Music Recordings Byte Reality

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I just read The Record Effect, by Alex Ross. It’s amazingly well written and researched. He explores many facets of the recording industry’s influence on music of all kinds, including classical. Since I am an orchestral musician, he asked my opinion on the effect of recordings on live classical music.

He often refers to two works, among others. The first is Mark Katz’s Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music (California; $19.95). The other is Robert Phillip’s Performing Music in the Age of Recording”. I learned a few things from Ross’s discussion of these. For example, I never knew that violin vibrato became more accentuated to accommodate sonic output unique to early phonograph recordings, which sound fuzzy and bland. Apparently Fritz Kreisler figured out that a wider, more intense vibrato (wobble) gave a fuller, more colorful sound and covered intonation problems on recordings. Before that, it was only used sparingly for color. It became the norm. What I thought was a stable tradition in performance style was, in fact, created to fit the medium of recordings.

Technique and intonation improved with recording technology. Access to recordings of almost any performance gave the players a valuable tool. Musicians are often their own objective critics using recordings for feedback. In addition to doing that, I have listened to countless recordings of other orchestras. Overall, I believe this has greatly improved the "instrument" of the orchestra. After all, we are perfectionists, and recordings feed our hunger for self criticism.

I never questioned the validity of striving for the the timeless safety of recorded perfection. Growing up, I would cringe at hearing old Toscanini recordings. They were horribly out of tune and had flabby ensemble. I thought they hadn’t yet been guided, enlightened, by the instant feedback I have access to. These days, with more respect for older performances, I wonder how they would have sounded live, in a good hall. Maybe I would be blown away by the emotion and impact of a live Toscanini performance. Perhaps the roughness would add to the impact, would be a vehicle for the emotion, instead of just an annoyance on the recording. Ross cites some historical practices from before the advent of recordings, which tended to be much rougher and more raw than we are accustomed to. This begs the question, did technical improvements hamper the emotional impact of live music?

Of course the idea of recordings being a mirror, a feedback loop of continual self-criticism, is very familiar to me. I’m referring to recordings of our live performances, which are broadcast later. Yet could this helpful tool to improve technique might also homogenize a player’s expression in favor of precision? Persistent nit-picking of my own playing often bogs me down. I dissect a musical phrase into a bunch of rules for improving the intonation, blend and color. I may resign myself to all the "rules" I’ve created, and lose sight of the musical reason for the phrase. Constant polishing dulls the spirit of it. But it doesn’t have to, if the tool is used properly.

I selectively listen to myself on our recorded broadcasts. (sometimes my fragile ego just can’t take it!) A balanced dose of self critique via record can provide valuable feedback. Each performance inevitably has it’s limitations. Live performances are often battlefields, marathons, adventures. Accidents happen. My best shot is my best shot.

After comparing trusted friends’ accounts of live performances, I am convinced live recordings also fail to capture objectively what is ultimately subjective. The technology is good, but it’s still only a representation. On our recordings of live concerts, the microphones are right above us, without the advantage of acoustical embellishment of the hall. (what little ther is) So the tone, at least, is not the same on the recording as it would be to a listener in the hall. (This is probably not the case with every live recording, just the way ours are set up in our hall.)

As a performer, I thrive playing live. I stretch, finesse, dramatize, cajole and intimate through live interpretation in ways I often couldn’t conjure in the comfort of my practice studio. A similar dampening might take place in studio recordings, which are rarely ever as exciting as live. In fact, I prefer to listen to "live recordings" of any piece over the studio version. Performing live has an edge. That edge is produced by the intense experience of pulling your rabbit out of your hat come hell or high water. (what an image) There’s a lot of pressure. You are naked. Everybody is listening. Somehow, knowing every heart hangs, trusts, on a phrase I create, gives me inspiration to go beyond the pale, to tap into something beyond myself, something from the ether.

I love Ross’s ruminations halfway through, how recordings transform music into a "collectible object, which becomes decor for the lonely modern soul. It thrives on the buzz of the new, but it also breeds nostalgia, a state of melancholy remembrance and, with that, indifference to the present." That along with the "mirror" effect, sums up the paradox of recorded classical music. I think recordings have helped improve the overall technique of performers. But a live performance, if it doesn’t try too hard to be a "recording", is a subtle world of experience, encompassing visual input, physical sensation, and the communal experience of those around you. That cannot be trapped and boxed. (at least not yet)

I also enjoyed this marvelous quote by Benjamin Boretz (whom I’ve never heard of): "In music, as in everything, the disappearing moment of experience is the firmest reality." What a great quote. "…the disappearing moment… is the firmest reality". I often try to capture that paradox in my poetry, with obscure results. (glad I don’t do it for a living) Ross then expands this, saying recordings preserve "disappearing moments of sound but never the spark of humanity that generates them." He broadens this boldly to claim: recorded music is "a paradox common to technological existence: everything gets a little easier and a little less real." Food for thought, but I don’t plan to become a Luddite. Blogging is my way of reaching through technology to the world. And a way back to myself via the "unreality" of technology. Knowing others may be reading it gives me incentive to improve. Just like recordings.

I think live classical music will thrive as long as the human spirit burns. Recently, our orchestra had a taste of what live music can really do. Conductors like Junichi Hirokami, who reminds me of Leonard Bernstein (or Alessandro Siciliani, who built our orchestra on dramatic, passionate unpredictability) are vivid interpreters of a rich tradition. With them an orchestra has a chance to rise out of it’s self-conscious critical "feedback" state, and communicate viscerally, soul to soul, through the medium of the composer’s muse. And live music doesn’t byte reality, it creates it.
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6 thoughts on “Music Recordings Byte Reality

  1. I found this post very interesting and made me consider the how why and who I listen to. I am not a musician nor have I any musical education as such but listening to BBC Radio 3 as my favourite staion I have learnt more and heard more than any music apretiation course might have given me.
    I love Radio 3 because there is so much live music not recorded live but live as it happens, coughs and all:0) Yes it comes through a speaker in a radio so is altered and changed in ways the audience sitting within breathing distance will not experience but the excitement, the passion, the intensity the overwhelming sense that this note or that is living and breathing as it envelops me is a wonder I am always surprised by but thankful for. Radio 3 also recods a great deal of live performance which though not as if I’m sitting ther still finds me breathless with emotion and wiping away tears.
    As someone who rarely manages to hear live music live for many reasons the radio is my concert hall, jazz club, folk festival, world music event and sometimes when I am able to actually sit in an audience I am able to carry that experience back to the many moments I sit in front of my Radio and marry the two together somehow.
    My record collection is very small growing by maybe one or two CD’s a year if that but it is to the radio, to the live experience that my collected memories come from.

    Like you say it is expression of a bright human spirit and the wonder of it for me is that by attentively listening, opening up mind and heart I find I touch that spirit and it become a part of me for the moment and changes something in me for the coming moments.

  2. Haven’t read the article yet, but your description and reaction to it are very thought-provoking. I used to be a total recorded music addict in my twenties (modern classical, jazz, blues, heavy metal), but I sold my stereo and record collection at one point to make ends meet, and I never replaced it. I still have a boombox radio and a bunch of cassettes, and i can walk across the road to my parents’ house and listen to records on their stereo any time, but I almost never feel the urge to do so. Even for works of music I really, really love, half an hour is about my limit: I’d simply rather listen to natural sound. This is not the result of any conscious decision – I didn’t discover John Cage’s writings until after I came down with this condition and was attempting to diagnose it. Perhaps I am just becoming increasingly sensitive, or valuing the act of listening more – or perhaps I simply don’t need to be altering my mood through music the way I used to when life was faster paced and more intense. One result is that live music is mind-blowing now, whether it be the Altoona Symphony (don’t laugh – they’re pretty good!) or my brother’s clawhammer banjo out on the porch.

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  5. Being in the middle of recording a clarinet album – a new experience- I agree with every word that you have written! My main concern when analysing the first session has been whether or not the emotion of the music can be appreciated by the listener which is a pretty tall order after playing in a completely dead acoustic!
    Really enjoyed the sensitivity and understanding with which you write.
    Many thanks to David H Thomas, principal clarinettist from Columbus Symphony, for passing on a link to this blog.

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