Just a reminder, that this is the sort of thing we are constantly broadcasting into space.
Please attempt to continue to enjoy your evening.
Predictions for 2012
5 years ago
The first thing about recording is that it makes repeatable what was otherwise transient and ephemeral. Music, until about 1900, was an event that was perceived in a particular situation, and that disappeared when it was finished. There was no way of actually hearing that piece again, identically, and there was no way of knowing whether your perception was telling you it was different or whether it was different the second time you heard it. The piece disappeared when it was finished, so it was something that only existed in time.
The effect of recording is that it takes music out of the time dimension and puts it in the space dimension. As soon as you do that, you're in a position of being able to listen again and again to a performance, to become familiar with details you most certainly had missed the first time through, and to become very fond of details that weren't intended by the composer or the musicians.
Now, let's talk about another aspect of recording, which I call the detachable aspect. As soon as you record something, you make it available for any situation that has a record player. You take it out of the ambience and locale in which it was made, and it can be transposed into any situation. This morning I was listening to a Thai lady singing; I can hear the sound of the St. Sophia Church in Belgrade or Max's Kansas City in my own apartment, and I can listen with a fair degree of conviction about what these sounds mean. As Marshall McLuhan said, it makes all music all present. So not only is the whole history of our music with us now, in some sense, on record, but the whole global musical culture is also available. That means that a composer is really in the position, if he listens to records a lot, of having a culture unbounded, both temporally and geographically, and therefore it's not at all surprising that composers should have ceased writing in a European classical tradition, and have branched out into all sorts of other experiments. Of course, that's not the only reason that they did, either.
So, to tape recording: till about the late '40s, recording was simply regarded as a device for transmitting a performance to an unknown audience, and the whole accent of recording technique was on making what was called a "more faithful" transmission of that experience. It began very simply, because the only control over the relative levels of sounds that went onto the machine was how far they were from the microphone - like device. The accent was on the performance, and the recording was a more or less perfect transmitter of that, through the cylinder and wax disc recording stages, until tape became the medium by which people were recording things.
The move to tape was very important, because as soon as something's on tape, it becomes a substance which is malleable and mutable and cuttable and reversible in ways that discs aren't. It's hard to do anything very interesting with a disc - all you can do is play it at a different speed, probably; you can't actually cut a groove out and make a little loop of it. The effect of tape was that it really put music in a spatial dimension, making it possible to squeeze the music, or expand it.
You should remember that everything, including the Beatles Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, was done on four-track until 1968. Normally engineers would do something like this: the drums on one track, the voices spread on two tracks with the guitars and the piano, say, on one of those tracks, and then the strings and additional effects on the fourth track. This was because they were thinking in terms of mono output; eventually, it would be mixed down to one signal again, to be played on radio or whatever. When stereo came in big, it gave them a problem. When they converted to stereo, things were put in either the middle, or dramatically to one side, or you'd hear some very idiosyncratic panning.
Anyway, after four-track it moved to eight track - this was in '68, I guess - then very quickly escalated: eight-track till '70, 16-track from'70 to' 74, 24-track to now when you can easily work on 48-track, for instance, and there are such things as 64-track machines. The interesting thing is that after 16-track, I would say, the differences are differences of degree, not differences of kind. Because after you get to 16-track, you have far more tracks than you need to record a conventional rock band. Even if you spread the drums across six tracks, have the basson two, have the vocals, have the guitars, you've still got six tracks left. People started to think, "What shall we do with those six tracks?"
From that impulse two things happened: you got an additive approach to recording, the idea that composition is the process of adding more, which was very common in early '70s rock (this gave rise to the well known and gladly departed orchestral rock tradition, and it also gave rise to heavy metal music - that sound can't be got on simpler equipment); it also gave rise to the particular area that I'm involved in: in-studio composition, where you no longer come to the studio with a conception of the finished piece. Instead, you come with actually rather a bare skeleton of the piece, or perhaps with nothing at all. I often start working with no starting point. Once you become familiar with studio facilities, or even if you're not, actually, you can begin to compose in relation to those facilities. You can begin to think in terms of putting something on, putting something else on, trying this on top of it, and so on, then taking some of the original things off, or taking a mixture of things off, and seeing what you're left with - actually constructing a piece in the studio.
Of course, everyone is constrained in one way or another, and you work within your constraints. It doesn't mean that suddenly the world is open, and we're going to do much better music, because we're not constrained in certain ways. We're going to do different music because we're not constrained in certain ways we operate under a different set of constraints.