“Why was the phonograph valued so highly as a means of musical progress? To answer this question we must recognise two perceptions widely held in early twentieth-century America: that classical music was a powerful cultural and musical force to which Americans sadly lacked exposure, and that technology, perhaps more than any other agent, could foster positive social change” – Mark Katz, “Capturing Sound”
Musical taste is a battleground populated by fanatics on all sides, and perhaps the worst flashpoint of all is the argument that things ain’t what they used to be. These days this point of view is often characterised as ‘rockism’ – perhaps best defined in a 2004 New York Times article by Kelefa Sanneh
A rockist is someone who reduces rock ‘n’ roll to a caricature, then uses that caricature as a weapon. Rockism means idolizing the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star; lionizing punk while barely tolerating disco; loving the live show and hating the music video; extolling the growling performer while hating the lip-syncher. Over the past decades, these tendencies have congealed into an ugly sort of common sense… …Rockism isn’t unrelated to older, more familiar prejudices — that’s part of why it’s so powerful, and so worth arguing about.The pop star, the disco diva, the lip-syncher, the “awesomely bad” hit maker: could it really be a coincidence that rockist complaints often pit straight white men against the rest of the world?
This is not really a new phenomenon, of course – read papers from the 1960s and you will find cultural commentators of many varieties complaining about the ubiquity of rock music, which to their ears is self-evidently inferior to jazz or classical – and this even has not entirely been consigned to history, take this characteristically pompous 2015 BBC lecture from Roger Scruton, where he whinges about popular music being popular.
The belief that there is a difference between good and bad, meaningful and meaningless, profound and vapid, exciting and banal – this belief was once fundamental to musical education. But it offends against political correctness. Today there is only my taste and yours. The suggestion that my taste is better than yours is elitist, an offence against equality. But unless we teach children to judge, to discriminate, to recognise the difference between music of lasting value and mere ephemera, we give up on the task of education. Judgment is the precondition of true enjoyment, and the prelude to understanding art in all its forms.
Scruton is naturally in favour of the more refined varieties of jazz, and presumably ragtime, but nevertheless his general attitude is exactly that of the gatekeepers of music in 1912, chief among them Thomas Edison. Up until this point, Edison had been resolutely on one side in the format wars – his cylinders against the now-open-source disc recordings. Now, however, he had been persuaded to start making discs, but entirely on his own terms.
It really is something to see these objects. Instead of the standard side-to-side movement, Edison insisted on keeping his hill-and-dale etching technique. With grooves of up to a couple of millimeters deep, the records need to be substantially thicker – 6mm compared to the 1mm you would expect from a shellac disc. That’s the thickness of two pound coins if you’re British, or three nickels for Americans. It’s a substantial, serious object, made for only the highest quality sounds – and what sounds were they? In the words of the demonstration disc sampled in this mix
In as much as this instrument is capable of a real interpretation of music, Mr Edison intends to make it the means of offering all of the world’s finest music to the American people. From month to month, he will present purposeful programs of music, including the works of the great composers, a revival of English opera and historic lyrics, a review of the music of the nations, gems of grand opera, the fine old songs so aptly called ‘heart songs’, the best musical numbers from modern light opera successes, and all of the contemporary popular music
Don’t think for a moment that the last of these means that we are going to be getting the most cutting-edge ragtime dance numbers – for “popular music” here we should read “parlor songs” – perhaps from Tin Pan Alley, but not from its more baudy end. The sort of music you would buy on the printed page, and perform at a social event, performed on disc by trained tenors, backed by an orchestra. Not the music I am interested in putting in this mix, on the whole.
To be fair, however, from the angle of classical music, this commitment to quality of performance and fidelity of sound did lead to some excellent recordings being made. It’s because we have these discs that we can hear very early recordings from Ignacy Jan Paderewski, the most renouned pianist of his day, later president of Poland and representative of the country at the 1919 peace conference in Paris. And then there’s Fritz Kreisler, perhaps the greatest violinist in the world, whose distinctive sound was hugely influential around the world, and whose celebrated rediscoveries of works by Pugnani, Tartini and Vivaldi were later revealed to be his own compositions. “The name changes,” he commented, “the value remains.” These recordings may not reflect the musical revolutions happening out of earshot, but it is nevertheless wonderful to have them in such a condition.
As for the “music of the nations” – well, there is plenty of this, naturally, but not much of it on diamond disc. In Eastern Europe foundational klezmer records are being made. Armenian priest, musicologist, composer, arranger, singer, and choirmaster Komitas is recording devotional vocal works which remain vitally important in the Caucasus to this day. And let’s not forget Paraguayan Agustín Barrios, one of the most prolific virtuoso guitar players and composers of all time, who is establishing the importance of an instrument we will be hearing a lot more from.
There was plenty to pick from for this mix, then, but less of the popular music I’ve been foregrounding in the last few years. It’s not really a loss, though – the music here can speak for itself as to its value. The real revolution will have to wait a year, but will be all the sweeter for that.
Harry E. Humphrey – Edison Diamond Disc Advertising Record (1) 0:00
Empire Military Band – Dill Pickles 0:36
Harry E. Humphrey – Edison Diamond Disc Advertising Record (2) 2:05
Ignace Jan Paderewski – Debussy- Images Set 1 – #1 Reflets Dans L’eau 2:45
Komitas Vardapet – Kele Kele 4:35
Woordrow Wilson – Speech 6:41
Fritz Kreisler – Præludium by J.S. Bach 7:00
Theodore Roosevelt – Liberty of the People 8:41
Naftule Brandwein’s Orchestra – Turkische Yalle Vey Uve (Tanz) 9:55
Choir of Shilda – Chakrulo 13:05
Orchestra Orfeon – Sirba 14:01
Belf’s Rumynski Orkestr – Khosidl 16:03
Alexander Moissi – Prometheus 18:40
Victor Military Band – Stomp Dance 18:54
Ramsay – The Five Bachelors 20:51
James I. Lent – the Ragtime Drummer 20:57
Lovey’s Trinidad String Band – Mango Vert 21:50
Chiquinha Gonzaga – Falena 24:44
Agustín Barrios – Matilde (Mazurka) 26:44
Theodore Roosevelt – The Right of the People to Rule 29:35
Ignace Jan Paderewski – Chopin- Êtude in a Flat, Op. 25,1, ‘Aeolian Harp’ 30:17
Paul Lack – Vive la rosie’re 32:16
Harry Fragson – Other Department, Please 32:38
Al Jolson – Brass Band Ephraham Jones 35:56
Cal Stewart & Steve Porter – Village Gossips 37:46
Prince’s Orchestra – Black Diamond Rag 38:24
Elsie Janis – Fo’ De Lawd’s Sake Play a Waltz 41:10
Billy Murray & Ada Jones – Wedding Glide 42:43
Guido Deiro – Deiro Rag 44:16
Joe Weber & Lew Fields – Mosquito Trust (Mike and Meyer) 45:54
Edison Concert Band – Woodland Serenade 46:27
Koos Speenhoff – Diender Van Het Callandmonument 48:33
Lucien Rigaux – Vous avez quequ’chose 50:05
Ignace Jan Paderewski – Liszt- Trois Çtudes De Concert, S 144, ‘trois Caprices Poçtiques’ – #2 in F Minor, ‘la Leggierezza’ 52:16
Parlow-Falkenstein – Menuett G Flat Major & Valse Bluette 52:48
Weber & Fields – Race Horse Scene 54:55
Frank Curtis – If They Bury Alexander’s Band 55:20
Clarice Mayne – Joshua 58:01
Billy Murray & Heidelberg Quintet – I Want to Love You While the Music’s Playing 1:01:53
Fisk Jubilee Singers – Band of Gideon 1:03:46
Nagaraja Rao – Flute Instrumental- Purna Shadjamam (Krithi) 1:05:24
Anon – Yangzi River Boat Rowing Song 1:07:14
Unknown Artist – Tar Solo 1:07:52
Kanape – Entertaining Song 1:10:11
Anon (New Guinea ) – Timbunke Vocalist W Interlocking Flutes 2 1:10:42
Jenab Damavandi – Bidad 1:10:57
Gesang Des Zauberarztes – ??? 1:11:21