The Hidden Virtues of Our Old, Crackly, Barely Audible Sound Recordings

Keats said, "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter." What about those that are half-heard? Those inspire the imagination. 


The Swedish lyric tenor Jussi Björling died in 1960 at the age of 49. If you read much about Björling, you'll frequently encounter a certain theme: that none of his recordings capture the beauty of his voice. Those who heard him sing rhapsodize over that voice, and sigh that its glories can't be passed along to later generations. When their memories go, so too will Björling's true greatness. Recording technologies won't help, we're told. But maybe they do help, just in a peculiar way.


We often find ourselves fascinated by the not-quite-captured, by what barely eludes us. Consider the centuries-old tradition of the male sopranos, the castrati, who provided remarkable vocal power and technique to many generations of composers. The castrato sound survived into the twentieth century in the voice of Alessandro Moreschi, who in 1902 -- at age 44, well past his best singing years -- made some recordings in the Sistine Chapel. They are, it must be said, terrible: his voice is weak, thin, and characterless and he often goes off-key. Some argue that modern ears are alienated by the florid and hyper-dramatic style Moreschi favored, but this is special pleading: it's when he sings most plainly that his shortcomings are most evident.


But Moreschi's failure to manifest the thrilling power that the castrati were celebrated for just makes the tradition that much more stimulating to the imagination. It's somehow exciting to think of him as an insubstantial shadow of something that was once great. Keats wrote, "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter," which is of course true; however, there's something specially compelling about the melody heard but not quite grasped, not experienced to the full.

Is this perhaps what the technological reproduction of art does best? To remind us of what we're missing, to give us the merest unsatisfying taste of what we know to be a great banquet? As with Moreschi's singing, there's the problem of changes in presentational styles -- no one really admires T. S. Eliot's reading of "The Waste Land" and the way Yeats chants his own poems just makes me cringe -- but the poor quality of the recordings strangely helps to ease the pain. Something similar is true of the few films of Josephine Baker's dancing and the even sparser documentation of Isadora Duncan: we see just enough to know that the magic is beyond our reach.

Grainy film and popping, crackling sound provide a comforting, cushioning distance between us and the great artists we know we should admire, genuinely do admire, and yet can't quite connect with when they come before us rendered too precisely. Maybe a perfect digital recording of Jussi Björling's singing could capture his greatness; but then maybe it would deprive us of the helpful awareness that we missed something by not being there, in his presence, as he sang.

This is what the lo-fi aesthetic is about, and to some extent the so-called New Aesthetic as well -- at least the pixellated, 8-bit aspect of it. But if we look closely at how we have responded to sound and image technologies since their arrival on the scene, we'll see that there's little novelty here. This is why Walter Benjamin wrote 80 years ago that what can't be reproduced in a work of art is its "aura". Perhaps all along we've been whispering to our recordings and movies and prints: Don't show us what you've got; point us to what we're missing.