This New Yorker article reminded me of some thoughts that have been buzzing around my head as I’ve been reading Everything Bad Is Good for You. One—and I may have posted on this before sometime—is that recorded music must have an incredible effect on our expectations of performed music. A hundred years ago, any competently performed version of Wagner’s Ring Cycle would’ve almost certainly been a sublime experience. But now any fan is likely to have heard the magnificent Solti recording (the consensus gold standard at present), and perhaps be conscious of how (for instance) even a very solid Brunnhilde might not quite stand up to Birgit Nilsson.
The other thing I’ve found myself musing on, though, is that even a lukewarm music fan these days is likely to be exposed to exponentially more music than the most devoted music afficionado of centuries past. This seems especially significant when we’re talking about Wagner. I’ve only seen the whole cycle performed twice. My psychotic-fan father has seen nine or ten cycles. But thanks to recording technology, I’ve heard the whole thing through many dozen of times—he’s probably in the hundreds. And, because Wagner produced some of the most semiotically dense music ever composed, with multiple motifs and transformations of motifs packed into each measure, we’re finding new stuff all the time. (I may be revealing just how musically slow on the uptake I am here, but it was only relatively recently that I realized that Siegfried’s theme is a more assertive transformation of Alberich’s curse motif.)
Johnson’s main idea in EBIGfY is that we’re able to deal with more complex, denser plotlines in T.V. now because we’ve been gradually trained to over the years, and also because the DVD aftermarket encourages the creation of programming that really only “ripens” on repeat viewing. Which makes me wonder: How on earth did pre-recording listeners deal with Wagner? It must’ve been an incredibly tiny fraction of those original audiences who were able to appreciate (consciously) even a tiny fraction of the significance of the Ring score. You might say that Wagner was ahead of his time not just in the usual sense, but technologically as well: It took a technology not yet developed when he composed to permit the full appreciation of the music he wrote.