‘Listening’ to Music

Walter Benjamin By Photo d’identité sans auteur, 1928 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

CBC Radio recently aired ‘Twilight of the Gods,’ a history of the recording industry by Robert Harris. It ran through the usual suspects of why the recording industry has declined in recent years. What caught my attention was a moment when Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducibility’ — or as it is often translated, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ — was referenced in relation to a work of art’s ‘aura.’ The program argued recorded music and its mass production and distribution offers a more authentic experience of music. Through recorded reproduction, listeners form a profound emotional attachment with a particular piece of music or with an individual performer that is not possible in a ‘live’ setting. Far from diminishing the ‘aura’ of the work of art, mechanical reproduction enhances that ‘aura.’

Benjamin’s essay is one of his most cited; and most misread around this idea of ‘aura.’ ‘Aura’ is today  argued to be  identical to the work of art — be it a painting, a sculpture or a piece of music: it is carried forward with each reproduction. The more accurate the reproduction, the more accurately the ‘aura’ is conveyed and the more immediate is the person’s experience of the ‘aura’ of the work of art.

What this misses is Benjamin’s argument that the ‘aura’ of a work of art is something more than the moment of a work of art’s creation. A work of art has always been reproducible. Replicas were often made by apprentices learning their craft or created for patrons seeking copies for their households. Roman commissioned copies Greek statues and vases to adorn their homes and master painters often made copies of their own work to sell. However, reproduction can only go so far: “In even the most perfect reproduction, one think is lacking: the here and now of the work of art — its unique existence in a particular place . . . The whole sphere of authenticity eludes technological — and of course not only technological — reproduction.” Mechanical reproduction takes a piece of art out of its place in history, eradicates tradition and substitutes a mass experience. As consumers, we are all supposed to agree that this particular painting is ‘a great work of art,’ even though most will not be able to say why a work by Monet, Pissarro, Picasso, Balthus, Freud, Newman, Bacon or Rothko is important, both in terms of the historical forces the artist worked within or the work’s technical and stylistic originality. It is enough that it is reproduced endlessly which in today’s consumer market speaks to its importance and ultimate value. Is it surprising that works that are not commonly reproduced and marketed, regardless of their quality or importance, are regulated to a lesser status? Why are El Lissitzky or Klimet Redko not more well known or more valued?

In the realm of serious music, technological reproducibility has made this detachment from tradition and mass effect even more pronounced. Today, a person has many versions of Beethoven, Bach, Schoenberg etc. to decide which to invest in, from recordings using period instruments and playing styles, to ‘historic’ recordings of works from the early part of the 20th century. One can even become a devotee of certain styles of performance or a particular interpreter’s approach to a composer. Cults accrue around Callas,Gould and Karajan, with devotees collecting every recording no matter how questionable the approach or the quality of individual performances.

Whatever reputation certain performers may have in the general public and the ready availability of modern recordings, it does not escape the fact that today most persons lack any practical knowledge of music as art. Few today can play an instrument and most have little or no knowledge of musical theory or solfege. Music is a mass produced item made to be part of one’s aural landscape, but without really having to ‘listen’ to it. Adorno warned of this. When music stopped being a part of one’s being, requiring space and silence in which one can devote close attention to, then a deep disconnect happens between music as art and background noise. Music becomes difficult to distinguish from the clatter of spoons in a cafe or a conversation on a street corner.

Can one today recognize the harmonic or rhythmic differences in Mozart, Berg, Schoenberg, Carter and Messiaen, Birtwistle, Ligeti and Schnittke? Can one place each of these composer’s works in their historic context or how they revolutionized the harmonic and rhythmic templates for those who followed? Without a knowledge of music, to read the written score or to play individual pieces to understand how it is constructed and works, that depth of understanding is impossible to do exclusively through listening to recordings.

Like the plastic arts, the fidelity of reproducibility is mistaken for the ‘aura’ of their originality. The emotional attachment one develops with a particular piece of music is not the same as understanding what makes that piece of music unique and important; more critically, why one piece of music is more important than another. Discrimination of taste and knowledge comes to an end with mass production.

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