• Penultima - Essay 5

    Jenny Lind's voice was never recorded, at least not in a form that has survived. During her life, she became the most popular, most idolized singer in the world. The time for that presence would have been from approximately the late 1830s to the early 1880s, marking the period from her successful debut to her final concert.

    Not only did Jenny Lind's voice and performances elude the documentation of recorded sound, they also predated electronic amplification - no microphones or sound balancing was used during any of her live performances. All we are left with a century and a half later are ecstatic descrptions of the range, delicacy, and magnetism of her singing voice - essentially, all words written on paper.

    This reveals the weight of an experience that a very tiny percentage of humanity, people numbering in the thousands and all long dead by now, shared in that particular place in time. These individuals each had the immediate and intimate thrill of hearing Jenny Lind sing. Keep in mind that this was a voice that achieved world-wide fame in an age of sailing ships.

    Her largest performance venues were 1500 seat theaters and opera houses. They were designed by necessity to enhance a humanly projected voice from a stage to a large audience with the aid of natural materials like wood and plaster that absorbed rather than echoed sound. Simple design elements helped, as well. A lowered orchestra pit would separate the powerful instrumentation from the lone performer on the stage above. Again, as the audience left the performance in Stockholm, or London, or New York City, they could only talk about what they had heard, already separating from their experience with no expectation of ever having it again.

    The increasing sophistication of recording technology throughout the 20th century was accompanied by changes in the types of voices and instruments that performed popular songs and found audiences. At the beginning of the century, singers still had to rely on non-amplified theaters to reach their paying public. And so, early recorded vocalists like Enrico Caruso, Bessie Smith, John McCormack, and Al Jolson were mighty vocal projectors. For their sound recordings, they were singing into large acoustic horns with ensembles or orchestras playing simultaneously behind them and to an extent competing with them.

    As recording and sound technology became more precise, popular singing voices became more subtle. Singers like Bing Crosby and Billie Holiday required microphones to project to live audiences, even in smaller venues, and relied on them in studio situations to enhance their distinctive tones and phrasing.

    The late 1920s and mid 1930s was still a period when all recordings were done live, with various takes discarded if they were unsuitable. These years proved to be a critical pivot point when recording continued to approach the auditory experience of listening to a live performance without ever capturing the total sensory experience. Many classical recordings from the 1950s recorded on analog tape with ambient ribbon microphones include all the dynamics of a powerful orchestra which can sometimes test the settings and capacity of stereo sytems. But these recordings in audio verite are still one critical sensory step removed from row three at La Scala or the front balcony at Carnegie Hall. At best, it's almost like you could've been there.

    It is certainly true that in the half century from 1913, when Enrico Caruso recorded Ave Maria, to 1962 when Leontyne Price sang Tosca, recording technology took great strides forward in terms of accurately reproducing sound. But from that point forward, fifty years to the present, the focus of both marketing and development has primarily been to increase convenience to the consumer; not to enhance the personal sensory experience of absorbing the performance.

    First, competing formats were introduced with cassette and 8 track tapes. In the late 1970s, digital recording emerged followed by compact discs, DAT tapes, and mp3 downloads. In following this course, the evolution of sound recording was very much like public building design and the manufacture of footwear. Durability was reduced and maintenance further compromised as was the integrity of the subtle personal connection to the sensory or the natural. Cassettes, as we know now, do not sustain themselves well over time. The recorded sound degrades more quickly and the housing has proven more fragile. 

    It was initially thought, or at least claimed, that digital technology would preserve sound content on compact discs far more effectively than other formats since the surface-to -surface interface came from a laser rather than a needle or recording head. But in fact, digital recording, especially when reduced to mp3 files, employs compression of the audio signal which diminishes or equalizes the original dynamics in the performance. Simple proof of this can be found in the fact that the market for hi-fidelity stereo components, which enhanced as well as amplified the sound of analog recordings, has all but disappeared - mainly because its fundamental pupose has.

    Further, the current delivery systems for digital recordings: ipods and mp3 players, defy attempts at decentralized skilled maintenance and repair. The used market for these units after five to ten years is virtually non-existant. Meanwhile, vintage stereo components often trade at many times their initial cost decades later. 

    The act of recording sound in itself removes the listener from the performer in significant, if subtle ways. If there is one lesson offered to us by both the natural world and our sensory experience, it is that the subtle is very significant. Any attempt to build thicker barriers from the sensory and natural worlds in the name of cost or convenience to the consumer ultimately diminishes the human experience.

    In 1913, when Enrico Caruso was singing and alive, there were people who played his arias on hand-crank Victrolas in meadows during summer picnics and were transported to tears. Most of these people would saw Caruso perform live. Their active imaginations and their love of opera was what bridged the gap from the recording to the performance, not the technology they had employed to access it.

    It is the same difference observed between reading printed words and listening to an audio book or watching live action on film as opposed to computer-generated images. How much space in the experience is one's imagination allowed to occupy? In hearing sound; recorded or live, the internal process is deeply personal. The purpose in preserving the performance through recording is to connect an individual, however imperfectly, to the thrilling and immediate experience of actually being in the same moment of that song being sung. In the currency of the senses, that present witness is the very esssence; the highest peak. Jenny Lind in recital in Boston, Billie Holiday gigging in Harlem. That's for those that were there in the moment to take it in fully - until time passed and suddenly they weren't. Real life.