Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Classic review of Brazilian Film "Orfeu"

New York Times

August 20, 2000

An Orpheus, Rising From Caricature

Zeca Guimaraes/ New Yorker Films (top), Lopert Films (center), The Associated Press (bottom)
Toni Garrido and Patricia Franca in the Brazilian film "Orfeu," which has its American theatrical premiere on Friday, top. Marpressa Dawn and Bruno Mello in Marcel Camus's 1959 film "Black Orpheus," center. Caetano Veloso, bottom.
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RIO DE JANEIRO -- In 1956, Vinicius de Moraes's play "Orfeu da Conceição" opened here, and the enthusiastic audiences that filled every theater in the country in which the play was staged reflected perfectly the significance and implications of the event.

At that moment, de Moraes and Antonio Carlos Jobim were coming together in a first, decisive step toward bringing about the quiet revolution in samba that became known as bossa nova; for the first time in Brazil, a stage play had an all-black cast; and the play itself, by transposing to Rio's slums at Carnival time the Orpheus myth of a musician who loses his great love, was a defining moment in the very Brazilian project of making samba the medium of choice for expressing national identity.

Three years later, "Black Orpheus," the film by the French director Marcel Camus that was based on the play, enthralled non-Brazilians and went on to win the Palme d'Or at Cannes and the Oscar for best foreign film. To say that the film was received without enthusiasm in Brazil is an understatement. The contrast between the fascination that "Black Orpheus" generated abroad and the contempt with which it was treated by Brazilians, who saw themselves depicted as exotics, invites thoughts on the loneliness of Brazil. Now there is a new film, "Orfeu," inspired by the play. That it was produced and directed by Brazilians only breathes new life into the discussion. ("Orfeu" will have its American premiere on Friday in the New York area and will open in other cities in the United States over the next few months.)

Last October, the musician and record producer David Byrne wrote in The New York Times of his disdain for the term "world music." His essay warned of the dangers of those in rich countries feeling entitled to judge the authenticity of art from poor countries. In that sense, "Black Orpheus" is almost a caricature. We Brazilians are frequently accused of being inauthentic because we don't look enough like whatever foreigners saw in that film. The fact that Brazilians thoroughly reject the Camus film has been hard for foreigners to accept. The huge popular success that the new "Orfeu," directed by Carlos Diegues, met in Brazil last year brings the debate to a deeper level.

I don't intend to judge the two films. In my youth I was a film critic for a small provincial paper, and to resume this activity now would be doubly inopportune: it would force me to narrow my focus to these two films when a broader discussion is called for; and furthermore, as I have composed the score for "Orfeu" and my wife, Paula Lavigne, is its producer, I've become an interested party.

Rather, I believe there is much to gain from a comparison of the two films, not as works of art but from the point of view of the different reactions they have produced.

Watching "Orfeu" and "Black Orpheus" again, I was moved by how right de Moraes had been in conceiving his play. Indeed, he unveiled Brazil as an Orphean country, a country that expresses its soul's sweetly tragic aspects through music.

Almost unconsciously, Camus's film, with its unreality and naïveté, manages to connect with this essential truth. Beyond what had initially struck me as remarkable in that film -- the actresses Lourdes de Oliveira and Lea Garcia, not to mention the songs, the outrageously fanciful colors (so different from Rio's real ones) and the general "voodoo for tourists" ambiance -- seemed to me now to give the film the dreamlike quality of popular religious iconography, and that touched me.

Yet since the days of tropicália, that brief, rebellious and self-analytical movement of music and visual arts in Brazil that I was part of in the late 60's, I've learned to greet with a mixture of gratitude and concern the way foreigners see us.

In that respect, "Black Orpheus" wasn't much different from Carmen Miranda's phony fruit headdress. It is from this perspective that one can understand why "Black Orpheus" was rejected in Brazil and why I stress the importance for non-Brazilian audiences to open themselves up to the realism of the new film.

A critic from the French newspaper Libération, commenting on "Orfeu," laments that Arto Lindsay (who was co-producer of the soundtrack) had introduced rap music in some sequences. "Diegues doesn't need that," the critic wrote. "He knows how to get melodious music to flow from one scene to another as if it were pouring from the slum's very alleyways." Well, rap is exactly the music that nowadays pours from the alleyways of Rio's slums. Rap is in the film as a documentary element, purposely put there by the director. Melodious music is exactly what would represent the artificial and fictional.

The slums in Rio have changed dramatically since the Camus film opened in 1959. Life there has improved materially, with brick and mortar replacing zinc and cardboard, and cement covering up the alleys' mud. Outlaws who used to break into houses have switched to the more profitable drug trade, building a power base that is fiercely independent of the law, in part because the criminals possess military-style firearms that are vastly superior to those used by the police.

Rap groups made up of slum dwellers have created a style that reflects this atmosphere, with an emphasis on racial confrontation that has no precedent in our popular culture.

This Movement (which is what Brazilian hip-hop artists call the phenomenon) has become a strong advocate of the idea that Brazil is moving toward biracialism while the United States moves toward multiracialism. One rap group, Racionais MC's, is led by a singer who emphasizes being black, and its lyrics are racially radical. It has sold nearly a million copies of its most recent record, supporting sales mainly through live appearances in the slums while refusing to go on the large television networks.

Clearly "Orfeu" was conceived with these very real elements as its background. Is it not possible, then, to see the French critic's complaint about rap in the slums as the same kind of paternalistic distortion described by Mr. Byrne? But the Libération article was only a brief review written by a film critic who doesn't know much about Brazil.

There is, however, something not entirely different in a long article by the historian Kenneth Maxwell, published last year with great fanfare in the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo. This respected Brazilianist, author of several books about our colonial history, says that he became interested in Brazil after seeing "Black Orpheus" in the early 60's while a student at Cambridge Univeristy.

After seeing "Orfeu" in São Paulo recently, he proclaimed his astonishment at a scene in which a "middle-class white man" is executed by a group of "predominantly black" drug traffickers; then he adds his disappointment in seeing Orfeu sporting his hair in dreadlocks; and finally he is skeptical about the woolen cap worn by the film's drug lord, something, he says, is "more appropriate to the Chicago cold than to Rio's warm weather."

Well, the guy the drug traffickers execute is a slum dweller just like them, a point made abundantly clear in the scene's dialogue; dreadlocks are almost as common in Brazil as they are in Jamaica, and they have been worn for a long time by Toni Garrido, the singer-actor who portrays Orfeu in the film; and finally everybody who lives in Rio knows that it is rare to find a slum drug lord who doesn't wear a woolen cap.

To what should we credit this willful show of ignorance of daily life in Brazil by a scholar dedicated to a country he frequently visits? Mr. Maxwell himself offers an answer when he says that, being a fan of "Black Orpheus," he had to accept that Brazilians might brush aside Camus's film as "exotica for tourists." As time went by, however, he came to the conclusion that this reaction against the film by "Brazil's middle class" was similar to that of Bahia's police in the 30's, arresting tourists who were caught photographing "nonwhite children" in Salvador's streets and confiscating their film.

In both cases, he argued, one could see the horror that Brazilians experienced in being perceived as blacks by foreigners.

While mistaken, Mr. Maxwell's reading of Brazil's reaction to the film as an effort to conceal our blackness isn't a fantasy hatched in a vacuum. Consider the press release, written by Brazilians, that accompanied the opening of the film in Rio. "In a country like Brazil," it says, "with a population of 65 million people, of which 20 million are black, the idea of making this film was deemed strange by many of its 45 million whites."

Mr. Maxwell, however, seems to ignore that, first, the play, staged by an all-black cast, wasn't met with such aversion. Quite the opposite. Second, de Moraes, who had insisted on the all-black cast, hated the film so much that he left the theater halfway through the screening, shouting that his Orpheus had been "disfigured." It would be illogical to attribute his reaction to negrophobia. And, third, the play's enormous success created a positive expectation for the film, one of optimism and excitement. The fact that "Black Orpheus" had been crowned in glory in Europe filled Brazilians with pride and hope. And, of course, everybody knew that the film had an all-black cast. How can we attribute the disappointment to racial prejudice?

An anecdote about Mr. Diegues, however, sheds light on the issue. In the mid-70's he made a film about the legendary Chica da Silva, a black slave who in the 18th century became a powerful lady in central Brazil's diamond industry.

While negotiating the film's release with a major Brazilian distributor, Mr. Diegues heard him say that, although he had loved the film, he planned to show it only in a very small theater because "Brazilian audiences don't like films with blacks." But Mr. Diegues convinced him to give the film wider distribution.

"Xica da Silva" became one of the biggest commercial successes in the history of Brazilian cinema.

The distributor's reservations about the tastes of Brazilian audiences echoed the concerns about "Black Orpheus" expressed in the press release.

Both reflect a prejudice that neither seems willing to admit but instead attributes to the audience. It's not absurd to imagine that the distributor had vivid memories of the resounding failure of "Black Orpheus" in Brazil and interpreted that failure along the lines of Mr. Maxwell's point of view.

The box office proved the distributor wrong. But that success did not prove that there is no racism in Brazil, then or now, contrary to the popularly held belief that it is a racial democracy. Instead, the contradiction between such success and the distributor's expectations exposes the anxieties of foreigners and Brazilians alike when it comes to dealing with the problem of race in Brazil. This anxiety is, in fact, a theme crucial to any sort of self-knowledge throughout the Americas.

I frequently see surprise -- and sometimes a strange pleasure -- in the eyes of people who find evidence of racism among Brazilians. But I'm always astonished that these flashes can provoke such naïve surprise.

Is it possible that anybody would really believe that there was someplace in the New World where the sins of the brutal enslavement of Africans would have miraculously vanished?

Everywhere in the Americas, however, our basic humanity has found ways to assert itself, precariously but insistently, over the racist theories that supported these brutal practices.

And none of us have the right to throw away what has been achieved in the process. The Brazilian experience must be enriched by the criticism of the racial democracy myth, not invalidated by it.

At the dawn of the 20th century, Europeans were afraid to invest in Brazil for fear of "the tropics' insalubrity." In his book "Black Into White," Thomas Skidmore, an American who has written extensively on Brazilian history, tells of a Brazilian author who wrote a book in 1891 in French to be published in Europe as a propaganda effort. In it, the author complains bitterly that until then his French friends "knew only that there were apes and Negros in Brazil -- and half a dozen whites of dubious color." The Brazilian dream of "whitening" European immigration would then be an effort to create an acceptable nation.

When the noted Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre published his book, "The Masters and the Slaves," in the 30's, the judgment of people of mixed color went from negative to positive, helping create a euphoric self-image for Brazilians.

The term racial democracy became an appropriate label for this euphoria. It also became the obsessive target for acerbic criticism from social scientists and political militants.

In his 1994 book "Orpheus and Power: The Movimento Negro of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, Brazil, 1945-1988," an interpretation of the relatively unsuccessful Brazilian black consciousness movement, the black American political scientist Michael Hanchard, not surprisingly, condemns the idea of racial democracy.

He wants us to believe that our supposed multiracialism has hindered the effort by Brazilian blacks to solve their problems. Many black militants here agree with him. These militants seem to advocate the old American "one drop of blood" principle as a way to unravel the black issue in Brazil.

But the "whitening" process can, quite frankly, be thought of as an inevitable dream of all the Americas.

Witness Ella Fitzgerald's blond wigs, Tina Turner's and Whitney Houston's bleached hair and the sphinxlike Michael Jackson.

Freyre's book, on the other hand, rejected the colonial presumptions of whitening while praising miscegenation. To say, as Mr. Hanchard and others do, that such praise is but a veiled form of whitening is to give way to a simplification that leads to racial intolerance.

Critics like Mr. Maxwell used race to explain the negative reaction to "Black Orpheus." To me, however, that reaction was more a result of a national anguish over cinema than over race. In the 50's, the multiracial middle class to which I belong was much more ashamed of our cinema than of our blacks: to hear Brazilians in the movie utter dialogue that was unconvincing and irrelevant to the narrative was a torment.

There were other inconsistencies: voices with Southern accents dubbed for those of Rio rogues, samba school divisions dancing four times faster than the music being played (which, by the way, is comprised of careless montages of assorted drumming patterns that jump crudely from one time signature to another), the procession of a parade to the sound of a samba entirely different from real "sambas-enredo," or theme sambas.

In the end we realized that all of this was an artificial device with the sole intention of astonishing those who knew nothing about the city and its people.

Cinema, which could have been a potent symbol of modernity for Brazilians, became instead a source of bitter frustration.

In his article Mr. Maxwell, the historian, accuses us of both fearing to seem archaic and adoring progress. "They have not learned the lesson," he says, without explaining what that lesson is. Maybe what he's saying is that all progress is the perogative of 19th-century Britain and 20th-century United tates.

When "Black Orpheus" was released, the French director Jean-Luc Godard complained that Orpheus was a tramway conductor instead of a fare collector on one of the new mini-buses in Rio; he also protested that Euridice didn't arrive in Rio by plane "in the beautiful Santos Dumont airport, between the ocean and the skyscrapers." I have always thought of that review by Godard as something Brazilians could subscribe to.

It was a reaction against Camus's ways of choosing backward elements to make his film look "poetic." The review also represented Godard's imagining of a movie he might make about Orpheus in Rio, one in which the city's real urban life would provide genuine poetry.

Mr. Diegues's "Orfeu" is a real, realist, very un-Godardian film (although Euridice does arrive in Rio by plane) and maybe, as Mr. Maxwell says, it will not attract the youth of the First World to Brazil.

One might argue that would be all to the good. I don't think so. I'd rather have this discussion between Brazilians and foreigners concerning race, backwardness and national identity go on.

The American scholar Robert Stam, author of the book "Tropical Multiculturalism: A Comparitive History of Race in Brazilian Cinema and Culture," wrote in a recent article: "It would be a serious mistake to see Carlos Diegues's 'Orfeu' as a remake of Marcel Camus's 'Black Orpheus.' The slums, for Diegues, are a place of creativity and injustice." For filmmakers and audiences alike, it is hard to equate injustice and creativity. Brazil, as a place where both co-exist, tries to prove that the effort is worthwhile.

Caetano Veloso is a Brazilian singer and songwriter. This article was translated from the Portuguese by Ana Maria Bahiana.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Soldiers Rap in Iraq

Soldier Rap, The Pulse of War
The sound may be raw, but the lyrics tell a story from Iraq that you don't often hear—from the soldiers on the streets.
By Scott Johnson and Eve Conant

June 13 issue - It took only a few ambushes, roadside bombs and corpses for Neal Saunders to know what he had to do: turn the streets of Baghdad into rap music. So the First Cavalry sergeant, then newly arrived for a year of duty in Sadr City, began hoarding his monthly paychecks and seeking out a U.S. supplier willing to ship a keyboard, digital mixer, cable, microphones and headphones to an overseas military address. He hammered together a plywood shack, tacked up some cheap mattress pads for soundproofing and invited other Task Force 112 members to join him in his jerry-built studio. They call themselves "4th25"—pronounced fourth quarter, like the final do-or-die minutes of a game—and their album is "Live From Iraq." The sound may be raw, even by rap standards, but it expresses things that soldiers usually keep bottled up. "You can't call home and tell your mom your door got blown off by an IED," says Saunders. "No one talks about what we're going through. Sure, there are generals on the TV, but they're not speaking for us. We're venting for everybody."

Rap is becoming the pulse of the Iraq war, as the sounds of Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison were for Vietnam. The essential difference is that new electronic gear is giving today's troops the ability to create a soundtrack of their own rather than having a mass-produced version flown in from home. Stateside rap sounds tame to the guys serving in Iraq anyway. This week an open-mike competition in Baghdad is expected to draw many of the front-line military's top performers. The GI rappers, many producing or aiming to produce their own CDs, are giving listeners back home an uncensored glimpse of life in Iraq, straight from the troops—troops like Johnny (Snap) Batista and Richard (Ten Gram) Bachellor, who patrol Baghdad with a unit of the Marine Antiterrorism Battalion. In their off-duty hours they place a boombox on the pavement in the Green Zone and improvise rhymes about how it feels to be shot at or to lose a friend to an improvised explosive device (IED). One of their most popular numbers starts in a hushed tone, almost a whisper: "There's a place in this world you've never seen before / A place called streets and a place called war / Most of you wanksters ain't never seen the fleet / You talk about war and you've only seen the street."

For American audiences, the best-known voices are probably the freestyle rappers in the documentary "Gunner Palace." The film, which opened in March and is coming out on DVD this month, follows the daily lives of an Army artillery unit billeted at a mansion formerly belonging to Saddam Hussein's elder son, Uday. "There's going to be a whole culture that emerges from this war," says director Michael Tucker, who lived with his subjects for two months. Spc. Javorn Drummond, 22, one of the palace freestylers, has been rapping since he was a kid, but he says Iraq was a whole different thing. "In Iraq you can lose your life in half a second," he says. "But rapping keeps you focused. If you're sittin' on a gun and you're tired, waiting for a sniper to come at you, you just start thinking up a rap and your fear goes away. It's motivation, you get an adrenaline rush from it." He and his fellow rappers Richmond (Hotline) Shaw and Nicholas (Solo) Moncrief have rotated back to Fayetteville, N.C., where they're working on a compilation CD.

Rap gave six members of the First Armored Division a way to hold themselves together. They call their group Corner Pocket. Based at Baghdad's airport last year, they were pounded by daily mortar and rocket attacks. Finally they put the whole mess into rhyme and set out to tape it as a music video on location at the airport. "Every time we'd go out to record our music, there'd be an attack and we'd have to stop," says Spc. Joseph Holmes, who laid down the music tracks for "Stay in Step." It's about the cost of survival: "Soldiers are dying every day, that's why we ain't smiling. I'm the one you see on TV / Army infantry, one arm holding my sleeve from a previous injury / Bloody desert combat fatigues, dusty and ammoless M-16 with a shredded sling /... Hit in the head and shoulder but still taking deep breaths / 'Cause I'm in Kevlar and sappy plates in my flak vest."

The big labels and distributors don't seem to get it yet. "Live From Iraq" is available on the Web (, but you won't find it in most record stores. A gunnery sergeant in Baghdad has offered to help Snap and Ten Gram produce a CD, and they're hoping to burn four tracks soon. Corner Pocket is working on 23 songs, in the hope of finding a label that will pick them up. Hotline says he's excited by how well his privately produced CD is moving—"We had no idea this would catch on so fast"—but he's the one who's selling it: cranking up the volume at parties, hawking copies on the streets of Fayetteville, persuading local radio stations to give it air time.

Last month Snap learned that an explosion had killed a good friend in Iraq. "It just makes me want to be here more, knowing that people want to hurt us," he says. He and Ten Gram rap on: "I'm a pit bull at night, I'm out to gitcha / Devil Dog mentality bitin' whoever's witcha / I taste blood, I'm tired of marchin' in the mud / I throw down my 9 and now I'm pumpin' slugs." Refusing to give in is what the music is all about.
© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.

© 2005

Friday, June 03, 2005

How technology has transformed the sound of music


How technology has transformed the sound of music.
Issue of 2005-06-06
Posted 2005-05-30

Ninety-nine years ago, John Philip Sousa predicted that recordings would lead to the demise of music. The phonograph, he warned, would erode the finer instincts of the ear, end amateur playing and singing, and put professional musicians out of work. “The time is coming when no one will be ready to submit himself to the ennobling discipline of learning music,” he wrote. “Everyone will have their ready made or ready pirated music in their cupboards.” Something is irretrievably lost when we are no longer in the presence of bodies making music, Sousa said. “The nightingale’s song is delightful because the nightingale herself gives it forth.”

Before you dismiss Sousa as a nutty old codger, you might ponder how much has changed in the past hundred years. Music has achieved onrushing omnipresence in our world: millions of hours of its history are available on disk; rivers of digital melody flow on the Internet; MP3 players with ten thousand songs can be tucked in a back pocket or a purse. Yet, for most of us, music is no longer something we do ourselves, or even watch other people doing in front of us. It has become a radically virtual medium, an art without a face. In the future, Sousa’s ghost might say, reproduction will replace production entirely. Zombified listeners will shuffle through the archives of the past, and new music will consist of rearrangements of the old.

Ever since Edison introduced the wax cylinder, in 1877, people have been trying to figure out what recording has done for and to the art of music. Inevitably, the conversation has veered toward rhetorical extremes. Sousa was a pioneering spokesman for the party of doom, which was later filled out by various post-Marxist theorists. In the opposite corner are the technological utopians, who will tell you that recording has not imprisoned music but liberated it, bringing the art of the élite to the masses and the art of the margins to the center. Before Edison came along, the utopians say, Beethoven’s symphonies could be heard only in select concert halls. Now CDs carry the man from Bonn to the corners of the earth, summoning forth the million souls he hoped to embrace in his “Ode to Joy.” Conversely, recordings gave the likes of Louis Armstrong, Chuck Berry, and James Brown the chance to occupy a global platform that Sousa’s idyllic old America, racist to the core, would have denied them. The fact that their records played a crucial role in the advancement of African-American civil rights puts in proper perspective the aesthetic debate about whether or not technology has been “good” for music.

I discovered much of my favorite music through LPs and CDs, and I am not about to join the party of Luddite lament. Modern urban environments are often so chaotic, soulless, or ugly that I’m grateful for the humanizing touch of electronics. But I want to be aware of technology’s effects, positive and negative. For music to remain vital, recordings have to exist in balance with live performance, and, these days, live performance is by far the smaller part of the equation. Perhaps we tell ourselves that we listen to CDs in order to get to know the music better, or to supplement what we get from concerts and shows. But, honestly, a lot of us don’t go to hear live music that often. Work leaves us depleted. Tickets are too expensive. Concert halls are stultifying. Rock clubs are full of kids who make us feel ancient. It’s just so much easier to curl up in the comfy chair with a Beethoven quartet or Billie Holiday. But would Beethoven or Billie ever have existed if people had always listened to music the way we listen now?

"The machine is neither a god nor a devil,” the German music critic Hans Stuckenschmidt wrote in 1926, in an essay on the mechanization of music. That eminently reasonable sentiment appears as an epigraph to Mark Katz’s “Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music” (California; $19.95). It’s one of a number of recent books on the history of recording; two others are Colin Symes’s “Setting the Record Straight: A Material History of Classical Recording” (Wesleyan; $39.95), which analyzes how the discourse around LPs and CDs shapes what we hear, and Robert Philip’s “Performing Music in the Age of Recording” (Yale; $35), which advances a potent thesis about how the phonograph transformed classical culture. Katz’s book is the most approachable of these tomes. In lucid, evenhanded prose, it ranges all over the map, from classical to hip-hop. Although Katz believes that machines have profoundly affected how music is played and heard, he discourages a monolithic, deterministic idea of their impact. Ultimately, he says, the technology reflects whatever musical culture is exploiting it. The machine is a mirror of our needs and fears.

The principal irony of phonograph history is that the machine was not invented with music in mind. Edison conceived of his cylinder as a tool for business communication: it would replace the costly, imperfect practice of stenography, and would have the added virtue of preserving in perpetuity the voices of the deceased. In an 1878 essay, Edison (or his ghostwriter) proclaimed portentously that his invention would “annihilate time and space, and bottle up for posterity the mere utterance of man.” Annihilation is, of course, an ambiguous figure of speech. Recording broke down barriers between cultures, but it also placed more archaic musical forms in danger of extinction. In the early years of the century, Béla Bartók, Zoltán Kodály, and Percy Grainger used phonographs to preserve the voices of elderly folksingers whose timeless ways were being stamped out by the advance of modern life. And what was helping to stamp them out? The phonograph, with its international hit tunes and standardized popular dances.

In the eighteen-nineties, alert entrepreneurs installed phonographs in penny arcades, allowing customers to listen to favorite songs over ear tubes. By 1900, the phonograph was being marketed as a purely musical device. Its first great star was an operatic tenor, Enrico Caruso, whose voice remains one of the most transfixing phenomena in the history of the medium. The ping in his tone, that golden bark, penetrated the haze of the early technology and made the man himself viscerally present. Not so lucky was Johannes Brahms, who, in 1889, attempted to play his First Hungarian Dance for Edison’s cylinder. It sounds as if the Master were coming to us from a spacecraft disintegrating near Pluto. There was something symbolic in Edison’s inability to register so titanic a presence as Brahms: despite Caruso’s fame, and despite later fads for Toscanini, Bernstein, and Glenn Gould, classical music had a hard time getting a foothold in this slippery terrain. From the start, the phonograph favored brassy singing, knife-edged winds and brass, the thump of percussion—whatever could best puncture surface noise. Louis Armstrong’s trumpet blasted through the crackle and pop of early records like no other instrument or voice of the time—he was Caruso’s heir. Pianos, by contrast, were muddled and muffled; violins were all but inaudible. Classical music, with its softer-edged sounds, entered the recording era at a disadvantage. The age of the cowbell had begun.

Whenever a new gadget comes along, salesmen inevitably point out that an older gadget has been rendered obsolete. The automobile pushed aside the railroad; the computer replaced the typewriter. Sousa feared that the phonograph would supplant live music-making. His fears were excessive but not irrational. Early ads for the phonograph took aim at the piano, which, around the turn of the century, was the center of domestic musical life, from the salon to the tavern. The top-selling Victrola of 1906 was encased in “piano-finished” mahogany, if anyone was missing the point. An ad reproduced in Colin Symes’s book shows a family clustered about a phonograph, no piano in sight. Countless ad campaigns since have claimed that recordings are just as good as live performances, possibly better—combining, supposedly, the warmth of live music with the comfort of home. They have provided, to use some well-worn phrases, “the best seat in the house,” “living presence,” “perfect sound forever.” They inspired the famous question “Is it live or is it Memorex?” (If it’s Memorex, is it dead?) Edison was so determined to demonstrate the verisimilitude of his machines that he held a nationwide series of Tone Tests, during which halls were plunged into darkness and audiences were supposedly unable to tell the difference between Anna Case singing live and one of her records.

It’s easy to laugh now at the spectacle of the Tone Tests. Either Edison was engaging in serious hanky-panky or audiences were so eager to embrace the new technology that they hypnotized themselves into ignoring the wheeze of cylinder static. But a hipper form of the same mumbo-jumbo is heard in high-end audio showrooms, where ten-thousand-dollar systems purport to re-create an orchestra in your living room. Even if such a machine existed, the question once posed by the comedians Flanders and Swann lingers: Why would we want an orchestra in our living room? Isn’t the idea of sitting in a room listening to a tape of five hundred people performing the Mahler Eighth Symphony totally bizarre—the diametrical opposite of the great communal ceremonies that Mahler yearned to enact? So says the party of doom. The party of hope responds: Audiences generally ignored or misunderstood Mahler until repeated listening on LPs made his music comprehensible.

Like Heisenberg’s mythical observer, the phonograph was never a mere recorder of events: it changed how people sang and played. Katz, in a major contribution to the lingo, calls these changes “phonograph effects.” (The phrase comes from the digital studio, where it is used to describe the crackling, scratching noises that are sometimes added to pop-music tracks to lend them an appealingly antique air.) Katz devotes one striking chapter to a fundamental change in violin technique that took place in the early twentieth century. It involved vibrato—that trembling action of the hand on the fingerboard, whereby the player is able to give notes a warbling sweetness. Until about 1920, vibrato was applied quite sparingly. On a 1903 recording, the great violinist Joseph Joachim uses it only to accentuate certain highly expressive notes. (The track is included on a CD that comes with Katz’s book.) Around the same time, Fritz Kreisler began applying vibrato almost constantly. By the nineteen-twenties, most leading violinists had adopted Kreisler’s method. Was it because they were imitating him? Katz proposes that the change came about for a more pedestrian reason. When a wobble was added to violin tone, the phonograph was able to pick it up more easily: it’s a “wider” sound in acoustical terms, a blob of several superimposed frequencies. Also, the fuzzy focus of vibrato enabled players to cover up slight inaccuracies of intonation, and, from the start, the phonograph made players self-conscious about intonation in ways they had never been before. What worked in the studio then spread to the concert stage. Katz can’t prove that the phonograph was responsible for the change, but he makes a good case.

Composers, who had reigned like gods over the dearly departed nineteenth century, were uncertain and quizzical in the face of the new device. Symes amusingly tracks the ambivalence of Igor Stravinsky, who styled himself the most impeccably up-to-date of composers. In 1916, the conductor Ernest Ansermet brought Stravinsky a stack of American pop records, Jelly Roll Morton rags apparently among them, and the composer swooned. “The musical ideal,” he called them, “music spontaneous and ‘useless,’ music that wishes to express nothing.” (Just what Jelly Roll was after!) Stravinsky began writing with the limitations of the phonograph in mind: short movements, small groups of instruments, lots of winds and brass, few strings. On his first American tour, in 1925, he signed a contract at Brunswick Studios, where Duke Ellington later set down “East St. Louis Toodle-O.” Then, in the next decade, he abruptly adopted the John Philip Sousa line: “Oversaturated with sounds, blasé even before combinations of the utmost variety, listeners fall into a kind of torpor which deprives them of all power of discrimination.” By the nineteen-forties, Stravinsky was living in America, and, seeking new avenues of exposure, he embraced recording once again. He went so far as to endorse the Stromberg-Carlson Custom 400 loudspeaker, comparing it to a “fine microscope.” You could try to find some consistent theory behind these statements, but the short version is that Stravinsky was confused.

The youngest composers of the twenties—those who had come of age during and after the First World War—had no hesitation about submitting to the phonograph. Perhaps Katz’s most fascinating chapter is devoted to the short-lived Grammophonmusik phenomenon in German music of the twenties and early thirties. Paul Hindemith, Kurt Weill, Ernst Toch, and Stefan Wolpe seized upon the phonograph not merely as a means for preserving and distributing music but as a way of making it. Wolpe was the first to take the plunge; at a Dada concert in 1920, he put eight phonographs on a stage and had them play parts of Beethoven’s Fifth at different speeds. Weill wrote an interlude for solo record-player—playing “Tango Angèle,” his first “hit”—in the au-courant 1927 opera “The Tsar Has Himself Photographed.” Hindemith and Toch experimented with performances involving phonographs; fragmentary evidence of their legendary 1930 Gramophone Concert can be found on Katz’s CD, and it’s some of the craziest damn stuff you’ll ever hear. We are only a step or two away from the electronic avant-garde of John Cage, whose “Imaginary Landscape No. 1,” for piano, cymbals, and variable-speed turntables, dates from 1939. It turns out that the teen-age Cage attended the Gramophone Concert during a summer break from school.

With the arrival of magnetic tape, the relationship between performer and medium became ever more complex. German engineers perfected the magnetic tape recorder, or Magnetophon, during the Second World War. Late one night, an audio expert turned serviceman named Jack Mullin was monitoring German radio when he noticed that an overnight orchestral broadcast was astonishingly clear: it sounded “live,” yet not even at Hitler’s whim could the orchestra have been playing Bruckner in the middle of the night. After the war was over, Mullin tracked down a Magnetophon and brought it to America. He demonstrated it to Bing Crosby, who used it to tape his broadcasts in advance. Crosby was a pioneer of perhaps the most famous of all technological effects, the croon. Magnetic tape meant that Bing could practically whisper into the microphone and still be heard across America; a marked drop-off in surface noise meant that vocal murmurs could register as vividly as Louis Armstrong’s pealing trumpet.

Magnetic tape also meant that performers could invent their own reality in the studio. Errors could be corrected by splicing together bits of different takes. In the sixties, the Beatles and the Beach Boys, following in the wake of electronic compositions by Cage and Stockhausen, began constructing intricate studio soundscapes that they never could have replicated onstage; even Glenn Gould would have had trouble executing the mechanically accelerated keyboard solo in “In My Life.” The great rock debate about authenticity began. Were the Beatles pushing the art forward by reinventing it in the studio? Or were they losing touch with the earthy intelligence of folk, blues, and rock traditions? Bob Dylan stood at a craggy opposite extreme, turning out records in a few days’ time and avoiding any vocal overdubs until “Blood on the Tracks,” the fourteenth record of his career. Yet frills-free, “lo-fi” recording has no special claim on musical truth; indeed, it easily becomes another phonograph effect, the effect of no effect. Even Dylan cannot escape the fictions of the medium, as he well knows: “I’m gazing out the window / Of the St. James Hotel / And I know no one can sing the blues / Like Blind Willie McTell.”

In the nineteen-eighties, as Dutch and Japanese engineers introduced digital recording in the CD format, the saga of the phonograph experienced a final twist. Katz, in the last chapters of his book, delights in following the winding path from Germany in the nineteen-twenties to the South Bronx in the nineteen-seventies, where the turntable became an instrument once again. D.j.s like Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash used turntables to create a hurtling collage of phonograph effects—loops, breaks, beats, scratches. The silently observing machine was shoved into the middle of the party. It was assumed at first that this recording-driven music could never be recorded itself: the art of the d.j. was all about fast moves over long duration, stamina and virtuosity combined. As Jeff Chang notes in his new book “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation” (St. Martin’s; $27.95), serious young d.j.s like Chuck D, on Long Island, laughed when a resourceful record company put out a rap novelty single called “Rapper’s Delight.” How could a single record do justice to those endless parties in the Bronx where, in a multimedia rage of beats, tunes, raps, dances, and spray-painted images, kids managed to forget for a while that their neighborhood had become a smoldering ruin? The record labels found a way, of course, and a monster industry was born. Nowadays, hip-hop fans are apt to claim that live shows are dead experiences, messy reënactments of pristine studio creations.

Recording has the unsettling power to transform any kind of music, no matter how unruly or how sublime, into a collectible object, which becomes décor for the lonely modern soul. It thrives on the buzz of the new, but it also breeds nostalgia, a state of melancholy remembrance and, with that, indifference to the present; you can start to feel nostalgic for the opening riff of a new favorite song even before you reach the end. Thomas Mann described the phonograph’s ambiguous enchantments in the “Fullness of Harmony” chapter of “The Magic Mountain,” published in 1924. When a deluxe gramophone arrives at the Berghof sanitarium, it sends mixed messages to the young man who operates it. At times it sings “a new word of love” (shades of Robert Johnson’s “Phonograph Blues”), at times it exudes “sympathy for death.” At the end of the novel, the hero goes marching toward an inferno of trench warfare, obliviously chanting the Schubert tune that the gramophone taught him. These days, he’d be rapping.

Throughout the twentieth century, classical musicians and listeners together indulged the fantasy that they were living outside the technological realm. They cultivated an atmosphere of timelessness, of detachment from the ordinary world. Perhaps it’s no accident that concert dress stopped evolving right about the time that Edison’s cylinder came in: performers wished to prolong forever those last golden hours of the aristocratic age. Recording was well liked for its revenue-generating potential, but musicians preferred to think of it as a means of transcribing in the most literal manner the centuries-old classical performance tradition. With scattered exceptions—Weimar-era experimenters, postwar electronic composers, mavericks like Glenn Gould and the producer John Culshaw—musicians avoided the hey-let’s-try-this spirit that defined pop recording from the start. As Symes points out, classical releases were prized for their unadorned realism. Recordings were supposed to deny the fact that they were recordings. That process involved, paradoxically, considerable artifice. Overdubbing, patching, knob-twiddling, and even digital effects such as “pitch correction” are as common in the classical studio as in pop. The phenomenon of the dummy star, who has a hard time replicating onstage what he or she purports to do on record, is not unheard of.

Robert Philip, in “Performing Music in the Age of Recording,” points out that the vaunted transparency of classical recording is often a micromanaged illusion, and then goes further; he suggests that technology fundamentally altered the tradition that it was intended to preserve. Violin vibrato, as discussed in Mark Katz’s book, is but one example of a phonograph effect in classical performance. Philip shows how every instrument in the orchestra acquired a standard profile. Listening to records became a kind of mirror stage through which musicians confronted their “true” selves. “Musicians who first heard their own recordings in the early years of the twentieth century were often taken aback by what they heard, suddenly being made aware of inaccuracies and mannerisms they had not suspected,” Philip writes. As they adjusted their playing, they entered into a complex process that Katz calls a “feedback loop.” Feedback is what happens when an electric-guitar player gets too close to an amp and the amp starts squealing. Feedback in classical performance is the sound of musicians desperately trying to embody the superior self they glimpsed in the mirror and, potentially, turning themselves into robots in the process.

Philip begins his book with a riveting description of concerts at the turn of the last century. “Freedom from disaster was the standard for a good concert,” he writes. Rehearsals were brief, mishaps routine. Precision was not a universal value. Pianists rolled chords instead of playing them at one stroke. String players slid expressively from one note to the next—portamento, the style was called—in imitation of the slide of the voice. And the instruments themselves sounded different, depending on the nationality of the player. French bassoons had a reedy, pungent tone, quite unlike the rounded timbre of German bassoons. French flutists, by contrast, used more vibrato than their German and English counterparts, creating a warmer, mellower aura. American orchestral culture, which brought together immigrant musicians from all countries, began to erode the differences, and recordings canonized the emergent standard practice. Whatever style sounded cleanest on the medium—in these cases, German bassoons and French flutes—became the gold standard that players in conservatories copied. Young virtuosos today may have recognizable idiosyncrasies, but their playing seldom indicates that they came from any particular place or emerged from any particular tradition.

Archival reissues give tantalizing glimpses of the world as it was. Philip notes that in a 1912 performance the great Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe “sways either side of the beat, while the piano maintains an even rhythm.” In disks by the Bohemian Quartet, he says, “each player is functioning as an individual,” reacting with seeming spontaneity to the personalities of the others. Edward Elgar’s recordings of his Second Symphony and Cello Concerto, from 1927 and 1928, respectively, are practically explosive in impact, destroying all stereotypes of the composer as a staid Victorian gentleman. No modern orchestra would dare to play as the Londoners played for Elgar: phrases precipitously step over one another, tempos constantly change underfoot, rough attacks punch the clean surface. The biographical evidence suggests that this borderline-chaotic style of performance was exactly what Elgar wanted. “All sorts of things which other conductors carefully foster, he seems to leave to take their chance,” a critic observed. Modern recordings of Elgar are so different in sound and spirit that they seem to document a different kind of music altogether. The symphonies have turned into monumental processional rituals, along the lines of the symphonies of Bruckner, or at least the version of Bruckner that conductors now give us.

All those lost tics and traits—swaying on either side of the beat, sliding between notes, breaking chords into arpeggios, members of a quartet going every which way—are alike in bringing out the distinct voices of the players, not to mention the mere fact that they are fallible humans. Philip writes, “If you hear the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra sliding, you may or may not like it, but you cannot be unaware of the physical process of playing.” Most modern performance tends to erase all evidence of the work that goes into playing: virtuosity is defined as effortlessness. One often-quoted ideal is to “disappear behind the music.” But when precision is divorced from emotion it can become anti-musical, inhuman, repulsive.

Is there any escape from the “feedback loop”? Philip, having blamed recordings for a multitude of sins, ends by saying that they might be able to come to the rescue. By studying artifacts from the dawn of the century, musicians might recapture what has gone missing from the perfectionist style. They can rebel against the letter of the score in pursuit of its spirit. But there are enormous psychic barriers in the way of such a shift: performers will have to be unafraid of indulging mannerisms that will sound sloppy to some ears, of committing what will sound like mistakes. They will have to defy the hyper-competitive conservatory culture in which they came of age, and also the hyper-professionalized culture of the ensembles in which they find work.

In at least one area, though, performance style has undergone a sea change. Early music has long had the reputation of being the most pedantically “correct” subculture in classical music; Philip exposes its contradictions in one chapter of his book. But the more dynamic Renaissance and Baroque specialists—Jordi Savall, Andrew Manze, the Venice Baroque Orchestra, Il Giardino Armonico, William Christie’s Les Arts Florissants—are exercising all the freedoms that Philip misses in modern performance: they execute some notes cleanly and others roughly, they weave around the beat instead of staying right on top of it, they slide from note to note when they are so moved. As a result, the music feels liberated, and audiences tend to respond in kind, with yelps of joy.

Philip, at the end of his masterly thesis, is left with an uncertainty. No matter how much evidence he accumulates, he can’t quite prove that classical playing became standardized because the phonograph demanded it. Records cannot be entirely to blame, he admits: otherwise, similar patterns would surface in popular music, which, whatever its problems, has never lacked for spontaneity. The urge toward precision was already well under way in the late nineteenth century, when Hans von Bülow’s Meiningen orchestra was celebrated as the best-rehearsed of its time, and when the big new orchestras of America, the Boston Symphony first and foremost, astonished European visitors like Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler with the discipline of their playing. Other technologies that preceded the phonograph also changed how people played and listened. Those who got to know music on a well-tuned piano began to expect the same from an orchestra. The sonic wonders of Boston’s Symphony Hall—the first hall whose acoustics were scientifically designed—placed a golden frame around the music, and the orchestra had to measure up. Most of all, classical music in America suffered from being a reproduction itself, an immaculate copy of European tradition. We’ve been listening to the same record for a century and a half.

Twenty years ago, the American composer Benjamin Boretz wrote, “In music, as in everything, the disappearing moment of experience is the firmest reality.” The paradox of recording is that it can preserve forever those disappearing moments of sound but never the spark of humanity that generates them. This is a paradox common to technological existence: everything gets a little easier and a little less real. Then again, the reigning unreality of the electronic sphere can set us up for a new kind of ecstasy, once we unplug ourselves from our gadgets and expose ourselves to the risk of live performance. Recently at Carnegie Hall, Gidon Kremer and the Baltimore Symphony played Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto, and, over and above the physical power of Kremer’s playing—his tone ran the gamut from the gnawingly raw to the angelically pure—the performance offered the shock of the real: on an average, bustling New York night, Shostakovich bore down on the audience like a phantom train.

In 1964, Glenn Gould made a famous decision to renounce live performance. In an essay published two years later, “The Prospects of Recording,” he predicted that the concert would eventually die out, to be replaced by a purely electronic music culture. He may still be proved right. For now, live performance clings to life, and, in tandem, the classical-music tradition that could hardly exist without it. As the years go by, Gould’s line of argument, which served to explain his decision to abandon the concert stage, seems ever more misguided and dangerous. Gould praised recordings for their vast archival possibilities, for their ability to supply on demand a bassoon sonata by Hindemith or a motet by Buxtehude. He gloried in the extraordinary interpretive control that studio conditions allowed him. He took it for granted that the taste for Buxtehude motets or for surprising new approaches to Bach could survive the death of the concert—that somehow new electronic avenues could be found to spread the word about old and unusual music. Gould’s thesis is annulled by cold statistics: classical-record sales have plunged, while concert attendance is anxiously holding steady. Ironically, Gould himself remains, posthumously, one of the last blockbuster classical recording artists: Sony Classical’s recent rerelease of his two interpretations of Bach’s Goldberg Variations sold two hundred thousand copies. That’s surely not what Gould had in mind for the future of the medium.

A few months after Gould published his essay, the Beatles, in a presumably unrelated development, played their last live show, in San Francisco. They spent the rest of their short career working in the recording studio. They proved, as did Gould, that the studio breeds startlingly original ideas; they also proved, as did Gould, that it breeds a certain kind of madness. I’ll take “Rubber Soul” over “Sgt. Pepper’s,” and Gould’s 1955 Goldbergs over his 1981 version, because the first recording in each pair is the more robust, the more generous, the more casually sublime. The fact that the Beatles broke up three years after they disappeared into the studio, and the fact that Gould died in strange psychic shape at the age of fifty, may tell us all we need to know about the seductions and sorrows of the art of recording.