Review | Capturing Sound: How Technology has Changed Music, by Mark Katz

Capturing Sound: How Technology has Changed Music by Mark Katz. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004. [xxi, 276p. plus one CD ISBN: 0-520-24380-3 $19.95 (hd.)]


In a well known book on electronic and computer music, not the book under review here, the author discusses John Cage’s 8-channel audiotape piece Williams Mix(1952). He says that the piece is a frontal assault on audience expectations and that “this challenge to the normal detachment of audiences is made all the more pointed by the inclusion of cheers, jeers, and applause toward the end of the piece, as if the composer is assessing the performance of the listener, rather than vice versa” (Manning 75). Besides being entirely contrary to Cage’s aesthetic, the problem with this description is that the audience reaction was not part of the piece. The author had been listening to The 25-Year Retrospective Concert of the Music of John Cage album which was recorded on-site at Town Hall in New York in 1958. Williams Mix was recorded on-site along with the other performances and was not transferred as a stereo mix directly to the album. The mistake was maintained in a recent second edition.

I have penned a few howlers of my own. I mention this only as an example of the growing pains musicology has endured in its engagement with sound recording. Help has arrived with a number of books published recently on sound recording and music and Mark Katz’s new book Capturing Sound: How Technology has Changed Music is among them, and is certainly the best one to address the influence of sound recording on music itself. The operative term here is “published recently.” The phonograph has been around for almost 130 years and its impact on musical culture has been strong for over 80 years. True, it took film studies a long time before it began to grapple with film sound and music, but that was 25 years ago. Perhaps film studies was able to shake loose from its moorings in literature because its own “texts” always involved an “apparatus” of recording technology. Musicology, on the other hand, has had to switch from one recording technology to a very different one.

An electronic musician friend of mine from Australia has a term for music made using this older form of sound recording: “dots music.” He was no doubt being provocative, since conventional music notation is comprised not only of dots but also lines that, when combined, end up looking like the p in MP3. When these dots are fed through playback systems, they result in an evanescent moment of performed sound, although fidelity with the original varies with each and every playback. However, dots are not merely a mode of sound recording, they have also been the dominant epistemological technology of music, remarkably, even amid decades immersed amid the newer recording technology. In their knowledge work, dots provide a nice indelible element which sits comfortably alongside words and in tandem enable analyses of certain types of music which circulate among texts on-line and off. 

The way in which dots can analyze only certain types of music is actually very similar to Katz’s concept of “receptivity,” one of seven traits outlined in the first chapter of the book. Receptivity describes how phonographic sound recording privileges certain sounds while putting others at a disadvantage, in effect, filtering out certain musical practices while reinforcing others. In one of the most interesting chapters in the book, “Aesthetics out of Exigency: Violin Vibrato and the Phonograph,” Katz discusses how phonography both chronicled and played a “necessary condition” in the fashionable rise of vibrato in the early twentieth century. Vibrato helped violinists project through the limitations of the technology and mask mistakes amplified by the technology, and in this respect stands as a characteristic example of receptivity. The third factor, that vibrato could stand in for expressive physicality in the absence of a visual performance, related to one of the other seven traits:“(in)visibility.” In his discussion of receptivity and jazz in another chapter, Katz cites, among other influences, how the blunt instrument of acoustical recording forced musicians to position themselves at varying distances from the phonograph horn depending on their instrument, often cramped in small recording rooms, such that they were “forced to work in unnatural arrangements that hindered the interaction among musicians so important to jazz performance” (Katz 76).

If dots are considered through the trait of receptivity, then it becomes more understandable, even if still a lousy excuse, why many types of music have been filtered out from the scholarship they deserve: many non-Western musical traditions; what George Lewis calls the Afrological and Eurological traditions of improvisation; computer, avant-garde, and experimental music; hip-hop and scratch; noise music; electroacoustic music, soundscapes; music in installation and sound art; Bohemian laptop music, etc. Many musics simply do not do the dots. Take Jimi Hendrix’s feedback: there is a Frank Gehry cathedral in Seattle built especially to reverberate with it but what can dots do? Electricity in general has difficulty with dots. 

On the other hand, it is no coincidence that the inclusion of different types of music in Capturing Sound occurs in the academic context of contemporary modes of sound recording. Capturing Sound ranges chronologically from the late-19th century to the present, and over an eclectic assortment of musical genre and social sites and functions of musical practice. The case studies are preceded by seven traits of sound recording—tangibility, portability, (in)visibility, repeatability, temporality, receptivity, and manipulability— that Katz has developed grassroots up from his ambitious research. The traits are not complicated to begin with and he makes them easy to understand by demonstrating their function using an eclectic string of examples rather than elaborating them theoretically. He does not then superimpose them on the material but instead gives us a field guide to identify their concrete operation in various and overlapping ways among the case studies. Always speaking through example enables Katz to give scholars and grad students enough to chew on while at the same time making the book accessible to undergrads. 

The change in music produced by the interaction of these traits with specific historical situations he calls “phonograph effects.” The strength of the book is found in Katz’s discussion of how phonograph effects influence the genesis and social development of music and how phonograph effects themselves can be located concretely within specific pieces of music. For me, the chapters on “good music” in America, violin vibrato, and Grammophonmusik are the most original contributions. I have come across volumes of literature on some of the other topics—especially turntablism, sampling, and the legalities of sampling and file-sharing—yet Katz is able to apply a broader perspective. For instance, digital sampling, he says, must be considered within the history of musical borrowing reaching back “more than a millennium” within the Western tradition alone. If sampling doesn’t differ in kind from its predecessors, it certainly differs in degree. The difference resides in the capability for “performative quotation: quotation that recreates all the details of timbre and timing that evoke and identify a unique sound event, whether two seconds of Clyde Stubblefield’s drumming (from James Brown’s “Funky Drummer”) or the slow, unsteady tapping rhythms produced as I type this sentence.” It is the quality of performative quotation that attracted Eric B. and Rakim, Sinéad O’Connor, Sublime, and George Michael to quote the commodity form and intellectual property of “Funky Drummer” from a 1970 LP, reissued on a CD. Recordings of Katz’s typing are only available in print. 

My own sentence tapping is digitally recorded into a word processing program on my laptop as I use quotation marks to quote Katz on quotation and listen to an MP3 recording of Archie Shepp’s “Crucificado” copied from the Montreaux One CD of mine—I’d never rip Shepp off the internet—playing on iTunes. I already downloaded the CD that accompanies Capturing Sound to refresh my memory while writing this review so I could stay at least somewhat on-song by listening to violin vibrato, Joe “King” Oliver, Paul Hindemith, Fatboy Slim, Camille Yarbrough, among others. A few months from now there might be a Podcast program comprised of all the musical references made in Capturing Sound, created in the spare time of someone who helped that nice Nigerian prince access his fortune. It is just these types of musical moments within the larger culture and economics of recording, dissemination, and transmission that makes Katz’s book highly relevant to the experiences of that growing number of people who are younger than myself. 

I have my requisite complaints, of course. During his discussion of legalities and the effects of the brave new world of file-sharing on listeners, Katz abandons his hunt for phonograph effects in the music itself. I have run into much kid-in-the-candy shop excitement among advocates of file-sharing (I’m not talking about Katz) but have heard nothing on how, especially with economic deterioration or realignment for practicing and aspiring musicians, it might change the music. Perhaps at this relatively early juncture it might be speculative, but by the end of the book he had already earned his license for speculation. A sense of speculation could have been taken into an entirely reworked conclusion as well, since it backtracks to a simple set of questions that the book left in the dust long ago.

Another problem is that edges between studio technologies in general and sound recording in particular are indistinct. Although microphones are surely part of the electronic sound recording, there are “microphone effects” and effects of other studio technologies, overlapping with what might be phonograph effects more rigorously conceived. Recording engineers and the electrical engineers designing the gear produce and identify these effects daily. This is particularly true with electronic and digital music, where technologies of recording and synthesis come with their own historical developments, enter into complex relationships and produce different effects. In a related manner, there could be less partitioning, if not a finely honed and articulated liminal zone, with other cultural sites where phonography has effects; phonographic capaciousness invites all sounds as well as more types of music. Finally, I would have liked more continuity between dots and contemporary sound recording. Interestingly, dots relate in their own way to Katz’s seven traits of sound recording—six perhaps since“(in)visibility” is a stretch—and beginning to connect the dots with 0s and 1s and bounce them off tone-arms could help develop further insights into phonography as an epistemological technology. 

Douglas Kahn
University of California, Davis

Works Cited

Lewis, George. “Improvised Music After 1950: Afrological and Eurological Perspectives.” Black Music Research Journal 16 (1996). 91-122.

Manning, Peter. Electronic and Computer Music. Rev. and ex. edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.