In the finale of Ray Bradbury’s classic Fahrenheit 451, society is left to rebuild after a nuclear explosion, and each survivor is asked to recall a piece of literature so that it might live on. I’ve thought about this often since Jody Rosen’s remarkable article “The Day the Music Burned” first appeared in the New York Times last June. The story provides an in-depth summary of a 2008 warehouse fire at Universal Music which destroyed between 120,000 and 175,000 master tapes of some of the most important music ever recorded. (If you haven’t read it, I urge you to do so – it’s amazing, heartbreaking, and thought-provoking. I also recommend listening to episode #709 of the music podcast Sound Opinions in which hosts Jim DeRogotis and Greg Kot interview Rosen).
I won’t summarize much of the article, except to say that the treasure trove of lost recordings can hardly be overstated. We’re talking about masters from Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Count Basie, Patsy Cline, Chuck Berry, Bo Didley, John Lee Hooker, Etta James, Muddy Waters, John Coltrane, Buddy Holly, Ray Charles, Quincy Jones, Joni Mitchell, Elton John, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Patti Labelle, Tom Petty, The Police, Sting, REM, Janet Jackson, Guns N’ Roses, Nirvana, No Doubt, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Beck, Sheryl Crow, Tupac Shakur, Eminem, and on and on and on. Rosen concludes, “…in historical terms, the dimension of the catastrophe is staggering” and that “it was the biggest disaster in the history of the music business.”
I certainly won’t argue that this was indeed a catastrophe, but I think it leads to some provocative questions about the transitory nature of human creations, whether preserving what we create is important, and exactly what preservation means.
Today, we humans leave behind records of our lives like no other generation in human history. For most of man’s existence, lives were lived and then ended, leaving little behind except for offspring whose descendants now roam the Earth. Just think of how many people have lived on our planet for whom no trace remains! But now we humans are often obsessed with making our mark and preserving that mark – no matter how meager it may be – for generations to come. But the reality is this: 1) nothing lasts forever; 2) not everything we create deserves to be preserved; and 3) much can be preserved in a form that’s different from what we’d prefer.
1) Although we work hard to archive our creations like documents, photographs, home movies and audio recordings, even going so far as to store originals in one location and keep digital copies in another, these are only delaying the inevitable. Not only are tapes, photographs, and documents mortal, but – as Rosen states – so are digital recordings. As part of an effort to thwart future catastrophes like the Universal fire, many masters are now kept on hard drives, but they may no longer function properly after decades in a vault. We humans can do our best to preserve our history, but when it comes to photos, video and audio, as of now we have no permanent way to do so. All we can do is preserve things for as long as possible. I’m all for doing this. In fact, I’ve spent a great deal of time tracing my family history, digitizing photos and videos, copying artifacts, etc., so I am by no means immune to the idea of preservation or the potential value it holds, but I’m also not fooling myself into thinking that somehow these efforts make me immortal.
2) We can’t preserve everything, and we should naturally focus on the most impactful creations. You may choose to digitize a copy of your grandparents’ wedding photo, for example, but not the photo your baby sister took that only reveals that backs of their heads. Similarly, with regard to music, one can imagine exerting more effort archiving the works of The Beatles than those of Pat Boone. But Rosen makes a counterargument: sometimes we don’t know what art is impactful for years to come. An artist may not make resonate until his or her work is discovered years later (he gives examples of artists like The Velvet Underground or Nick Drake).
True enough. But goodness, choices to have to be made. Can you imagine if libraries had to house every single book published in the past century in the hopes that someone somewhere will check out an obscure romance novel from 1965? And maybe, just maybe, over time we’ll come to learn that this particular romance novel actual has merit? At some point, institutions have to make decisions to let certain things go. All of us do. My father is currently making the difficult decision to discard much of his life’s work as a marketing researcher. He’s got binder after binder stored in filing cabinets in his basement, and while it’s possible that within these hundreds of work assignments there might be something important to note for posterity or even for mankind, is he to die having kept all of his life’s work for his children to manage? And as his child, is it incumbent upon me to keep it all for the remainder of my life? I think not. Some of what we create is going to get lost along the way. And that’s okay.
3) It’s important to note that even without originals, art can survive. This is easiest with literature, which is why I’ve been thinking of Ray Bradbury’s book recently. We don’t have the original Torah, Koran or New Testament, but we still have the words, and that’s far more valuable than a first edition (as cool as that would be). With literature, it isn’t so important if the originals are burned, as mildly tragic as that might be, because literature isn’t a performance. Copies can easily be recreated. I argued nine years ago that with the advent of on-line books and the ability to backup entire catalogs of writings onto a thumb drive, censorship is no longer a threat. Every physical book in the world could be destroyed, and yet nearly every book in the world would remain accessible, a fact that provides a small bright flame of hope in a world that’s recently devolved in so many ways.
But while one could argue that literature is safe from harm, art and music aren’t as secure, because performances can’t be copied easily (even a painting or sculpture is an example of a performance). I just read the memoir of playwright Neil Simon, and he talks about many of the amazing stagings of his plays with performances from Walter Matthau, Art Carney, Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashely. None of these performances exist. We can’t go back and relive the debut of Barefoot in the Park, because theater performances are ephemeral, just as they have been throughout most of humankind’s history. But we still have the plays. We can stage them at a local theater and enjoy them all over again, perhaps not exactly as they were originally intended, but viewed through our own lenses.
Similarly, while we may not have any recordings of Mozart playing the piano or of Beethoven’s works being performed live for the first time, their music still remains. All you need is a score, and music can be recreated, perhaps not exactly as originally performed, but still providing a lasting legacy that can be reinterpreted by humankind for centuries to come.
Much of the recorded music that we’ve lost or will one day lose can be preserved in much the same way. Even if recordings are ultimately eliminated, scores will remain, keeping some music alive. Recordings for which studio gadgets were an important factor will have more difficultly being passed down than a piece of music that stands on its own merits of melody and harmony. For example, it would be hard to argue that a song like “Yesterday” wouldn’t last even if the only remnant of it was a copy of sheet music (I haven’t seen the movie Yesterday, but I believe the movie indirectly makes this claim). But a song like “I am the Walrus” or “A Day in the Life” would be harder for future generations to interpret because for these songs the studio was as important as the composition itself. The recordings were, in effect, performances, and while all performances are subject to decay, those that rely on something other than melody, harmony and lyrics are especially subject to the dustbin of history.
Similarly, a reading of the screenplay to The Godfather might be very fulfilling in the hands of a gifted actor, and one could imagine a revised version of Fahrenheit 451 in which various survivors are asked to retell a movie that they’ve seen for which no known copies remain, but it certainly wouldn’t be the same as watching the original movie.
But that’s the reality we live with. Our lives are fleeting, and while some of our creations will last longer than others, ultimately all of them are subject to the words of Ecclesiastes, the book that the character Montag is earmarked to preserve in Fahrenheit 451:
There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after.