There’s always something a little unnerving about listening to music recorded before I was born. Something of the same feeling holds for film too – a sense that human activity was in full flood before I had acquired any form of consciousness, either of it or of myself. Strange how this unease is most closely associated with sound; early silent films share with Art a sense of timelessness and have quite a different feel.
But recorded sound seems to define time in a much more precise manner. I suspect that much of this has to do with a tradition of music where a composition was usually heard in a live performance by a contemporary performer. The music might be centuries old; but the music was here and now. This is no longer necessarily the case.
All of these thoughts struck me while listening to a series of recordings made in the 1930s and 1940s by the British light music pianist Billy Mayerl. Several of the cuts have singing or spoken dialogue, and the posh British BBC accents sound quite strange in today’s context. The music, too, mostly syncopated ditties not so much in the ragtime but more in the novelty piano tradition is very much of its time.
Charming, yes, and very attractive. But impossible to hear without a powerful historical veil settling over it and placing it in a time remote from my own.
Funnily, because this music is unfamiliar and little heard, the sense of history is stronger than found with better known works from the same era that, through constant exposure, have lost their strong ties to their genesis.
I think I prefer it this way. Listening to this Billy Mayerl compilation (Naxos 8.120654) is more akin to rooting around in the attic and finding a trunk full of your great grandparent’s belongings. There is a sense of discovery and looking back into a different way of doing and seeing things.