A few years ago, a Boston-based recording studio was entrusted with an especially challenging remastering project. As box after box of reel-to-reel tapes, the classical music archives of RCA’s Living Stereo label, began arriving, the studio engineers had to figure out how to get usable material off the fragile tapes and transfer it to compact discs. The tapes had been stored properly, but the glue that held the magnetic medium on the acetate tapes had become sticky. Unspooling the tapes in order to thread them through a playback machine could destroy them entirely.
Introduced in the 1950s, the Living Stereo label brought stereo recordings in the form of long-playing records (LPs) into the mainstream. With a postwar boom in home record players with stereo sound reproduction capability, music lovers could enjoy affordable LPs featuring some of the world’s greatest orchestras in the comfort of their own living rooms. Living Stereo, along with rival CBS Masterworks, changed more than just how people listened to music. Heard on radio programs and used as music education tools, these recordings set new musical standards for amateurs and professionals all over the world. Conductors like Charles Munch and violinists like Jascha Heifetz became household names whose interpretations have continued to have an indelible impact on music.
In the early 2000s, many record companies began to dig deep into their back catalogs, looking for a way to monetize their holdings. Transferring Living Stereo archives to CDs would give audiophiles greater access to historic recordings and provide a profitable boost to the record companies. But none of that would happen if the reel-to-reel tapes couldn’t be rescued. Finding a machine to play the tapes on wasn’t a problem—the studio in Boston is a veritable museum of audio technology. But even unspooling the sticky tapes carefully by hand could create irrevocable damage. The solution turned out to be a humble beef jerky maker. The appliance’s round shape is exactly the size of a tape reel, and its dehydration settings reach just the right temperature to “cook” a tape without damaging it. The studio went on to transfer scores of Living Stereo tapes, bringing Beethoven, Brahms, Bartok and a host of great orchestras back from acetate oblivion.
My colleague B.D. McClay’s recent piece in this space on the evanescence of our data brought to mind the music industry’s ongoing, valiant efforts to reconcile preservation with digitization. Laudable as it was, preserving the Living Stereo archives on CD was not really an end in itself so much as another skirmish on the ever-evolving frontlines of music preservation. As long as we have access to record players, tape machines, and CD players, we will be able to replicate the experience of hearing Arthur Fiedler conduct the Boston Pops. But as McClay notes “such preservation will only last so long as the ability to read it does.”
What RCA’s great minds would have made of today’s digitized music is anybody’s guess. It is probably safe to say that they would not be surprised that the level of technology in which they once specialized has been surpassed several times over. They might even cheer the opportunity to give greater access to deeper archives to music lovers everywhere. The goads of human imperfection, after all, keep us striving to improve, and there are few areas that require more constant improvement than our demands for more and better entertainment options. But if as McClay points out, technology rarely delivers on its claims, then need we waste so much as a backward glance as we dash ahead to the next digital milestone?
That depends perhaps on how we view technology’s role in the creative imagination. Before playback options, the only way to experience music was to play, sing, or attend a concert. We can only read about what it was like to attend a Lutheran service with Bach at the organ or to hear a Handel opera premiere in London. Of the music of the ancient Greeks, we have almost no clue. Among modern technology’s many claims, its greatest could be the ability to capture the transience of live performance.
But simply because music is played, does it follow that it must be captured and archived? The transient experience of music—a certain piece played at a certain time by particular players—is arguably just as important to its history as whether or not it is recorded for future playback. A microphone and recording gear can replicate the aural conditions and physical circumstances of a performance, but not the myriad experiences of the listeners. Likewise, the emotions (or lack thereof) of any one listening to a symphony on an iPod are uniquely situated in a moment in time, unnoticed and unrecorded.
With advanced delivery methods such as music streaming or digitized content, there’s an elision of the device and the subjective, even temporal, experience of listening or reading. Purists may argue that any time there is a medium through which we experience art, there is diminishment. Digitization, then, is something of a Faustian bargain, promising future enjoyment even while it disrupts the historical context that enlivens art, music, and literature. I don’t have to handle reel-to-reel tapes to enjoy classical music from the 1950s, but I like knowing that when I hear Jascha Heifetz play the Beethoven Violin Concerto, it’s because of a certain beef jerky maker.