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LibrlSt 721: Special Topics in Liberal Studies
Martin J. Rosenblum, Senior Lecturer, Department of Music

Another Side of Sound: Shaping Music through Artifacts, Performance and Aural Culture

This course considers the cultural space opened up by the ability to own and listen to music privately, at home and eventually on the go, especially music that could not exist in the same form in live performance. As the scope of recording and playback tools expanded beyond related developments in musical instruments and, in fact, musical instruments were altered inversely, vernacular music in America and the consumption of it moved from low to high culture.

The word "record" implied that what was recorded was a document of an actual performance. By the 1960s actual performances in real time were often pale shadows of recordings being recreated on stage by recording artists. The relationship between artifact and performance had been reversed. In the 21st century the artifact itself is in danger of vanishing, even as the music continues to bear less connection to live performance.

Before the growth of recording technology, some musicians sensed new artistic possibilities in the nascent medium of sound recording. As far back as 1937, bluesman Robert Johnson made records that could not have been replications of his performances in noisy bars and dance halls. Those recordings seemed to speak in hushed tones to the private concerns of listeners. As society shifted from public or communal spaces into greater zones of privacy and isolation as the 20th century advanced, popular music heard on recordings represented an unprecedented private communion between performer and listener, mediated by sound object and playback equipage. A new aural culture came into being that defied its commercial origins, seeking authenticity as its aesthetic.

Another Side of Sound will pursue the history of sound as artifact and performance, but will define the complexity of aural culture from origins to present. There was a time when recordings seemed to be overheard, mysterious and nearly ambient, but now they are heard over the din of absent objects and we do not know if what we hear is actual or synthetic, or where the origins reside. The narrative shift that occurs in popular music when it assumes a literary stance (1965-1975) and the recorded object reaches its nadir of fine art dominance, socially as well as textually, is the moment when we listen with historically investigative concerns. But ultimately popular music in the American oral tradition returns to the ether where it began, and we are left with nothing to hold onto in the 21st century but what once was, even though it was never what we actually heard.


  • Peter Doyle, Echo & Reverb: Fabricating Space in Popular Music Recording (Wesleyan).
  • Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor, Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music (Norton).

Wednesdays, 6:00-8:40pm
Curtin Hall 939