The Art of Record Production

The title of this journal and organization asserts the notion that record production is a mode of creative expression. And indeed, turning musical utterance into electrical current requires, by the project’s very nature, an intervening aesthetic sensibility which may, in turn, impinge on the final result. Recording does not simply capture sound, it transforms it and in the transformation lies an array of decisions informed by artistic intuition as well as experienced technique. Yet rather than works of artifice in themselves, recordings were long perceived, despite any contrary evidence, as mere representations of performances, personalities, and musical compositions rendered more or less skillfully. The reasons for the reluctance to view the recording process as an intrinsically creative one are written into aesthetic traditions the cut across musical idioms. They involve the premium placed on real-time performance and a belief that true musical expression arises in inspired musical moments that are unique and unrepeatable. As the composer Roger Sessions has written, recorded music, because of its mechanical reproduction, “ceases to be alive”; moreover, “in the most real sense . . . it ceases to be music.” And in jazz, the fixed-text status of recorded improvisation presents a persistent conceptual conundrum, even as it forms the foundation of what has come to be known as the “jazz tradition.” Not surprisingly, the idiom with the least investment in a pre-electric past—pop music—has been the most willing to embrace technology and the  most progressive in developing its expressive potential. With electronic technology as a creative ally, pop music has evolved from crooners to djs, all the while exploring the artistic implications of electronically mediated musical expression.

By now, there is a widespread consensus that pop records are constructed artworks, which has begun to suggest a growing slate of questions about compositional techniques and criteria. Scholars have their own traditions and it is reasonable to seek help in answering such questions from older compositional practices with long histories of thought and articulated principles. But since such traditions developed in a pre-electric era where the enabling technology was limited to musical notation, we must also imagine new approaches to criticism and analysis that move beyond the customary concerns of musicologists and music theorists. While there is some conceptual commonality between written music and  record production—most broadly, the desire and ability to create a fixed musical structure—the latter comprises a much broader array of issues. We are wise to learn from the masters of the Western canon and from scholars whose work, over the years, has illuminated the music and highlighted its intellectual dimensions. But much of what concerns a record production team has never been a matter of more than trivial concern in the sphere of score-based musical works.

Among the problems inherent in establishing an academic discipline aimed at illuminating record production, then, is the need for a fundamental aesthetic reorientation as well as new modes of analytic description. We must resist reducing musical meaning to matters of musical syntax, which stipulates a de facto hierarchy of aesthetic value. It is still common to reduce records to lead sheets and insist on claims that a great song is the essential element of a hit record. But this assertion, nearly universal among record producers, is conveniently impossible to prove and has the added advantage of being self-fulfilling, for songs rise to a higher level in the form of well-produced records. Moreover, many hit songs only come into existence through the recording process. Our best critical bet is to set aside, at least in these early days of the discipline, all hierarchical assumptions and engage the record’s surface in its totality, aiming for what Susan Sontag counseled decades ago for film criticism: “a really accurate, sharp, loving description of the appearance of a work of art.” As sound, rather than writing, has become the focus of musical identity, much more of the musical surface has been reified in an interwoven complex of musical syntax, performative utterance, and sonic gesture. Learning to explore he interaction among these elements is a necessary beginning for understanding the compositional concerns of recording teams.

Reporting one’s perceptions and observations, however, is liable to be of limited interest unless the project is framed in a broader dialogue informed by historical events and a sense of record making as a musical language with its own conventions and rhetorical practices. For anyone involved in pop scholarship, however, the infancy of the field is ever apparent. Time and again one is brought up short by the utter lack of basic foundational data and a historical record that barely addresses some of the most fundamental issues. As Cosimo Matassa has said of his record making days in 1950s New Orleans, “It was a great way to make a living. [But] there was no sense of history. Nobody ever felt like we were producing great art.” The result of such ephemeral cultural practice is a poverty of sources for later historians. In contrast to other historical topics, pop music suffers from a relative lack of documents—letters, essays, diaries, annotated scores—produced by its leading figures that might better inform studies of compositional practice. Records themselves are documents and historical witnesses, but unpacking them requires much speculative interpretation, which is best triangulated with historical sources. The inclusion in this journal of interviews with significant figures in record production represents an ongoing history project, for the oral accounts of practitioners, though problematic, are among our most useful resources. If, for example, we are to engage the entire musical surface, it is helpful to know what kinds of concerns were paramount for those who made it. What criteria were deemed worth spending time and money on? And what kinds of techniques and equipment were useful in accomplishing a given task or producing an expressive effect? From such testimony we begin to assemble a framework for historical and critical work.

Gradual changes are underway thanks in part to reissue companies like Rhino and Bear Family which list recording dates, locales, and personnel that were never indicated on the original releases. The fact that the availability of such information would hardly be worth noting in other fields is an indication of how primitive is the state of our knowledge. A number of books published in recent years offer a sign of the interest that recording practice and history now attracts. Such books as Temples of Sound (Cogan, Clark), The Label (Marmorstein), Sinatra Sessions (Granata), Studio Stories (Simons), and Behind the Glass (Massey) represent, hopefully, a growing genre in publishing. But while each of these books is valuable in providing glimpses behind the scenes, they remain entertainingly anecdotal—trade books for the casual reader. In this necessarily positivist phase of our sub-discipline, every scrap is useful. But as we move forward, we can hope for more dissertations (such as Susan Schmidt Horning’s “Chasing Sound: The Culture and Technology of Recording Studios in America, 1877-1977”), essays, and monographs that deepen our understanding of the profound influence of sound recording on the world’s music. It is toward this goal that the Art of Record Production project is aimed, providing a forum for scholars, practitioners, and industry figures to come together in exploring some of the key musical issues of our time. On behalf of the field as a whole, I offer warm thanks to those who are working hard to put this initiative into motion.