Just when I was beginning to think that it would be great to find a book about the history of recorded sound, I discover Perfecting Sound Forever by Greg Milner, a book about just that. While I’ve had this for several months (I got it for my birthday), with school and other projects in the way, it took me a while to get to it. Now that I’ve already put behind me my first book of my choosing since graduation (The Road by Cormac McCarty, which was excellent), I decided to move on to other things. This book promises to be an aural history of recorded music, and so far, it is.
While having only just started it, I don’t feel quite right about making a critique just yet. But what is fascinating is that it does start from the very beginning – with the invention of the phonograph – and goes from there. At this point, the book is making two big cases for the future history of recorded sound: 1.) That the modern idea of what recorded sound is begins its genesis in how the device was used and marketed in the early years, and that 2.) From the beginning, there were format wars.
I myself have an almost fetish-like obsession with recorded sound, and have always been transfixed by what it is and what it can do. Some of my earliest memories are of recorded sound, and there is something deeply satisfying about crafting the perfect record collection. But, like anything, music has an ideology behind it that shapes the way we think about music, and we can no more easily imagine recorded sound existing in any other form save the ones that have been given to us by their creators. I find it fascinating to imagine the worlds of recorded sound that could have been. For example: if cylinders had remained king, if the original purists hadn’t lost in the “electricity vs. natural sound” wars, etc. While I treasure the LP with all my heart and soul, the romantic in me wants to travel briefly in worlds where the artifacts left behind took on a very different form.
In that world, I get the opportunity to occasionally sample the sounds that these amazing cylinders offer (disques? transistor chips? sound plaques?), and in my dreams, the sounds they offer are unlike anything I’ve heard before. (That is, until I wake up to the neighbors mowing the lawn.) Perhaps my obsessive aural tendencies stem from this primal moment, so difficult to remember, let alone capture: the moment when an entirely new sound dances across a simple eardrum.
Reading this book makes me feel like I’m very close to that moment. Almost.