How History Would Look If Brahms Had Google Glass

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Google ( GOOG) has yet to do more than test market Google Glass and popular apps for the device are still the stuff of speculation. But the product's very existence has already fanned debate over the technological trend toward the totally recorded life.

Many are guessing that the product will fail because it has no user monetization built in. That would have to be added through advertising or marketing through the apps.

Failure at the marketplace is always a possibility with a new product. But a focus on near-term profits here misses the point: The technology behind Google Glass isn't going to fail. Human nature won't let it. The voyeuristic tendency to record every detail of our lives and to have easy access to all of that data, our own and others, isn't going to go away and devices that make the experience of recorded lives easier are going to proliferate.

In 1889, the legendary composer Johannes Brahms sat down at a piano and recorded a snippet of himself performing his Hungarian Dance No. 1, on an Edison wax cylinder. That recording is almost unlistenable to us, crude or torturous, but it opens up a tantalizing glimpse into the actual sound of the 19th Century.

Musicologists and audio technicians have fussed over that recording for decades now, in the last few years actually succeeding in extracting enough information to recreate Brahms' actual piano playing (in a MIDI-facilitated performance available on YouTube) in a way that appears plausibly accurate. And the book is still not closed. New technological advances will no doubt extend our ability to extract more and more information from that one poorly preserved moment.

As musicians, as musicologists and historians, and most importantly, as human beings, we are drawn to that tiny crack in the black fence of unknowable history like a vine seeks out the sun.

Prior to 1889, our knowledge of musical performance was limited to musical scores and other composer instructions and descriptions of performances. The details were opaque, and consequently the whole picture of any historical moment poses a puzzle. Each generation solves the puzzle anew according to contemporary concerns and shifting philosophies. History becomes an animation of the here and now, projected onto the blank screen of the past.

Since the dawn of the 20th century, recordings have come to dominate our musical experience. From at least the 1920s until the present day, the principal way jazz musicians learned their craft was through recordings. Today, the first experience most children have with any music is most often through recordings in toys or on TV. Recordings themselves are now an integral part of many new compositions -- hip-hop, based originally on sampled LPs, simply wouldn't exist without them.

More, recordings have broadened the time window of the culture. Where the era of Brahms would have heard only the musicians and performers alive at that time, we routinely hear the music of performers who died a half century or more ago. Performances by John Lennon (died 1980), Louis Armstrong (died 1971), Billie Holiday (died 1959) and conductor Leopold Stokowski (died 1977), to name just a few, are all still enormously popular through recordings.

Where Brahms' history is mostly darkness, recordings light up the lives of more contemporary composers like Time Square marquees turn New York City night into day: Frank Zappa, John Luther Adams, Elliott Carter, John Adams, Philip Glass, Pauline Oliveros -- all of them supervised recordings of their music; all of them appear on recordings in interviews.

For the future's history buffs, a John Cage appearance on What's My Line? in 1960, currently available on YouTube, holds enormous value, placing the avant garde composer's radical music in the context of a live game show's everyman audience. Other recordings reveal him participating in performances, enjoying a laugh with friends, talking extensively, off the cuff, about his thoughts on music and spirituality.

By contrast, even a well-documented life, like that of Brahms, is a black hole to us.

As that process escalates, with products like Google Glass and a growing acceptance of surveillance culture, less and less of history will be dark. In 2189, 300 years after Brahms walked away from the Edison cylinder recording and returned to his relative darkness, the lives of our children and our grandchildren will appear to historians transparent, as open to investigation as their own.

History in the Making

Imagine that Trayvon Martin or George Zimmerman had a Google Glass like device? The controversy in that trial was made far worse by the fact that there were no witnesses, no surveillance cameras. What we had as history was two conflicting interpretations. What would a recording of it be worth now?

But let's put aside that hot-button case and take, instead, an elementary example from recent music headlines: A living source now claims that the composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) had gay lovers. My first reaction: So what? Quite frankly, it would surprise me more if he never considered it, given he was often surrounded by dynamic, creative gay men and women.

But still, the rumor continues. No one had ever mentioned that the most famous composer of the 20th century (the composer of the Rite of Spring, among other works) might be gay. Dismissing it as irrelevant would, in effect, trivialize the position of gays in the first half of the 20th century; I would be guilty of telescoping our society's current acceptance of gay lifestyles back onto the intolerant culture of the past.

Robert Craft, Stravinsky's longtime personal assistant, is the source of the rumor and that only heightens doubt: Craft has a new book out about Stravinsky. He has also had a longstanding interest in the ownership of various aspects of Stravinsky's story, even while the composer was alive. Music wags have reacted with skepticism: Maybe it's true, maybe it's not, but we'll need more than Craft's word for it to make us believe it.

"Craft has a track record for reconstructing history," one scholar, quoted in the LA Times, put it.

And there it stands. Until we get more explicit evidence, if we ever do, what we have is a mystery.

If Stravinsky were born today and lived to 2102? Simple: There would be no rumor. His life would be an open book and anyone who was curious would already know the details. No telescoping. No mystery. Just check the data. Case closed before it could be opened.

Living With History

As recording technology clarifies historical events, stripping away layers of fog, it also is changing our understanding of just what history is. It is changing our definition of the word. And other changes are lurking.

In our time, young people seek to identify themselves by aligning with a particular hip subculture: goths, emos, punks, surfers and skaters, each with the appropriate tattoos, clothes, piercings and, most essentially, music.

In a future that sees hundreds of years of history as clearly as it sees its own time, the culture young people will choose as their identity platform could just as easily be in the past.

Now, we occasionally see historically accurate performances of Baroque, Renaissance and Medieval music -- reenactors, as it were. Those are a new development, driven in part by the wide availability of recordings of that music. In the future, we could well see reenactors on every corner, not even aware they are reenacting, blurring the past and the present because the past and present are truly blurred.

In the end, clocks will still turn, people will still live and die as before, lives -- even longer ones -- will still seem too short. But history as we know it will evolve into something more like an eternal now.

-- Written by Carlton Wilkinson in Asbury Park and New York

More from Opinion

Apple Needs to Figure Out Its Self-Driving Vehicle Strategy

Apple Needs to Figure Out Its Self-Driving Vehicle Strategy

Throwback Thursday: Tesla, Chip Stocks, TheStreet's Picks

Throwback Thursday: Tesla, Chip Stocks, TheStreet's Picks

12 Stocks That Our Writers and Their Sources Recommend You Buy Here

12 Stocks That Our Writers and Their Sources Recommend You Buy Here

Musk Goes on Unoriginal Media Tirade

Musk Goes on Unoriginal Media Tirade

What's Happening in Video Games This Week: On the Road to E3

What's Happening in Video Games This Week: On the Road to E3