Authenticity, part II: Living Music Inspired by Ghosts

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When you hear a musical recording that’s scratchy and distant, you might naturally assume it’s old: a relic from the early days of sound recording. But what would modern music sound like were it subject to the same limitations that musicians faced in those days? That’s the question posed by The 78 Project, which gives musicians the chance to record using 1930s technology.

I first heard about The 78 Project several years ago, and was intrigued. The project’s directors, filmmaker Alex Steyermark and music journalist/concert producer Lavinia Jones Wright, record contemporary musicians singing traditional ballads, using eighty-year-old direct-to-acetate recording technology.

The article quoted above suggests that the project is good for musicians, as it “gives [them] the chance to record using 1930s technology.”

And the project’s directors assert:

What we have found is that the film, music and feelings that result defy space and time, [creating] living music inspired by ghosts.

What do you think they mean by “living music”?

Do you think that singing into an old mic in a sub-optimal recording space, with the result a single acetate 78 record, is an endeavor that would be positive for an artist?

How do you think working on either side of the mic in this project would affect you as a musician? As a sound engineer?

The project directors see themselves as the heirs of John Lomax and his son Alan, who drove through the United States beginning in the 1920s, recording the music of rural people on farms, in churches, work camps, and prisons. The Lomaxes’ aim was  to preserve the songs in a rapidly-industrializing and -urbanizing nation, to store them up for future generations and prevent their irrevocable loss.

This is not the 78 Project’s aim; that ship sailed long ago. Most of the “old songs” have been recorded, transcribed, and catalogued at the Library of Congress. I see The 78 Project as an effort motivated by the present era’s anxiety over the loss of culture and memory. We have already mostly lost the notion of music as a tangible thing, preserved on a heavy shellac record that you can hold in your hand, for which you had to dig actual paper money or coins out of your pocket and hand to someone in order to purchase. This music had to be played on a Victrola big enough to double as a piece of furniture, and as such required dedicated, concentrated listening. You will recall that, in White Tears, the 78 records themselves take on almost talismanic properties, and the collectors gather in Chester Bly’s apartment to listen to them as if at a religious ritual.

The anxiety that I believe underlies the 78 Project is the result of having nothing substantial to hold onto. Music streamed, music in the cloud, has no touchable, physical, graspable form; you can’t hold it or possess it the way earlier generations could a 78, an LP, or a CD. It has been cleaned up, stripped down, sterilized, digitized, worked on, messed with, dirtied up, sampled, chopped and screwed, augmented. It is no longer performed by living musicians from a certain place at a certain time. It may not even be performed at all, but rather created by producers out of the bits and pieces of performed music from the past.

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It would be hard to argue that the musicians recorded by the Lomaxes long ago would not have preferred today’s technology over what they had to work with. The Lomaxes sought to preserve the old music in its purest possible form before it disappeared for good. But what makes music “pure”? Is it accurate recording technology? Is it a pristine soundproof studio? Or is it the atmospheric presence of crickets chirping in the background, screen doors swinging, and the incidental voices of children as the musician plays on his or her front porch? Can the music be separated from its origins, from its place, and still retain its meaning?

So, while The 78 Project bills itself as a “documentary and recording journey inspired by Alan Lomax and his quest to capture music where it lived throughout the early 20th century,” it seems to me that they’re coming at it backwards. Rather than going to the mountains, hollers, farms, and prisons to record the music in its “home places,” the project directors engage emerging and already-established artists to sing the “old songs” in a spot of their choosing, into a single direct-to-acetate recorder. This is a project of imitation, not one of authenticity.

The conditions of the Lomax recordings can’t be duplicated, because the old songs no longer live in their home places. The music of the mountains, farms, and prisons today is mass-produced, commercial, homogeneous, globally distributed, and essentially the same everywhere. The Lomaxes got there right on time. Their moment has passed, and no amount of Roseanne Cash singing a Tennessee ballad in her Upper West Side apartment can bring it back.

I understand the nostalgia for the past. In a certain sense, all recording is a project of nostalgia. The word “record” comes from the Latin recordare, which means “to remember.”

As Hari Kunzru notes in White Tears:

When you listen to an old record, there can be no illusion that you are present at a performance. You are listening through a gray drizzle of static, a sound like rain. You can never forget how far away you are. You always hear it, the sound of distance in time. But what is the connection between the listener and the musician? Does it matter that one of you is alive and one is dead? And which is which?

It may be that the attempt to dirty up a sound recording in these days of digital perfection is not only the quest for lost authenticity, but also a way to listen to ghosts. As Brian Seibert suggested in his review of White Tears, “A drowned or buried voice can sound more compelling [than a live, present one].” 

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