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visitors since May 12, 2002
January 6, 2002
Music and electricity

Pop quiz: from an artistic point of view, what was the major event of the twentieth century? The Beatles' first album? Star Wars? The Simpsons? The internet?

I think the answer is the technology behind all these things: electricity. Just consider what electricity meant to people who were creating novels, short stories, poems, cartoons, painting, sculpture, and basket weaving.

It meant that they could stay up past their normal bedtime. The arrival of electricity brought the end of gas lamps and candles. This was even bigger news for the theatrical world, as there was much less chance that the venue would burn down. That was the major change, though: ballets and plays didn't really change their subject matter, so the world is still waiting for Electricity! The Big Flashy Musical!

Electricity also enabled new art forms, such as film, computer games, screensavers that evolved in front of your eyes and, some would argue, television.

So electricity either gave rise to new art forms, or slightly modified the existing ones. But there was one exception to all this: music. Electricity changed music, and far more than it changed any other art form. Before microphones and amplification came along, music was either the orchestral variety (lots of instruments but no singing), or folk songs (not very many instruments, some singing.) If you wanted to sing, the loudest instrument you could have playing along with you was a piano. Anything louder than that and you wouldn't be heard.

Unless you were an opera singer. Opera was an art form that combined an orchestra with incredibly loud singing. The jury is still out, but I suspect that opera singers were applauded mainly for their volume. It's a rare ability to be heard over a wall of orchestral noise, and it's an ability which has happily became entirely redundant. Even now, after years of therapy, I'm still very cautious around opera singers. Recently, I met one socially, and immediately, instinctively, backed away.

Testing: one, two

But when electricity came along, it didn't take long for someone to put a microphone in front of a singer, and to pump up the volume. For the first time a singer could stand in front of an orchestra, and whisper. This turned out to be almost unimaginably sexy. Someone like Frank Sinatra could gently croon away, and have an almighty skyscraper of sound behind him, and still be heard. As they say in the South Park movie, this was coooool. Frank was coooool. Frank got famous. Very, very famous.

And it wasn't just singers who could reinvent what they were doing: guitarists did the same, and often on more powerful drugs. They discovered the sonic potential of feedback, a technique not available to singers, and then things just got ridiculous. By the time the Sixties had really got going guitarists had all kinds of new tools to play with: effect units and voice boxes and wah-wah pedals. (The wah-wah pedal alone has been called "the most significant invention since the wheel" - but not, sadly, by anyone sane.) All these different effects made the best guitarists the most expressive musicians that we'd ever had, and which might go some distance towards explaining the common London graffiti of "Clapton is God." So it wasn't just Frank Sinatra who got famous: Eric Clapton also got famous. Very, very famous.

And electricity also changed how music found its audience. It gave rise to recording studios, to radio stations, to the whole infrastructure by which music is made and recorded and broadcast around the world. A hundred years ago there were no DVDs, no CDs, no records. Music could be purchased only as sheets of paper.

Families would would gather around the piano and sing the new songs as well as they could. Around the turn of the 19th century music was very much a family based home entertainment, like knitting, playing card games, and yelling at each other. With the advent of electricity, and a couple of other things that I sneakily haven't mentioned, music eventually became what it is today: a vast, rich, famous industry. Very vast. Very rich. Very famous.

It's probably been a change for the better, but we may have missed something along the way. Harry Chapin once sang "remember when the music came in wooden boxes strung with silver wire?" He was evoking a time that had disappeared, a world that had been lost.

It's a time and place that I'm too young to have ever known, but the song still does something for me. And even now, in a world run by electricity, there are occasional power blackouts. And when the lights go out, I dream of a world in which Harry Chapin got a lot more famous than he ever did in this one, and I dream of wooden boxes, of silver wires ...

A later thought

If I keep discussing Frank Sinatra - which I may or may not do - I might change my title to "Sinatra for Unfinished Yelling."

     Posted by Sean Hegarty at 06:14 PM in the Musical category | Comments (0)
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