Saturday, June 15, 2019

About masters

An extraordinary story by Jody Rosen in the New York Times, about a fire at the Universal Studios in Hollywood in 2008 that destroyed the masters of sound recordings by, among many others, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Patsy Cline, Bo Diddley, the Andrews Sisters, Etta James, Ray Charles, Burt Bacharach, Captain Beefheart, Al Green, Iggy Pop, Nirvana... essentially, a massive chunk of 20th-century American music ceased to exist in matter of minutes. I’m not sure what’s more astonishing, that such a calamity was allowed to occur, or that its full extent is only now being revealed, more than a decade on. 

But does it matter that much? I mean, it’s not as if the music is entirely lost, is it? Well, some of it is: it turns out that some of the material lost to the flames had never seen a commercial release, had never made it off the tapes in the first place. There’s a bigger point, though, as Rosen argues:
But the case for masters extends beyond arguments about bit depth and frequency ranges audible only to dogs. It enters the realms of aesthetics and phenomenology. Simply put, the master of a recording is that recording; it is the thing itself. The master contains the record’s details in their purest form: the grain of a singer’s voice, the timbres of instruments, the ambience of the studio. It holds the ineffable essence that can only truly be apprehended when you encounter a work of art up-close and unmediated, or as up-close and unmediated as the peculiar medium of recorded sound permits. “You don’t have to be Walter Benjamin to understand that there’s a big difference between a painting and a photograph of that painting,” [producer Andy] Zax said in his conference speech. “It’s exactly the same with sound recordings.” 

No comments: