Evan Eisenberg On The Sci-Fi Future Of Music Evan Eisenberg's The Recording Angel, which examines the idea of music as a commodity, was published more than 20 years ago. But with recorded music going digital, Eisenberg thought it was time for an update. He discusses how technology has fundamentally changed recorded music.
NPR logo

Evan Eisenberg On The Sci-Fi Future Of Music

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/96403184/96446756" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Evan Eisenberg On The Sci-Fi Future Of Music

Evan Eisenberg On The Sci-Fi Future Of Music

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/96403184/96446756" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Over 20 years ago, Evan Eisenberg looked at how recorded music had changed human society. His book, "The Recording Angel," examined the idea of music as a commodity and the evolution of how people make, buy, and listen to it. But with recorded music going digital, Eisenberg felt it was time for an update. The book was recently republished with a new afterword which projects the future of music in a science fiction fantasy. Evan Eisenberg joins us to discuss "The Recording Angel" from NPR studios in New York. Welcome to the program.

Mr. EVAN EISENBERG (Author, "The Recording Angel"): Thank you. Thank you for having me.

HANSEN: I'd like you to explain something that is in the book. You write, records shattered the public architecture of time. They have replaced it with a kind of interior modular design.

Mr. EISENBERG: Well, in traditional societies, music had its place in the cycle of life, in the - you know, there were work songs and birth songs and marriage songs and so on and so forth. And even, you know, classical music, where music starts to become art with the capital A, it's still a social activity necessarily. If you wanted to hear a Wagner opera, you needed, you know, maybe 100 performers and a couple of thousand listeners to kind of amortize the cost . It had to be a public event.

And once records came along, that was no longer the case, that the public architecture of time was shattered. You could take your records home, and you could decorate your life with them in any way you chose. You know, you could have breakfast to Count Basie's "One O'clock Jump." You could make love to the "Saint Matthew Passion." That's kind of a shocking way of thinking about this very profoundly pious piece of music.

(Soundbite of opera music)

HANSEN: So much has changed since you first wrote the book. We've gone beyond LPs and CDs to mp3s, iPods, online music streaming. So what about this book still rings true to you?

Mr. EISENBERG: Well, as music went digital, it was no longer really an object. I mean the CD was just a container. Information could be held by anything or not held by anything. It could just stream. It could be part of the halo of music around the planet that we could just tap into. And I thought that was where music was going. I thought that we'd all be sort of streaming at will, and there is some of that. But for the most part, people are collecting just as much as they ever did. In fact, maybe more. You know, people have hundreds of hours of music on their iPods and maybe centuries of music on their hard drives. And it just goes on and on.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: I'd like you to read a little bit from the afterword with the words, music has come full circle.

Mr. EISENBERG: (Reading) Music has come full circle. But the geometry is not what I foretold. My compass seems to have been faulty. Music has indeed slipped the surly bonds of vinyl. It has shed its thinghood. It has reentered the lepidopteral realm of the fleeting, the flitting, the ephemeral. But not by entering the noosphere or the Samian kingdom of numbers, both of which are now so crowded with bits, bytes, tones, takes, riffs, mixes, and mash-ups that no one can hear anything.

The tyranny of digits, I now understand, must pass. Its slaves will either be deafened by their own headphones or else will turn in exhaustion to the stuff from which music was anciently hewn, the lungs, tongues, and sinews of men and women acting upon catgut, horsehair, cow hide, bone, wood, reed, and empty air.

HANSEN: So, even after technology fundamentally changes recorded music, live music will live on.

Mr. EISENBERG: Well, I do think that live music will live on. What I want to say about this quote is that it's a bit of what you might call a false cadence in music. The narrator is sitting in what seems to be Carnegie Hall listening to a performance of the Beethoven Cello Sonata. It's actually being performed by live musicians right there on the stage, amazing thing. So then I'm led to this sort of philosophical reflection, and I'm convinced that, yes, music has come full circle, and we're back to the old-fashioned religion here.

And then I noticed that there's a screen on the seat in front of me which I can activate, and there are ear buds in the armrest. And it turns out that there's a series of channels, and I can hear this Beethoven sonata authentic-style with period dress and period instruments, or I can hear it in heavy metal form. Or I can see the score scrolling across with the musicologists giving commentary blow by blow in real time.

And this is something that's already been anticipated at Lincoln Center. They've tested these things where people can kind of get their commentary on the music and various other extras while they are there in the concert hall having this old fashioned concert experience. So it looks like I've come to this happy ending. You know, where we're back to live music in all its glory, and then it turns out, well, hmm.

HANSEN: Hmm. But that's the future. I mean, live music but your own personal experience of it with the help of technology.

Mr. EISENBERG: I suspect that that is the case, which isn't to say that there won't be unmediated live music at all. But technology does tend to get its grubby paws on pretty much everything, and it's kind of hard to turn it back.

HANSEN: Evan Eisenberg is the author of "The Recording Angel: Music, Records, and Culture from Aristotle to Zappa." He joined us from our New York studios. Thank you so much.

Mr. EISENBERG: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Violin making is an ancient craft. This builder is using CAT scans, laser imagery, and acoustic analysis of old instruments to improve new ones.

Mr. SAM ZYGMUNTOVIC (Violinist): What I'm trying to do is basically hot rod my instruments. I'm already able to make them quite good, but I need them to be better than quite good.

HANSEN: Our series on music and technology continues next week, when we visit with the Brooklyn violin maker Sam Zygmuntovich.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.