Monday, April 25, 2011

Rachmaninoff on recording, radio

A fascinating article by Sergei Rachmaninoff, published in 1931 in Gramophone magazine, in which the composer-pianist heartily endorses recordings but dismisses radio performances as “pale ghosts of music”:

The article was written in the toddlerhood, if not infancy, of both radio and recording. Electrical recording supplanted the old acoustical process in the mid-1920s; a few years earlier, regular radio broadcasts had begun in the U.S. and Britain. (The first commercial radio station in this country, KDKA in Pittsburgh, signed on in 1920; the BBC was founded in 1922.)

If we’re to trust Rachmaninoff’s ears – as keen as any at the time, surely – the audio quality of radio lagged far behind that of recordings in the 1930s. Contemporaneous evidence is hard to find: We can hear many transcriptions of broadcasts from the period, but those document what went out from radio studios, not what came in to people’s homes on their radios. Very few musical performances recorded at the receiving end of radio signals survive from the 1930s. A sonically adequate home recording of broadcast music wasn’t really possible until tape recorders hit the market in the 1950s.

In my own listening experience, from the 1950s onward, I would say that radio did not begin to catch up with recordings until FM stereo became widespread in the 1970s. Parity in audio quality was not achieved until the arrival of digital radio early in this century.

The crux of Rachmaninoff’s argument was that recordings are lasting documents of performances that can be perfected through corrective retakes. (By this reasoning, recordings differ from live performances as writing differs from speech.) Broadcasts are as transient as other live performances, but denatured because listeners are physically separated from performers.

The article, unfortunately, does not address filmed performances of music, which began to appear in the late 1920s. Would Rachmaninoff have lauded the documentary values of music video, or considered it unnatural?