Those poor musicians

Post date: Aug 12, 2013 8:55:12 PM

About a year ago, when I was still in São Paulo, I overheard an archivist at the Legislative Assembly (ALESP) patiently explain to a lost law student the importance of studying history. "We must understand where we come from," she preached. "We must learn from our mistakes. History repeats itself." While many historians might shift uneasily in their seats at the latter claim, the archivist wasn't entirely incorrect. An account I read that same day particularly hit home the repetitive nature of the human experience, specifically, the plight of professional musicians.

The victim of my last entry, the professional musician is today my object of sympathy (and not just today; try having a couple in your family and the sympathy will last year-round). Ever since Orpheus's descendants began to sell their art, the world has never seemed entirely capable of accommodating their business. Often, the blame is placed on technology.

At the end of the 1920s, motion picture studios began to install a new-fangled piece of equipment: the microphone. Suddenly, movie audiences across the globe were not only watching the same high-speed images but also hearing the same sounds. Recorded sound drastically altered the moviegoing experience, but lots of people thought it was a short-term craze. Sort of like the current 3D obsession (which, let's be frank, really doesn't deserve to be more than a craze). Then, as viewers of The Artist or Singin' in the Rain well know, actors had to adapt or fall behind. But actors weren't the only ones. Recorded sound also meant recorded music. Just a single orchestra in a single sound-proof studio. No more live pianists and bands in every respectable movie theater, which also meant no more musical acts in between short films or during intermission. Suddenly, musicians in cities far from movie lots had significantly fewer stages on which to perform.

Little wonder, then, that in São Paulo, whose arts spaces had blossomed in the early twentieth century, musicians were up in arms. In 1929, a group of approximately 700 affiliated with the Carlos Gomes Musical Center appealed to the Municipal Chamber for help. Their most vocal supporter, Ulysses Coutinho, delivered an impassioned speech that pitched the film industry as a profit-hungry, exploitative Goliath trampling upon not only local musicians, but also local consumers (Annaes da Camara Municipal de São Paulo, Gianotti & Losasso, 1929, 422-423). Coutinho, however, was no David and nothing was done to save those poor musicians.

Sixty years later, the threat to live music was in some respect even greater. Digital sound had arrived, and not only could it more easily record and distribute music, it could even create it. Think of what makes '80s rock or pop so recognizable: the synthesizer. Love them or hate them (I lean toward the latter), digital instruments were here to stay, which meant that an entire string section in many cases could be and has been replaced by a single keyboardist. Even in big-budget films. Just compare the soundtrack of Disney's Mulan (1998) to Lion King (1994). Talk about downsizing.

Studio musicians haven't been the only victims. Not only do more and more musicals have bare-boned pit ensembles (way too small to call them "pit orchestras" anymore), but now some shows relegate their accompanists to cramped studios not even inside the theater. Yep, thanks to faster telecommunication technology, the musicians are sitting elsewhere, sometimes several miles away, with headphones and a TV monitor that streams the actors onstage. And there's no noticeable sound delay. There's also no noticeable chemistry with the audience.

Of course, live music has survived. Despite the talkie, the synthesizer, and the internet, there's still something about the energy of an artist at work and an audience at play that recorded and digitally listened to sound will never (never?) be able to convey. So go out there and make some music!