Now we can hear the voices of the dead.
Remark overheard at the premiere of Thomas Edison’s phonograph
The spark bursting from electrical energy in the late 1800s ignites an explosion of technology. Innovations of sound recording – first on rolls, then on discs, record albums, magnetic tapes, CDs, and eventually bytes of information – allow music to transcend the moment of performance and become what Led Zeppelin would later call “physical graffiti.”
Thomas Edison unveils the phonograph in 1878 – a practical refinement of Lèon Scott’s phonoautograph, which appears first in 1857. Bulky and fragile, these hand-cranked instruments literally carve musical impressions into foil and wax rolls. Those rolls soon get replaced by wax discs, which store more music in a durable, portable format. Electrical power and recording eventually supersedes such low-fidelity devices. Wax discs give way to shellac ones… and eventually, by the late 1940s, to vinyl ones. Edison and his competitors form studios, hire artists, and record music in order to sell their machines. Now the voices of the dead can speak.
For the first time in human existence, music can be heard by people who’ve never met the musician. Author David Troop notes: Frozen in time within the grooves, a voice, an instrument, a sound, becomes the living dead and is worshipped in the way that a loved one, deceased, may be adored for years. The record album soon becomes a 20th-century talisman, immortalizing ephemeral moments into constructed eternities. Thomas Edison – a spiritualist who tries to capture ghostly voices through radio waves, and who theorizes about an invisible “etheric force” – considers the phonograph his greatest invention. With it, Muses and phantasms may be caught, tamed and brought to market.
The magical element of sound recording goes beyond music when Aleister Crowley joins the party. Long before Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page would become fascinated by “the Great Beast,” (before, in fact, Page is even born), Crowley strives “to synthesize the aim of religion and the method of science.” First recording his ceremonies around 1910, the mad magician soon creates physical talismans of temporary rites. These recordings literally become acts of magical will, embedding the vibrations of Crowley’s incantations into permanent form and turning enchantment into substance.
Movies appear in the late 1800s too, capturing movement, plots and characters for posterity. Originally performed and improvised by live musicians, the soundtracks to these “silent” films engage audiences and drown out clattering film projectors. Directors and composers soon create movie scores to highlight specific moments of each film; incorporating Classical and “common” styles (and often sound effects as well), this music gets transcribed and then sent to theatres along with the rolls of film. This way, different audiences can watch a particular film with more or less the same soundtrack – the soundtrack devised by that film’s creators. Movies like Metropolis incorporate elements of avant-garde music in their soundtracks, too; this spreads “unconventional” ideas about musical possibilities. Some films, like the Fleischer Brothers’ “car-toons” series, encourage their audiences to sing along with the film score. By the late 1920s, though, synchronized sound innovations (first record discs, and then magnetic strips painted along one side of movie film) allow moviemakers to craft specific, consistently repeatable soundtracks. The first full-length movie with a synchronized soundtrack is, called, of course,The Jazz Singer.
In New York’s Tin Pan Alley, Jewish and Italian immigrants create a similar style of musical theatre. The songs of Vaudeville and Broadway, combined with the older parlour music tradition, provide catchy material for mass-produced sheet music. This way, anyone can bring the songs of New York and Chicago stages back home to play on the family piano.
The invention of practical radio transmitters and receivers around the turn of the 20th century lets music fly beyond the musician’s reach. By the 1930s, radio stations pepper Europe and the United States. Millions of people own radios by roughly 1940, and although news and radio theatre play comprise vital elements of radio’s appeal, music keeps those audiences enthralled. Demand for more music feeds recording studios, technicians and, of course, musicians. Now anyone with a radio and decent reception can hear music without leaving home. Inspired by the range of material they discover through the airwaves, new generations of artists and audiences thrive.
Similar leaps of technology allow halls to be lighted, instruments to be amplified, and sounds to be broadcast, like Hermes himself, through the air. Experiments with these gadgets breed strange new sounds and styles. Crumbling Victorian idealism, combined with the rebellious magic of the fin-de-siecle (“end of the age”) movement at the close of the 1800s, leads musicians to storm the walls of possibility. Claude Debussy probes occult dreamscapes, obsessed with cats and inspired by the nightmares of Edgar Allen Poe. Arnold Schoenberg rejects the musical “keys” to cosmic harmony. Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana sets poems by defrocked monks to music, while Gustav Holst sends the spheres spinning with his masterpiece, The Planets. As Theosophist composer Cyril Scott seeks the ancient wisdom of Ascended Masters, Surrealists composed“music” from random sounds and industrial machines. Stockhausen crafts unpredictable percussion symphonies, and John Cage let’s “silence” speak for itself. By the 1930s, angry war vet Adolf Hitler adopts Wagner’s mythic Parsifal and Ring operas into a manifesto for German glory. As always, music inspires both innovation and destruction.
Soon, an even more unexpected gift of such technology appears.
Until the mid-1900s, few people ever hear styles of music from different regions or cultures. Recording technology, albums and radio soon change that limitation. Once the bulky equipment becomes portable, travelers and scientists begin lugging record gear all over the world. By the 1950s, you can hear music from Appalachian mountaintops, Amazon rainforests, Tibetan temples and far more. Sacred music, courtly music, profane music and everything in between becomes grist for the sonic mill. By the end of World War II, recording technology unleashes cultural daemons that can never be contained again.
Blues fallin’ down like hail
Blues fallin’ down like hail
And the day keeps remindin’ me
There’s a hellhound on my trail
Hellhound on my trail…
Robert Johnson, “Hellhound on My Trail”
Those Devil Blues
Like America herself, blues music seems blessed by God and cursed by the Devil. Swelling up from post-slavery Black America, the blues reflect the hardscrabble lives of its artists and audience. Stylistically simple yet emotionally complex, this tradition melds European “tall tale” ballads with African interplays of instrument and voice. Its “blue notes” defy the rigid conventions of Classical musicology, working in between the European scales and outside those formal structures. While Classical composers seek abstract musical epiphanies, the blues channel raw emotion. Intensely personal and infinitely flexible, blues music is sublimely human. It takes an orchestra to play a symphony, but a single man or woman can sing the blues.
Sharing space, inspiration and artistry with the more formal styles that would become ragtime, jazz and “pop standards” schmaltz, blues music swirls out of cotton fields and back rooms around the turn of the 20th century. Though various “grandfathers” and “godfathers” are given credit, no one place or person births the blues. Alabama chain gangs, Mississippi riverboats, Chicago basements and hot New Orleans nights – the blues belong to all of them and more. Like the haunted guitarist Robert Johnson, blues music sweats on the fringes of America’s Faustian pacts, born at a midnight crossroads and dogged by infernal reckoning.
Named for the “blue demons” of melancholy lust, blues folklore hosts a humid concoction of evil eyes and black cat bones, juju bags and hellish hounds. Like their European counterparts, blues artists weave macabre fantasies of unearthly betrayal. But where a moody Romantic like Hector Berlioz crafts his Symphonie Fantasique to honor a would-be mistress, blues singer Memphis Minnie warns us that “When the Levee Breaks,” no one will have a place to stand. Couched in fervent Christianity with African echoes, this “devil’s music” teems with conjure men, wicked women, cackling crows and weeping angels. The crossroads – a place that’s literally as well as symbolically significant to the era’s Black Americans – dominates blues imagery. At that crossroads, dramas of ruin and redemption rage in 12-bar symphonies, many of which feature weird strangers in the night…
(To be Continued…)
[This article is the third part of a series of excerpts from my book-in-progress POWERCHORDS: MYSTIC RHYTHMS. All rights retained by the author. (c) 2012 Satyros Phil Brucato. Linking with attribution explicitly permitted. Reproduction or republishing without attribution by any party other than the Author, without written persmission, is explicitly prohibited. Thanks!]