Criticism & Features

Year 2009: 30 Books

Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music, by Greg Milner

By John Reed

Each day leading up to the March 11 announcement of the 2009 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights one of the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member John Reed discusses criticism finalist Greg Milner's Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music (Faber & Faber)
Greg Milner, as he approaches the maturation of recording in the twentieth century, guides us with thorough research and resolve, and a casual elegance.

Perfecting Sound Forever takes a comprehensive look at the relatively young art of music recording. Beginning with Thomas Edison, and moving through generations of audio technologists versus audio purists (clinging to one outmoded process after another), Milner tracks the surprisingly constructed notion “good sound.” Recorded music is not, as we presume, natural, it is hyper natural, more real, more vibrant, more distinct in its components—more than any live auditory experience could ever be. That music can be a studio experience—made better, made cleaner, made perfect—is an argument ever-sieged, and ever-victorious. As a culture, we have come to assume the notion of “perfect sound,” and Milner deconstructs the critical history of how we listen to recordings. That music is not “real sound,” that it is an education of what sounds right, and a long evolution of sound-science, is uncontroversial, but nonetheless surprising, and broadly impactful in a critical reading of contemporary culture. And the effect of recording technology is not just an altered perception of the listener; the psychology of the recording process has found its way into the music itself. Milner details a contemporary music that is as much the result of the recording process as the subject of it. As handled by Milner, what could be an esoteric and ancillary subject finds grounding in fundamental questions of what it is to hear, and what it is to experience music.

Click here to listen to an interview with Greg Milner on NPR