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Monday, Oct. 5, 2009

Greg Milner’s Brilliant ‘Perfecting Sound Forever’

An insightful history of recorded music

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Greg Milner’s Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music (Faber & Faber) is a brilliantly researched and mindfully provoking text on the history of capturing sound. A genealogy of recorded music, it stimulates awareness of the evolution of recorded sound and how we have deployed it in our own lives. Perfecting Sound especially excels in the latter category for, without using hard-to-fathom definitions of the physics involved, Milner takes the reader through the physical realities and technical attributes of recordings. We readily understand all of the basics before following his magnificent creative leaps into the attributes of aural culture.

Perhaps the most unique insight of this captivating book is that nearly all modern recordings are complete deceptions. Deception has been involved from the beginning of recorded sound, but the artificiality of what we are hearing has only become more prevalent in recent times. The process was hastened with the advent of magnetic tape, which “taught music how to lie” because it enabled recording engineers to edit and layer music that never really existed. Through the use of tape, musicians and engineers found a way to further the imaginary world of the sound recording. Milner includes tremulous stories about early recording sessions that have become such a reverberant part of modern aural culture’s phantom hearing processes. 

Milner is at one of his many brilliant moments when he reports that John and Alan Lomax, America’s most famous song catchers, took an unknown musician, Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, and presented him within pop culture as somebody he would not otherwise have been. While this story has been told many times, Perfecting Sound Forever reels it off with unusual elegance and amplified indignity. It is this telling, too, that specifies the complexity of how making the ideal recording becomes a replacement for real performance. Milner uses Leadbelly as a prime example of the popular search for authenticity in an inauthentic culture.

What makes Milner’s text so invigorating is that so many themes we thought were closed and decided upon, such as the story of Sun Studio’s “slap-back” recordings, are reopened and expanded upon in ways that settle issues instead of merely repeating them. Perhaps the most important area of inquiry is the move from vinyl to the compact disc and the technology deployed along with the marketing, which ultimately turns in on itself when a new generation embraces the noncommercial experience of file sharing.

This is no simple matter, for it ultimately leaves an entire listening audience in control of major labels’ catalogs, to pillage at will, only to suffer from fatigue and the realization that what is liberated is not necessarily the best sound. Loudness replaces complexity as more and more music is recorded for file-ready transfer (and theft), and so there arises a new search for an aural authenticity that may or may not have ever existed, but certainly carries with it a sense of the intense sound of the past. The meta-theme of Milner’s book is that the perfect sound always is in the past. Sadly, the more one can process a signal, the weaker the music’s emotional presence becomes.

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