The Day the Aura Burned

In an elegantly written feature about the 2008 fire at Universal City that burned virtually all of Universal Music Group’s recorded masters, we see a quoted reference to Walter Benjamin.

Jody Rosen writes about the value of a master recording:

The master contains the record’s details in their purest form: the grain of a singer’s voice, the timbres of instruments, the ambience of the studio. It holds the ineffable essence that can only truly be apprehended when you encounter a work of art up-close and unmediated, or as up-close and unmediated as the peculiar medium of recorded sound permits. “You don’t have to be Walter Benjamin to understand that there’s a big difference between a painting and a photograph of that painting,” [Andy Zax, a Grammy-nominated producer and writer who works on reissued recordings], said in his conference speech. “It’s exactly the same with sound recordings.”

Of course, I have students in my media criticism class read Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” each semester. And though they groan and complain, this passing reference to Benjamin’s hallmark essay reaffirms my decision to assign it.

If nothing else, it allows me to teach students the precise meaning of words in an essay that is different from their colloquial understanding. Case in point: aura.