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The Recording Angel: Music, Records and Culture from Aristotle to Zappa

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First published in 1987 and now considered a classic, The Recording Angel charts the ways in which the phonograph and its cousins have transformed our culture. In a new Afterword, Evan Eisenberg shows how digital technology, file trading, and other recent developments are accelerating—or reversing—these trends. Influential and provocative, The Recording Angel is required r First published in 1987 and now considered a classic, The Recording Angel charts the ways in which the phonograph and its cousins have transformed our culture. In a new Afterword, Evan Eisenberg shows how digital technology, file trading, and other recent developments are accelerating—or reversing—these trends. Influential and provocative, The Recording Angel is required reading for anyone who cares about the effect recording has had—and will have—on our experience of music.


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First published in 1987 and now considered a classic, The Recording Angel charts the ways in which the phonograph and its cousins have transformed our culture. In a new Afterword, Evan Eisenberg shows how digital technology, file trading, and other recent developments are accelerating—or reversing—these trends. Influential and provocative, The Recording Angel is required r First published in 1987 and now considered a classic, The Recording Angel charts the ways in which the phonograph and its cousins have transformed our culture. In a new Afterword, Evan Eisenberg shows how digital technology, file trading, and other recent developments are accelerating—or reversing—these trends. Influential and provocative, The Recording Angel is required reading for anyone who cares about the effect recording has had—and will have—on our experience of music.

30 review for The Recording Angel: Music, Records and Culture from Aristotle to Zappa

  1. 4 out of 5

    Jeff Crompton

    I reviewed the 1988 paperback edition of this great book here. I only recently became aware of the second edition, which I snatched up for the two brief afterwords, one written after the CD revolution and one written more recently, in an era when few people buy or "own" recorded music anymore. The main text is unchanged (down to the typos), and on this reading seems more brilliant than ever. The afterwords express my own feelings about music in the digital era better than I could; Eisenberg sums I reviewed the 1988 paperback edition of this great book here. I only recently became aware of the second edition, which I snatched up for the two brief afterwords, one written after the CD revolution and one written more recently, in an era when few people buy or "own" recorded music anymore. The main text is unchanged (down to the typos), and on this reading seems more brilliant than ever. The afterwords express my own feelings about music in the digital era better than I could; Eisenberg sums up the gains and losses handily. Since one of the themes of the original book is that, through records, music became a "thing," it is disconcerting to many of us that recorded music is now both ubiquitous and more ephemeral than ever.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Snehal Bhagat

    A history of recording and the effect of recorded music on art, culture and society. It now seems remarkable that until not so long ago, the only way to experience music was to witness it being performed in real time by the musicians. But music has indeed been a social ritual for much of its history, in contrast to the solitary affair of disembodied voices speaking solely to oneself through earphones, that it now is. And it is a curious irony of our age that even as digital music has multiplied A history of recording and the effect of recorded music on art, culture and society. It now seems remarkable that until not so long ago, the only way to experience music was to witness it being performed in real time by the musicians. But music has indeed been a social ritual for much of its history, in contrast to the solitary affair of disembodied voices speaking solely to oneself through earphones, that it now is. And it is a curious irony of our age that even as digital music has multiplied choice, it has contributed to a loss of diversity; that even as it has made accessible works of unparalleled eloquence, it has stifled originality of expression; that even as sound fidelity has increased, listening pleasure has diminished. Along with the apparatus that enables it, the listening experience itself has changed - and not always for the better. There is none of the sense of ceremony or tradition associated with an intangible click as there is to playing a vinyl record on a gramophone, nor is the loss limited to the modalities of the re-playing of the music itself; as online sales of music increase, the survival of album art, that had over time become an integral part of the gramophone record, and which had with some success managed the transition to the compact disc, is threatened, along with the media themselves. Little wonder then that we look to the past to reinterpret the present. I have wanted to read this book ever since Alex Ross reviewed it so positively on his wonderful (and sadly now, dormant) blog a few years ago. Like Ross, I can do no better than provide a few sample quotations and let the book speak for itself: "In the West music kept close to the knees of ritual well into the eighteenth century. Processionals, marches, wedding cantatas, funeral odes, passions, oratorios, sarabandes, serenades, requiems, coronation masses, anthems, battle hymns, chorales, masses in tempore belli : all functioned in specific, more or less ritualized situations. But it was a tendency of both Protestant and Enlightenment thinking to disparage ritual. Social life was to be streamlined, and ritual looked like useless baggage.. The public concert, invented in London in 1672, infiltrated Europe slowly in the eighteenth century and rapidly in the nineteenth. Gradually the concert acquired its own rituals (applause, encores, respectful dress) and taboos (no humming, no talking, no eating). It was like a religious service, and the religion it served was music." "When the phonograph arrived..(music became) an object that could be owned by the individual and used at his own convenience.. Now the Symphony of a Thousand could play to an audience of one. Now a man could hear nocturnes at breakfast, vespers at noon, and the Easter Oratorio on Chanukah. He could do his morning crossword to the "One O'Clock Jump" and make love right through the St. Matthew Passion. Anything was possible; nothing was sacred; freedom was .. absolute. It was the freedom, once the cathedral of culture had been wrecked, to take home the bits you liked and arrange them as you pleased. Once again a mechanical invention had met capitalism's need to recreate all of life in its image. The cathedral of culture had become a supermarket." "We have all become like Prospero, able to conjure up invisible musicians who sing and play at our pleasure. Part of the fun is our sense of power. We can manipulate the poker-faced, flawless Heifetz. We can shut up Streisand. We can boost the basses and cellos of the Berlin Philharmonic, defying Karajan's meticulous balances." "Meaning .. is not won once and for all. A little negligence and it slips away. The musical ritual that punctuates one's life can become merely syntactical, if one lets it. The record that has been on the turntable all summer may become a drug..When exact repetition is automatic, meaning comes easy and goes the same way. Mechanical reproduction makes private ritual convenient, but cheap." It is not always an easy read, which is compounded by quite a few printing errors, and many of the references are quite obscure, but for all that, it is a remarkable book.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Ollie

    See if you can process this statement: the Recording Angel reads like I wished I would sound when I talk about music. In other words, this book is a complete nerd-out on music but at an in-depth academic level. We never find out just what Eisenberg’s background is in music (is he just a fan?), but he sure knows how to put his sentences together. The Recording Angel is chock full of observations like: “Music would not be a thing. We have let it become a thing because we all know that things are m See if you can process this statement: the Recording Angel reads like I wished I would sound when I talk about music. In other words, this book is a complete nerd-out on music but at an in-depth academic level. We never find out just what Eisenberg’s background is in music (is he just a fan?), but he sure knows how to put his sentences together. The Recording Angel is chock full of observations like: “Music would not be a thing. We have let it become a thing because we all know that things are more dependable than musicians, or social life, or the Muses. Clarence puts it well: Records are inanimate until you put the needle in the groove, and then they come to life” and “People inclined to such observances may also observe taboos. If a record has its special place in your life, you don’t cheapen it by playing it at random.” Yeah, that’s it, that’s what I’ve been trying to say all these years. So it’s fascinating as a music lover to read Eisenberg’s take on music, how we captured it on records, its impact (like making a record of Jazz music), and the significance that has had on our music listening and obsessions. And as fascinating as that is, reading Eisenberg he unloads on and on into the sky, he occasionally goes into the stratosphere and we lose our place and our perspective on what he’s trying to tell us. Also, Eisenberg frequently talks too in-depth about genres I just don't know too much about, like classical music. But goddammit, as a music lover, there is too much gold in this book to ignore, and it’s worth getting lost sometimes in our quest for it. A very impressive book. 3.5 stars

  4. 5 out of 5

    Neil Dewhurst

    Perhaps the most thought-provoking account of what it is to perform, record, and listen to music that I have so far encountered. Endlessly quotable, and full of jumping-off points for further discussion.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Dane Despres

    A challenging, alternately whimsical and studied look at the role and meaning of recorded music in our lives. The flourishes can be annoying but are a small price to pay for the deep insight Eisenberg eventually dispenses.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Dwight Penny

    The subtitle, Music, Records and Culture from Aristotle to Zappa, has the whiff of the marketing department about it. How else to sell this admittedly nerdy and personal book to a mass audience? Eisenberg's knowledge and his heart lies in the worlds of classical music and philosophy, and most is spent there. He's somewhat eclectic, but the "whacky" side of the music he talks about is probably more represented by Morton Subotnik than Frank Zappa, who is invoked only because of his interest in Str The subtitle, Music, Records and Culture from Aristotle to Zappa, has the whiff of the marketing department about it. How else to sell this admittedly nerdy and personal book to a mass audience? Eisenberg's knowledge and his heart lies in the worlds of classical music and philosophy, and most is spent there. He's somewhat eclectic, but the "whacky" side of the music he talks about is probably more represented by Morton Subotnik than Frank Zappa, who is invoked only because of his interest in Stravinsky. You get the feeling that while he knows a bit about rock and jazz, and knows people who really love it, they are not really his thing. There are two draws that make this book worthwhile. There are the four vignettes he gives of devoted, obsessional collectors and listeners of recorded music. These are funny, quirky and empathetic sketches, and if you're going to be interested in this book, you are or at least know someone like these people. The other is Eisenberg's language. He just has a way with words. He gets into some dense stuff that the reader may not be familiar with here, whether it's particular composers or conductors or philosophers or works -- but he explains it and makes it interesting. Keep Wikipedia and Spotify nearby, and go along for a fun ride. [Evan Eisenberg's Amazon profile informs us that he's currently working on The Trumpiad, an epic poem in a Popean vein, about our least favorite president, due to come out in 2019. I look forward to it, but I hope that be then it will be something we can look back and laugh about. I've never been a fan of political tragedy.]

  7. 5 out of 5

    Jonathan

    A curious mix of the sublime and the pretentious. In some of the early chapters, about the commodification of music and the motivations of the record collector (uncomfortably close to home for me - I've probably saved myself a fortune in analyst's fees by reading this) Eisenberg offers some of the most insightful music criticism I've ever read. His interview with Clarence is a poignant rumination on obsession and how genorosity/kindness can be exploited as weakness. Thereafter, however, his one- A curious mix of the sublime and the pretentious. In some of the early chapters, about the commodification of music and the motivations of the record collector (uncomfortably close to home for me - I've probably saved myself a fortune in analyst's fees by reading this) Eisenberg offers some of the most insightful music criticism I've ever read. His interview with Clarence is a poignant rumination on obsession and how genorosity/kindness can be exploited as weakness. Thereafter, however, his one-on-one interviews are less successful. His privileged, self-absorbed old Harvard chums 'Tomas' and 'Nina' offer nothing of any real import, despite the high-falutin' language. And all I learned from his rather seedy old family friend Saul is that the most important criterion for a female musician is to be sexually arousing to men. 95% of the time, Eisenberg makes his complex points with clarity, but he is fond of throwing in the odd curveball, just to keep us on our toes - so have a dictionary handy, and look out for 'reified', 'post-Zinzendorfian', 'encomiast', 'anacolutha' and my personal favourite 'maieutically'.

  8. 4 out of 5

    severyn

    A curious sort of philosophy of recorded music. With words in it like 'anacolutha' and 'post-Zinzendorfian'.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Ray Dunsmore

    A fascinating dissertation on the impact of recorded music on the way we consume and relate to music as a whole.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Jeff Crompton

    I first read The Recording Angel 20 years ago, and I reread it every couple of years. The subtitle of my paperback edition is "The Experience of Music From Aristotle to Zappa," but the book is not about music per se, it's about recorded music. With the invention of sound recording, music became a "thing" - it could be bought and experienced whenever desired. (And Eisenberg points out that with the work of funk musician George Clinton, it became a "thang.") Eisenberg discusses, in down-to-earth p I first read The Recording Angel 20 years ago, and I reread it every couple of years. The subtitle of my paperback edition is "The Experience of Music From Aristotle to Zappa," but the book is not about music per se, it's about recorded music. With the invention of sound recording, music became a "thing" - it could be bought and experienced whenever desired. (And Eisenberg points out that with the work of funk musician George Clinton, it became a "thang.") Eisenberg discusses, in down-to-earth prose, those who changed the art of phonography: Enrico Caruso, who made everyone want records, Fred Gaisberg, the first great record producer, Glenn Gould, who gave up the concert stage to become an artist who only recorded, Louis Armstrong, who fit his genius into the three-minute masterpieces by his Hot Five, a band which existed only in the studio. Eisenberg's inclination is toward the classical world, but he also gives due credit to Jelly Roll Morton, Phil Spector, and The Beatles. His chapters on the history and philosophy of phonography are interspersed with chapters profiling friends, relatives, and folks he just came across who are, in one way or another, obsessed with recorded music. I see myself in several of these figures, and sometimes wonder how close I am to becoming Clarence, the record collector in the first chapter who lives in poverty, surrounded by his records.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Josh Luft

    You know how sometimes you pull a book off your shelves thinking you're in the mood to read it and you start doing so but then realize you're not really in the mood and just kind of plow through it somewhat absentmindedly? Well, that's what happened to me with The Recording Angel. I enjoyed the character sketch chapters of the book, but found myself zoning out too often during the philosophical and cultural implications of recorded music. Which I didn't want to do. That's an interesting subject You know how sometimes you pull a book off your shelves thinking you're in the mood to read it and you start doing so but then realize you're not really in the mood and just kind of plow through it somewhat absentmindedly? Well, that's what happened to me with The Recording Angel. I enjoyed the character sketch chapters of the book, but found myself zoning out too often during the philosophical and cultural implications of recorded music. Which I didn't want to do. That's an interesting subject to me. But that's what happened. I'll have to reread it one day. Though, while it's not necessarily fair for me to criticize much without a close reading, I have to admit that the passages I zoned out on didn't really do much to draw me in. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I wonder whether I wasn't in the right mood or that the book just didn't do enough. I guess I'll know for sure on that reread.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Paul Secor

    I read The Recording Angel over twenty years ago and decided to reread it after reading Jeff Crompton's review. This book is a must for any record collector or anyone who has an interest in recorded music. That said, I find some passages redundant. What's there could have been condensed somewhat and other avenues might have been explored. I guess that's saying that The Recording Angel isn't the book I would like it to be. In which case, I should write my own book. Ah well - four stars ain't a ba I read The Recording Angel over twenty years ago and decided to reread it after reading Jeff Crompton's review. This book is a must for any record collector or anyone who has an interest in recorded music. That said, I find some passages redundant. What's there could have been condensed somewhat and other avenues might have been explored. I guess that's saying that The Recording Angel isn't the book I would like it to be. In which case, I should write my own book. Ah well - four stars ain't a bad rating. The depiction of Clarence did scare me - saw too much of myself in him. I'm glad that I lightened my life and lifestyle by selling and by giving away a slew of records, CDs, and books over the past few years.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Djll

    I'm re-reading my (first edition, 1987) copy of this. It's still entertaining and interesting, but almost wholly surpassed by technological developments since the first publishing. Eisenberg is a juicy writer, especially in the anecdotal chapters ("Clarence", "Tomas," "Saul," etc) and his philosophical excursions aren't burdened by jargon. He has the courage to challenge some of Adorno's basic assumptions, and the witty, open mind of a thinker who's not over-attached to his own ideas. I'm wonderi I'm re-reading my (first edition, 1987) copy of this. It's still entertaining and interesting, but almost wholly surpassed by technological developments since the first publishing. Eisenberg is a juicy writer, especially in the anecdotal chapters ("Clarence", "Tomas," "Saul," etc) and his philosophical excursions aren't burdened by jargon. He has the courage to challenge some of Adorno's basic assumptions, and the witty, open mind of a thinker who's not over-attached to his own ideas. I'm wondering if the new edition is updated for the iTunes era?

  14. 4 out of 5

    Zedder

    I think everyone who likes listening to records should read this book.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Taffnerd

    More philosophy than history but still an interesting book about how music changes when it takes physical form. Recommended if you are a compulsive collector.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Glenn Robinson

    Very enjoyable non-fiction book on the art of record collecting.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Chris

  18. 4 out of 5

    Jhl

  19. 5 out of 5

    Paul T

  20. 5 out of 5

    Konstantinos Bithas

  21. 4 out of 5

    Corn O.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Stuart Ashenbrenner

  23. 4 out of 5

    Rachel Perry

  24. 5 out of 5

    lou.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Olivia Quan

  26. 5 out of 5

    Amelia

  27. 4 out of 5

    Robert

  28. 4 out of 5

    James Canham

  29. 5 out of 5

    Bullpost

  30. 5 out of 5

    JW

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