On Lost Recordings

Joni Neil - United Artists Films.jpg

The news that 1960s-era concert recordings of Joni Mitchell and Neil Young have been "unearthed" by archivists at the University of Michigan will, alas, be of immediate interest only to a small subset of Boomer fanatics and the entrepreneurs who profit from them. Recorded at Canterbury House on what was then professional gear (i.e. quarter-inch, 2-track, analog tape), the sessions are reportedly "being shopped to record labels for an official release." Nobody ever went broke underestimating the symbiosis of Boomer affluence and Sixties nostalgia.

But seen from the vantage-point of Western civilization circa 2018, where no one under the age of 35 remembers a world without on-demand digital media, every element in this once-familiar narrative about lost recordings has the feel of a vanished world. It is easy to envisage white-gloved Michigan archivists threading brittle tape through vintage recorders as though they were handling the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is even easier to imagine that their preeminent concern will be to digitize the contents of these recordings ASAP. One can practically hear the recording engineers exhaling as the last audible traces surrendered by the last reel of tape are duly converted into WAV, AIFF and FLAC files, burned and cached for posterity.

It was Frankfurt-School theorist Walter Benjamin who first suggested, in 1936, that the aura of a work of art was destroyed when it was reproduced mechanically. He wondered what would happen to, say, the mystique of the Mona Lisa when everyone who ever showed up at the Louvre to view it had already seen thousands of copies on posters and tee-shirts. Ironically perhaps, Benjamin's anti-consumerist critique would have appealed greatly to the University of Michigan arts students who likely attended the Canterbury House concerts all those years ago—earnest young men and women who were listening "critically" to folk-music LPs in their dorm rooms and debating why, among the many other musical mysteries of the day, cloud illusions had prevented Joni Mitchell from knowing clouds at all.

In some respects, Benjamin's powerful insights today seem merely quaint. It has been a long, long time since the distinction between an original work of art and a reproduction was anything more than semantic—outside the precincts of high culture, at least, where an original Van Gogh or Picasso or Pollock still fetches nine figures. In our wired world, the concept of aura has collapsed almost entirely. The texts, photos, music and videos that today proliferate endlessly on our portable screens and playback devices are not copies but, indeed, originals. In our brave new world of virtually cost-free digital artistry, limitless data storage and unfettered distribution via the internet, we appear to be less anxious about losing the cultural treasures of the past than about a future in which nothing will ever again be forgotten. The ubiquity of smartphones among young concert goers today makes it impossible to imagine a future in which a lost recording of Justin Bieber or Katy Perry is discovered, or if it is, that there won't already be thousands just like it posted online.

It is mind-blowing, to borrow a trope from the Sixties, that this famine-to-feast revolution in cultural consumption has taken place entirely within the adult lifetimes of Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. To judge from the reverent tones with which our news media are covering the discovery of the Canterbury House recordings, we have not yet fully jettisoned the idea that the salience of artifacts from Antiquity (i.e. the period before the 1990s) derived from their historical and cultural specificity. But we surely will. And when we do, only the stubborn eccentrics among us will quibble with the self-evident superiority of a culture thoroughly digitized, de-contextualized, de-aestheticized and available on-demand to anyone with a smartphone.