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Excerpt: 'The Recording Angel'

RA cover

Miraculously, it's just as I remembered.

The gilded proscenium, the crimson carpet. The sound, ungilded yet glowing. The seats, upholstered just enough to suggest luxurious rigor. And nearly every one of them — this is the greatest miracle — containing a pair of buttocks.

Like many miracles, it was foretold. Even as Napster got the record industry in a lather, many musicians calmly noted that most of them had never made much money from records anyhow. If people stopped buying records, musicians would go back to doing, or would keep doing, what most of them had never stopped doing. What they'd always done to keep the wolf from the door, or through it no further than the nape: touring, gigging, concertizing, passing the hat. In short, playing live music for live people.

For those live people, conversely, to whom all the world's recorded music would soon be available at the click of a mouse, the last remaining luxury — the one thing worth paying for — was to hear and see living, respiring musicians playing living, inspiring music. And the final luxury, so rarified that it bordered on the taboo, was to see and hear what I now see and hear: musicians playing ungimmicked, unamplified music on instruments naked as God made them, innocent of silicon implants.

In this case, a young man and woman playing a black Boesendorfer piano and a cello the color of Triassic amber.

Did I say the full house is the greatest miracle? I was wrong. The greatest miracle is that the players are young. Convincing thousands of people to devote two hours to serious music may take some doing, but convincing two people to devote many thousands of hours takes far more.

I sink back into plush velvet, lid-cloistered eyes floating up in martyred bliss.

To what may this sensation be likened?

To the touch of flesh on flesh after the airless hum of simulacra. To removing dark glasses and being stunned by the world's brightness.

Yes, I remember now. This is what music sounds like.

Music has come full circle. But the geometry is not what I foretold. My compass seems to have been faulty.

Music has indeed slipped the surly bonds of vinyl. It has shed its thinghood. It has reentered the lepidopteral realm of the fleeting, the flitting, the ephemeral. But not by entering the noosphere or the Samian kingdom of numbers, both of which are now so crowded with bits, bytes, tones, takes, riffs, mixes, and mash-ups that no one can hear anything.

The tyranny of digits, I now understand, must pass. Its slaves will either be deafened by their own headphones or else will turn, in exhaustion, to the stuff from which music was anciently hewn: the lungs, tongues, and sinews of men and women acting upon catgut, horsehair, cow hide, bone, wood, reed, and empty air.


[Yet] as, from my perch in the Dress Circle, I survey the faces that tile the parterre, I feel a twinge of disappointment. ... They seem preoccupied. Their gazes, rather than being polarized as iron filings align toward a magnet, are scattered every which way. Many heads, many hands, are in motion — not a bad thing in itself: I always deplored the way, in Carnegies of yore, one was expected to sit through a Haydn presto or a Strauss polka immobile as the Stone Guest, or rather more so — but the motions here are jumbled, jarringly out of sync with the music and each other. I might be watching a hallful of sit-down comics parodying white people.

Now, with a sinking feeling, I see that gazes are indeed, to a degree, aligned, each sinking toward the back of the seat in front. Drawing my opera glasses, I train them on a succession of these seat backs. Each one has a screen and each screen, it seems, flickers with a different set of images.

Peering (glassless) at the back of the seat in front of me (I am in the second row) I see nothing but a flat, polished surface. Glancing down at my right armrest, I notice a button and a tiny sliding door, behind which I find two earbuds. I press the button. A screen appears, advising me to insert the earbuds in my ears.

I do so.

The screen expands, then shatters (decimates, tessellates) into ten screens. When I touch one it expands, marginalizing the rest. The first shows the players — the same players who grace the stage — in early-ninteenth-century Viennese costume (periwig and leggings, high-waisted low-cut gown) against the background of an early- nineteenth-century Viennese drawing room. The sound has changed subtly: the piano plunkier, the cello more astringent, the pitch perhaps a quarter-tone lower. There is less vibrato, more rubato. Looking closely, I see that the onscreen piano is a Broadwood. As my eyes shift between screen and stage, I feel seasick: there is a slight asynchrony, like the clash of arrogant wavelets, between the motions of the real musicians and the virtual ones. When, experimentally, I remove one earbud the effect is far worse.

I touch another screen — and instantly yank the buds from my ears.

I find the onscreen volume control, adjust it, and put them back in.

The players are in death-metal garb, backed by a drummer, guitarist and Fender-bass player with the eerie, undead look of hyperrealist video-game characters. The music is similarly dressed.

Channel surfing, I meet the music in a techno version, with a sort of miniature laser light show; in a Latin-disco version, with scantily-clad dancers; in a Glitch version, with the players' body parts detaching and reattaching in manic concatenations; in a souped-up, Romanticized orchestral version, with misty vistas of the Wienerwald; in score, scrolling measure for measure, as a tweedy voice outlines the motivic development. And so on.

Now I understand why the front-row seats were cheaper.

On Seventh Avenue, a black man is playing the saxophone.

A crowd has gathered, consisting of myself and a tourist couple in from the subearths for the weekend.

As a mother and child chug by on a Segway stroller, the tenorman segues deftly from Monk to a ditty which, depending on the listener's vintage, might bring to mind the effusions of a purple dinosaur or a rhyme more ancient still.

This old man, he played one

He played knick-knack on my thumb

"Mommy, what's that thing he's holding?"

I fumble in my pocket for a coin, but there is no coin and no pocket.

Excerpted from The Recording Angel by Evan Eisenberg. Copyright © 2005 by Evan Eisenberg. Excerpted by permission of Yale University Press. All rights reserved.

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Evan Eisenberg