Marshall McLuhan on recorded sound

From “Understanding Media” (Routledge Classics, 2001), first published 1964

300: “The phonograph, which owes its origin to the electrical telegraph and the telephone, had not manifested its basically electric form and function until the tape recorder released it from it mechanical trappings.”

300: “Just how obliquely the phonograph was at first received is indicated in the observation of John Philip Sousa, the brass-band director and composer. He commented: ‘With the phonograph vocal exercises will be out of vogue! Then what of the national throat? Will it not weaken? What of the national chest? Will it not shrink?’
One fact Sousa had grasped: The phonograph is an extension and amplification of the voice that may well have diminished individual vocal activity, much as the car had reduced pedestrian activity.”

302: “In [Edison’s] own case, his determination to give the phonograph, like the telephone, a direct practical use in business procedures led to his neglect of the instrument as a means of entertainment. Failure to foresee the phonograph as a means of entertainment was really a failure to grasp the meaning of the electric revolution in general. In our time we are reconsiled to the phonograph as a toy and a solace; but press, radio, and TV have also acquired the same dimension of entertainment. Meantime, enterteinment pushed to an extreme becomes the main form of business and politics.”

303: “Electric media, because of their total ‘field’ character, tend to eliminate the fragmented specialties of form and function that we have long accepted as the heritage of alphabet, printing, and mechanization. The brief and compressed history of the phonograph includes all phases of the written, the printed, and the mechanized word. It was the advent of the electric tape recorder that only a few years ago released the phonograph from its temporary involvment in mechanical culture.”

304-305: “It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of complex mechanical forms such as film and phonograph as the prelude to the automation of human song and dance. As this automation of human voice and gesture had approached perfection, so the human work force approached automation. Now in the electric age the assembly line with its human hands disappears, and electric automation brings about a withdrawal of the work force from indystry. Instead of being automated themselves – fragmented in task and function – as had been the tendency under mechanization, men in the electric age move increasingly to involvement in diverse jobs simultneously, and to the work of learning, and to the programming of computers.
This revolutionary logic inherent in the electric age was made fairly clear in the early electric forms of telegraph and telephone that inspired the ‘talking machine’. These new forms that did so much to recover the vocal, auditory, and mimetic world that jad been repressed by the printed word, also inspired the strange new rhythms of ‘the jazz age’.”

305: “Jazz is, indeed, a form of dialogue among instrumentalists and dancers alike. Thus it seemed to make an abrupt break with the homogenous and repetitive rhythms of the smooth waltz. /…/ The waltz is precise, mechanical, and military, as its history manifests. /…/ To the eighteenth century and to the age of Napoleon, the citizen armies seemed to be an individualistic release from th feudal framework of courtly hierarchies. Hence the association of waltz with noble savage, meaning no more than freedom from status and hierarchic deference. The waltzers were all uniform and equal, having free movement in any part of the hall.”

306: “If jazz is considered as a break with mechanism in the direction of the discontinous, the participant, the spontaneous and improvisational, it can also be seen as a return to a sort of oral poetry in which performance is both creation and composition. It is a truism among jazz performers that recorded jazz is ‘as stale as yesterday’s newspaper’. Jazz is alive, like conversation; and like conversation it depends upon a repertory of available themes. But performance is composition. Such performance insures maximal participation among players and dancers alike.”

306: “The separate virtuousity of voice and instruments became the basis of the great musical developments of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The same kind of fragmentation and specialism in the arts and scieces made possible memmoth results in industry and in military enterprise, and in massive cooperative enterprises such as the newspaper and the symphony orchestra.

306-307: “Certainly the phonograph as a product of industrial, assembly-line organization and distribution showed little of the electric qualities that had inspired its growth in the mind of Edison. /…/
It was radio that finally injected a full electric charge into the world of the phonograph. the radio receiver of 1924 was already superior in sound quality, and soon began to depress the phonograph and record business. Eventually, radio restored the record busines by extending popular taste in the direction of the classics.
The real break came after the Second War with the availability of the tape recorder. This meant the end of the incision recording and its attendant surface noise.”

308: “To be in the presence of performing musicians is to experience their touch and handling of instruments as tactile and kinetic, not just as resonant. So it can be said that hi-fi is not any quest for abstract effects of sound in separation from the other senses. With hi-fi, the phonograph meets the TV tactile challenge.
Stereo sound, a further development, is ‘all-around’ or ‘wrap around’ sound. /…/ The hi-fi changeover was really for music what cubism had been for painting, and what symbolism had been for literature; namely, the acceptance of multiple facets and planes in a single experience.”

309: “But the rape recorder in combination with l.p. revolutionized the repertory of classical music. Just as tape meant the new study of spoken rather than written languages, so it brought in the entire musical culture of many centuries and countries.”

309: “A bried summary of the technological events relating to the phonograph might go this way: /…/
The telephone: speech without walls.
The phonograph: music hall without walls.
The photograph: museum without walls.
The electric light: space without walls.
The movie, radio, and TV: classroom without walls.
Man the food-gatherer reappers incongruously as information-gatherer. In this role, electronic man is no less a nomad than his paleolithic ancestors.


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