What happens to the genre connotations of a piece of music when it is torn from the instrumental medium, the type of performance venue, and the social setting that helped define it originally? Which of its meanings and signifiers are stable, and which lose their associations or pick up fundamentally different subtexts? How is our understanding of the types of music we listen to inflected by living in a world where an ever vaster array of musical styles and types can be consumed one after the other in the private isolation of a pair of cheap iPod headphones in an airport? These questions seem increasingly pressing: in reception theory, communications, philosophy of music, and together in the growing field of sound studies, the ramifications of listening strategies and techniques have come center stage. By considering these questions from the angle of genre, I hope to shed light on some key changes in listening habits that began in the nineteenth century, and that continue to bear on the way we contextualize music today. I will suggest that the explosion of piano transcriptions in the nineteenth century began a largely linear development spanning through the advent of gramophone recordings and player pianos, radio, and finally portable audio devices. Transcriptions changed the way we feel the genre of a piece of music—in fact, they made us feel two genres at a time.
I should specify quickly that I use “genre” in the broadest possible sense to denote the interface that allows communication between composers, pieces and the listening public. Genres are defined by expectations about multiple factors: instrumentation/medium, musical forms, apposite performance venues and times, appropriate expressive gestures, and audience types or listening styles—in a mixture of proportions. Despite the impossibility of capturing in words all the aspects of any genre, the displacement of music from its original instrumentation and typical venue since the nineteenth century, through transcription and then recording, has created some relatively consistent patterns of change, trends that can be examined and tentatively summarized. Thomas Christensen has noted how, through the spread of piano transcription musical genres could become “irrevocably untethered from their traditional geographies of performance.” Amplifying Adorno, Christensen draws a connection between the role of piano transcriptions and of later mechanical reproduction in this process. Today I would like to pursue these ideas further.
I will argue that transcription and mechanical reproduction created and then reinforced a bifurcated type of listening, in which we are aware of the “trace” of an original genre and “generic contract”—with all its connotations of medium but also of fellow audience-members and shared spaces—but simultaneously we are also part of the active shaping of new generic spheres (writ small or large), new contexts in which listening to transcription or reproduction makes its own meaning. I would go so far as to label this listening in imagined layers that can remain separate and at other times interact as “modern listening.”
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Let us step back to begin with the fallout of piano transcription in the nineteenth century. As with any new major technological shift, the spread of the piano—particularly its increasing power, via transcription, as a tool for virtuosi or amateurs to channel music from its original context onto the solo stage or into the parlor respectively—could often be absorbed in stride. At other times, however, the disorientation brought about by transcription was tangibly real. A key aspect of this confusion was the disruption and forced rethinking of the long-established genre boundaries and categories tied to specific places and social settings. For example, in 1843, Ignaz Lewinsky began a consideration in the Allgemeine Wiener Musik-Zeitung called “On Transcriptions and Paraphrases” with an almost rueful look backward to an era when genres and their apposite styles were more simply organized around the church, the chamber, and the stage.
Of course, the movement of melodies from one medium and context to another was itself nothing new in the nineteenth century. There was a centuries long tradition of inter-generic migration of tunes, and such migrations had already had important effects on the musical world and conceptions of genre. (Nor were occasional complaints about this migration new.) Nevertheless, for several reasons nineteenth-century piano transcriptions forced a conceptual rethinking of genre that earlier instances of musical relocation generally did not. Certainly, many piano “paraphrases” still put themselves forth as new pieces or fundamental reworkings, but a newer wrinkle came with the more “faithful” “transcriptions”—which also or instead purported on some level to be the pieces they transcribed, or at least versions of those pieces. Indeed, they staked this claim at precisely the historical moment when romantic conceptions of organic, reified masterworks and of Werktreue were solidifying. The idea that transcription could, alongside performance and score study, be a way to learn and “understand” holistic artworks explains the explosion of some types of piano reductions (including the development of four-hands transcriptions) at this time. Yet these “works” were being approached and learned in a form that was also on some level not “the work” (by virtue of diminishing some generic markers and introducing others). Thus, from E.T.A. Hoffmann and A.B. Marx to a raft of anonymous reviews across Europe, such transcriptions were ubiquitously judged on the extent to which they capture the “original” on which they are based.
Here I want to invoke the terminology of Jonathan Sterne, who in his study of the cultural origins of sound reproduction discusses the development of “audile technique,” that is, new specialist listening strategies for perceiving the level of sonic fidelity to a source. Sterne contends that sound reproduction popularized audile technique after medical work with stethoscopes and professional work with telegraphy had developed it. To his list of cultural forerunners to sound reproduction, I suggest we should add another: the specialized “listening through” that developed for transcriptions. However, I wish to widen Sterne’s idea further by noting that it is not only fidelity to sound itself that was sought in the reception of sound reproduction (or earlier in piano transcriptions), but also fidelity to the original connotations of that sound, that is, to the full implications of the original generic context. At stake particularly were the social and spatial connotations of the transcribed work.
For example, it is striking that by the mid nineteenth century, two of the most famous composition treatises (by Anton Reicha and Carl Czerny), presented orchestral sonata form through piano transcription. In Czerny’s course for example, symphonic sonata form is illustrated by Beethoven’s First Symphony in reduction. It would be easy to conclude too hastily that these pedagogues simply viewed genre as manifest primarily in formal process—a conflation of genre with form that became the basis of avant-garde rhetoric attacking generic conventions from that time onward. But the conflation of genre and form was not and is not a fact, since generic horizons of expectations have always involved so much socio-spatial information as well. Czerny was clearly all too aware of this. He does not in fact introduce “the symphony” with a discussion of form; rather, he begins by noting the many ways in which the ideas and character of orchestral music must be quite different from piano music because of the assembly of instruments and the presumed large, public space in which it unfolds.
There is nevertheless a sharp layer of irony here: to illustrate this very point Czerny’s book features several pages of famous symphonic thematic material—in piano reductions! When bits of piano reduction are specifically called upon to illustrate that which sets the public and symphonic apart from the private and pianistic, we can see the idea of listening through a transcription to a trace original operating quite explicitly not only for individual works, but for the entire genres they represent. In sum, whether or not the questions were posed openly, anyone playing, listening to, or analyzing a nineteenth-century “faithful” transcription had to negotiate how some of the implications of its original genre followed it into its new presentation while others did not, and develop audile techniques to recapture the trace.
But as soon as we move away from textbooks into musical praxis, we see the other side of the coin. Transcription didn’t only evoke the social and spatial aspects of the original genre; it also generated new sound, in a new setting in the here and now, thus creating new genre implications of its own. After lamenting the loss of earlier generic markers such as church-chamber-theater, for example, the critic Lewinsky in the above example had gone on to refer to piano transcriptions and paraphrases as their own “genres” (Gattungen)—crossing various earlier defined boundaries.
Sometimes the emerging generic implications of the new transcription genre(s) were themselves the butt of objections, as we can see in a tirade against Liszt’s “Arrangements and Transcriptions” by another critic, writing in 1876 in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung. At one point, the writer (signed “R”) attacks Liszt’s arrangement of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream music, complaining that Mendelssohn’s “fairy-tale fantasy…is reduced to serving an insipid game of effects: the woods in which the elves get up to their tricks is transformed into a gaslit ballroom, the scent of flowers is wiped away and in its place we have ladies’ perfume.” There are many interesting slippages and assumptions in this short statement, but it is striking that the critic seems to assume that the original version of the music, in its orchestral form (perhaps even performed in a theater as incidental music) could transparently call up its subject matter. The loss that is mourned here is not therefore (directly) the original theatrical/orchestral social situation but rather the apparently “transparent” listening that the critic presumes or believes that setting would allow—making a fantasy world seem real. In Liszt’s version, with its intrusion of the openly pianistic, the critic finds that the transparency is lost. I have argued elsewhere that in the nineteenth century popular ideas of genre became increasingly tied to types of audience, and such associations show through here. For this critic, Liszt’s new piece and in fact its genre writ large failed to evoke elves and forests because it could call up only its own presumed beau-monde performance settings and audiences, “gaslit ballrooms” full of perfumed people.
Such newly established genres were of course often framed in a much more positive light, especially if their performance could be held in a kind of delicate balance and exchange with the sanctified originals and their auras. Consider one description of a concert in Paris in 1835, in which movements of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique played by the full orchestra were interspersed with two movements of Liszt’s piano transcription played by Liszt himself . The critic from the Gazette musicale turned first to the trace, the ability of the piano to rival and mimic the orchestra in a direct comparison. But the success of the concert was really about the performance in the moment, and the new audience interaction being formed: “Impossible to give a proper idea of the frenzied applause of the entire audience, after [Liszt played] the Ball movement. No one before M. Liszt had ever played the piano in such an astonishing way.” Here transcription is once more inscribing its own generic expectations about shared listening experience. By the end of the century Thomas Mann could enthuse over the prospect of Wagner piano evenings. Even though, as a Wagnerian, he must have seen them at least partly as diminished traces of the Gesamtkunstwerk useful in the absence of full performances, he noted them also as a Munich concert season highlight. So did critics.
In sum, then, transcriptions demanded and received a bifurcated approach to listening, with two generic contracts in force simultaneously. One could feel the connotations of the “trace” genre, perceived by listening through to an “original” and imagining its performance space and one’s fellow listeners there. But one could also feel the “real-time” presence of the transcribed work in a new social and spatial setting. Generally, the “trace” and the “present” generic implications, rather than melding into a single layer of understanding, operated independently at the same time, in a precarious dance. That dance might fail if the transcription was presented in the wrong time and place, but it might also succeed, creating a heightened experience.
From the typical listening and audile technique developed around piano transcriptions to the typical listening and audile technique applied to early sound recordings and player pianos there was actually no large leap, despite the obvious novelties of sound reproduction technology, and the introduction of new dimensions. We can see the same bifurcated listening, the same simultaneous presence of two types of generic contract.
The more well-studied and self-evident side of the reception of early recordings was the obsession with the trace original. Here I would simply like to add that, again, listening through to original music went beyond timbres and notes to encompass the social and spatial aspects of genres. In 1903, Louis Laloy enthused that on his gramophone recordings: “M. Renaud sings the aria ‘Voici des Roses’ from The Damnation of Faust, in such a beautiful full voice…that we can believe ourselves to be in the théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt…finally, M. van Rooy makes me recall my impressions of Bayreuth, with the grand and simple melancholy” of his Walküre singing.
Again too, however, the other side of the coin—the sense of hearing with a new audience group—was also present. There was already from the earliest days of recording a community-building aspect of gramophone listening that was created through the playing of records themselves. In 1907, the Revue Musicale noted, arrestingly, the details of gramophone “concerts”: the French Gramophone company “offers in all towns free concerts. It organizes these listenings as would a virtuoso on tour, always renting out the largest hall. The company offers two sessions, a matinee and an evening, hoping that the largest number of enthusiasts will come listen to the splendid program it offers its audiences.” In all senses, listening to recordings and player pianos shaped its own social and spatial musical experience; you were part of an audience for a new genre defined by its being a transcription or recording.
Arguably, the primary difference that emerged in extending the listening strategies of piano transcriptions to sound reproduction was that the audience members for the trace “original” became more spread out. Radio played an especially large role: Michele Hilmes has discussed the idea that radio, even more than print, created what Benedict Anderson famously called an “imagined community,” and while Hilmes focuses on the attendant national aspect, and not necessarily on music, the same processes clearly allowed listeners to envisage themselves as part of a diasporic audience for a particular performance. If a single performance could have a nationwide audience, audience groupings for genres—“people who listen to this type of music and can identify with its original meanings”—could grow even more widely. In fact, such enormous “imagined audiences” lead to the formulation and entrenchment of deliberately disseminated and popularly recognized genre labels, developed as recording and broadcasting industry tools that would be used in measuring and promotion. (This is how the Billboard charts were born.) Genre became a marketing tool.
Still, even with the monetary and cultural force of the music industry behind them, the imagined communities of listeners (for trace genres) remains only one half of our modern bifurcated generic understanding. That is, such stable conceptions are still unsettled and balanced by local and present listening experiences. Phenomena such as the crossover sensation that sparked rock and roll in the 1950s can be seen as the spontaneous, partly unpredictable and uncontrollable drafting of new generic contracts, based on the intersection of trace implications and present-time listening. People came to compare themselves not only (and sometimes not even primarily) to the original audiences for a genre, but also to the audiences for certain types of transcriptions or recordings.
To end with a brief foray into the twenty-first century: since the development of the Walkman, the potential array of listening situations, and hence “present”-oriented generic resonances, has recently been increasing exponentially. As Shuhei Hosokawa noted in his seminal article on the “Walkman effect,” portable audio listening is centrifugal and unfolds through time in an urban landscape. Michael Bull has expanded the examination of this type of listening in his study of the iPod experience. His ethnography shows that subjects sometimes use their iPods to plot a very active interaction between the sounds in their ears and the unfolding world around them, often for example imagining that they are in a movie and creating a soundtrack incorporating the people and spaces around them. This exaggerates a framework in which the listener experiences (and most often chooses) music moment-to-moment at the intersection between the previously existing connotations (its known, reified qualities and its original trace genre—including its original presumed audiences and audience types) and its redefinition through the present. The trace, however, remains. Listeners may also use their iPods to “be somewhere else.”
It was the proliferation of piano transcriptions in the early nineteenth century that appears to have started us down the path to a kind of listening in which “works” (fully conceived) are torn from their original generic contexts and reinscribed in new domains. Although some conservative observers at the time lamented the changes in generic implications and other, avant-garde polemicists used the same changes as an excuse to claim that genre no longer mattered, it continued to matter very much. The resultant bifurcated sense of genre is still with us.