat recordings as a recorded live performance or as a work created in a studio" [7, p. 187]. These two concepts of sound recording represent an important practical frontier, a division that can be expressed in terms proposed by the philosopher Theodore Gracyk: the recording "reproduces" or "represents" the performance [10, p. 53]. The tendency to categorize recordings thus expresses the connection between the listener, on the one hand, and the images created by the recording, on the other. In other words, the uncertainty that Clarke points out comes from the fact that what is presented through a sound recording is not necessarily entirely what it may seem. The access we get to a musical event is never indirect, even though we sometimes have an extremely strong illusion of the opposite situation.

Before moving on to jazz, it is worth considering, on a general level, what concepts were built to understand sound recordings within the tradition of the twentieth-century recording industry, working with classical and popular music.

In the recording of classical music, the central, most important aspect is how accurately the recording reproduces the performance; but this does not mean fixing the performance in a literal sense so that the record is released on the basis of one continuous performance. In some cases, when recording music, parts are recorded separately and then combined to form a complete work. The important point here is that it is always sought to be presented as a single, continuous performance; any editing should be inconspicuous.

Popular music literature creates a completely different narrative in relation to the development of sound recording: one of the key points is the realization that the recording studio should not just serve as a means of documenting live performance but is itself a tool involved in the creation of compositions. In addition, the very sound of the recording achieved in the studio, whether it is the timbre provided by a particular microphone or the application of a reverb or delay effect, becomes part of this sound.

The aesthetic of the recording, which is most often used in jazz, is somewhat different from both positions outlined above. There are, of course, similarities: for example, the reliance on the aesthetics of a live performance, as a result of which sometimes, as Gracik noted, the superimposition of sound and the connection of recordings from different performances are perceived as a kind of "fraud" [10, p.40]. At the same time, as jazz scholar Matthew Butterfield explains, "in modern recording technologies, sound overdubbing and editing is very common; sometimes musicians may not even get together in the studio, and the released recording sounds as if they performed this music together" [6, p.331-332].

One of the invariable aesthetic principles of jazz is that musicians reinvent and reinterpret the material at the moment of performance rather than giving a sound embodiment to previously composed works. Compositions performed by jazz musicians are best understood as projects or reference objects that serve as a springboard for making musical outings. The goal of the performance is not to reproduce the existing material but to rethink it and create it anew. A. N. Batashev noted that the main goal is to preserve live music. Each concert should be unique, unlike a record [1, p. 93].

The reinterpretation of jazz recordings leads to what might more accurately be called a resistance strategy. This resistance is opposed to the notion that a single recording, even if for some reason we believe that it conveys the musician's intentions and is the best document at our disposal, can replace historical reality. This strategy is opposed to the clean, measured, artificial world of the recording studio. However, it does not mean that recordings made in the studio should not be accepted for scientific consideration, not at all. It is most likely aimed at recognizing that studio recordings represent a completely different type of performance than live recordings.

Batashev made studio recordings in one of the three specific genres of jazz, in addition to music and concert-pop. "The integrity of musical drama, clarity, and harmony of form are particularly important in the production of records. There is no audience in the recording studio; it is in a different place and time, it will perceive the record only as a work that can be listened to repeatedly and in parts, 'the bet with the audience' is canceled, and samples, dubs, overdubs, editing are possible, just as it happens in a film adaptation of a play" [1, p.94].

Much can be said to support the view that the world of live recording is favored, with its "dirty" sound that lacks studio verifiability, as it is perceived as a more honest, and in many ways, more accurate reproduction of what happens when musicians (and their listeners) are involved in a deeply social interaction when performing a piece. In this case, we consider sound recording as a complex process that fits into the history of the fact that, as it may seem, records the performance of music.

However, the question of the recording goes far beyond what kind of performance it captures, as shown in John Gennari's commentary on Gunther Schuller's book The Swing Era. Schuller's claim that true jazz can be found in recordings contradicts the most fundamental and solid position of ideas about jazz, namely, that true jazz exists within the framework of the aesthetics of live performance, in its multitextuality, which cannot be recorded as an emotional expressiveness and corresponding reaction [9, p. 459].

Butterfield also prefers live jazz performance over recordings because "sound recording and the resulting musical culture have a negative impact on the unifying social function inherent in jazz performance" [6, p.342]. It represents "true social interaction" and suggests that jazz scholars first focus their efforts on the study of a live event ("situational paradigm for analysis") [6, p.325, 347].

Rasula, in his recommendation to researchers, calls for "recognizing the tension that exists between the material realm of recorded artifacts and the totality of 'live' [unrecorded] music that exists absent-mindedly, in the form of rumors and memories" [11, p. 144].

An alternative view of recordings is offered by the philosopher and critic Evan Eisenberg, who argues that "the most important thing in art is not how it is created, but how it affects us, thereby bringing to the fore 'the recipients,' and not the creators" [8, p.145]. In relation to jazz, he suggests that recordings not only propagate (past) performance but can also influence the very nature of the genre through the process of implantation. "The recordings not only spread jazz but also planted jazz ... anyway, they created what we now call jazz" [8, p. 118].

Considering that Theodor Adorno did not recognize the jazz listener as anything more than a regressive and dependent consumer of industrialized cultural products, it could be argued that the development of the cultural industry allowed listeners to make more active choices and actions, especially in relation to recordings. "A medium containing a recording of a musical program was transformed into something for which an individual awakened a special consumerist need" [4, p.79]. Eisenberg describes the process of development from the piano to the pianola, then to the phonograph, as "an instrument for listening to music at home," when increasing mechanization requires correspondingly decreasing levels of skill "from the performer to anyone who can play the recording" [8, p. 145]. However, this does not devalue the artistic potential of such activities, since an advanced listener of recordings can express himself through the performance of others as conductor: "the conductor must be content with a limited repertoire, but can make each fragment his own, while the listener of the recording has an almost infinite repertoire, in which there is nothing of his own" [8, p.166].

It is interesting to note the ability of individual recordings to influence the perception of jazz when evaluated in different ways: first, retrospectively, for example, when writing the history of jazz; second, from a historical point of view, taking into account their original context (that is, at the time when they first began to be distributed); and third, in their modern context, when they are perceived by a new audience.

Listeners usually mistake jazz recordings for performance samples, and phonographic illusions are exposed only in retrospect or on the basis of knowledge. However, jazz recordings are most often only evaluated by scientists retrospectively with full possession of special expertise and, accordingly, in isolation from the position of other listeners both in the past and in their modern society. Rasula raises a number of questions: "Are they [the recordings] true or fictitious? What is the epistemological status of such a technologically primitive artifact like the 1923 King Oliver's Jazz Band recording? Is it a conducting channel or an acoustic window that gives access to how the music actually sounded, or does it serve as an obstacle to such access?" [11, p. 134]. Naturally, what is important here is that the recordings give a true impression of one particular performance, on the basis of which it would be possible to build hypotheses about other performances, including at live events, using additional source materials. But, more importantly, such recordings really open up access to how the music actually sounded, and not necessarily in a modern live performance, or just to the musicians and engineers in the studio, but to the people who bought and listened to the 1923 recording. We can play the same recording today and imagine that we are listening to the same performance as our ancestors, although it may have a very different meaning for us.

Consequently, in the opinion of some, jazz recordings create an idea of everything (samples of the jazz canon) and, in the opinion of others, of nothing (imperfect reproduction of a live performance). These extreme points of view reflect the scientific community's internal concern about the state of affairs in the field of jazz research. Such concern is added to the search for scientific knowledge valued by the scientific community, which suggests that jazz recordings are considered independent works of art [8, p.130].

The recognition of the versatility of jazz recordings is incompatible with the science of jazz, which intends to prove the importance of jazz as a subject for serious scientific research using traditional analysis methodologies. Certainly, as we have seen, if a record is evaluated only from a retrospective point of view without sufficient consideration of the context in which it was created or heard, such an assessment of its significance is severely limited. In addition, although it is important to develop methods for analyzing live performance, the science of jazz, which deliberately "resists the dominant role of recordings, the social structures they create, and the behaviors of their listeners," seems insufficient and largely inconsistent with the reality of the modern world [6, p. 347]. The focus on live performance limits the consideration of the perception of a particular group of listeners, usually belonging to the "jazz community" who attend such events, which naturally narrows the field of study. At the same time, jazz recordings are perceived from the point of view of different listeners. This perception can be influenced by specific historical, geographical, and social circumstances, as well as more specific conditions of the personal environment and situations in which they are listened to. Recordings predominate in the spread of jazz to the broader community and, as such, require our critical attention to understand the social potential of jazz.

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