Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Return of the son of last week's comment thread

Not to get too incestuous on this blog, but I sorta did promise to return to a certain discussion from last week. You know, the one that cropped up in this post, but simultaneously seemed to cry out for its own space.

Quick summary: it's basically a version of the old "recorded music vs. live music" debate. Mr. G and Steve smartly posited the superiority of the latter, while I attempted to argue for the value of both. (Apologies if I am misrepresenting.)

In an effort to get right back into that moment, and to cut off this damned preamble before it goes too far, can we just pretend that what follows is a natural extension of the previous comment thread?

Mr. G: I think it behooves us as musicians to remind folk how canned music is to music as canned peaches are to peaches, and they should re-gain the ears to hear that, and thus demand live music.

Durkin: Again, I'm a big fan of live music, and I agree we need to find ways to increase its presence in the world. But canned music is not to music as canned peaches are to peaches. "Canned music" (if we must call it that) is to music as apples are to oranges.

If, when listening to recorded music, your main question is, "How much does this sound like live music?" then of course you are in for disappointment. It's the wrong question to ask. The authenticity battle is a battle that engineers can never win (and so sound system ads that tout verisimilitude are disingenuous).

Which, by the way, is not to say that live music has a more convincing prior claim on authenticity. What seat do you have to be sitting in to get the "real" symphony? Which concert hall? Which orchestra and conductor does it have to be? What edition of the score should be used? What state of mind do you have to be in? What time of day does it have to be?

It's no disrespect to live music to wonder these things. But that's the problem with the "live" vs. "recorded" debate: we harbor all kinds of anxieties about "technology" (defined pretty narrowly), and so recorded music is regularly scrutinized to see if it passes the "real thing" test, and found wanting because it doesn't. Live music, we assume, is just "music" -- pure, unmediated, undifferentiated, and never filtered by the acoustic idiosyncrasies of the context in which it is heard, or even by the physical and/or psychological biases of its listeners! (Huh?)

Mr. G: As musicians we need to remember that Mintons was Monk, it was a place, it was the place and it was made special by the presence of the living Monk. Place the best Japanese Import LP in a glass case, it just ain't the same. The place is where the living music happened.

Durkin: Sure. But my childhood bedroom, where I spent long hours listening to music on headphones, deep into the night, was also a place. The music I discovered there sure felt alive to me. That's a testament to the records that were involved (many of which I wouldn't really understand until later) -- because with most of them the possibility of ever experiencing their content as actual "living music" had long past.

Mr. G: if music was simply wiggly air, then sound systems would work. What you and I hear, as musicians, is different than what the average person hears because you and I colour what we hear with prior experience. In other words, we imagine most of what we hear on records because we know what it really sounds like. Thus I can listen to old cylinder and victrola recordings and get really excited about the composition and musicianship, whereas everyone I have ever lived near (save a few, musicians all of them) will say "Turn Off That Noise!"

Durkin: Yes, as musicians we fill in a lot of the details when we listen to recordings (though see above reference to records I loved but didn't understand when I first heard them). However, many recordings have a beautiful sound unto themselves. Cylinder recordings are a pretty extreme counterexample, of course, but, for instance, I adore the creepy sound of the original 1928 version of "The Mooche" ("squashed" and "noisy" though it is by modern standards). In fact, I don't think I have ever heard a version I like better. In such cases (and there are many of them) the recorded sound is, for all intents and purposes, a compositional gesture.

More broadly, the recording studio, and recording technology in general -- as the "techno kids" you rightly admire know full well -- is just another instrument. It's a machine that produces sound, just like a trumpet, or an accordion, or a kazoo...

Mr. G: If it is all just filtered sound, everyone should be used to it, like how they all see circles where the eyes nearly always see ellipses, it needn't be a learned thing. Everyone has heard sound filtered through doors, through hats, through distorter muffs of all sorts, yet you play a soundsystem in a subway, you get sneers, you play a guitar, you get smiles. You play a brassband record out your shop window, you get nada, but the Hypnotic Brass plays a street corner and people (who cannot see them) swerve from blocks away to investigate the marvelous 'sound'.

Durkin: This seems to me to be a pretty broad generalization. I have personal experience with friends playing guitars in subways, only to be met with rolling eyes, and then to be escorted out a few minutes later by cops who certainly weren't smiling. And anyone who has been to a discotheque, or a rave, or any other environment that is driven by DJs and sound systems (and the cultures that surround them), knows that whatever "sneering" happens in those contexts is typically unrelated the source of the music.

Both recorded and live music are filtered, inevitably. And so they will remain -- at least until we figure out a way to beam songs directly into each other's brains.

[Photo credit: Eva101]


Anonymous said...

Just a few random reactions:

1) I always thought canning made peaches taste better, but that might have to do with the quality of peaches in the supermarket.

2) I wonder what the Beatles or Glenn Gould would have to say on this subject.

3) I forget what the third thing was.

Andrew Durkin... said...

Thanks, A.!

Glenn Gould actually did have a lot to say about recording technology. See, for instance, "The Prospects of Recording."

Jason Parker said...

Dude...did you just liken a trumpet to an accordion and a kazoo??? ;)

Andrew Durkin... said...

Ha! Don't be embarrassed by the noble kazoo!

Anonymous said...

Check out RiP!A Remix Manifesto on hulu.com

I think you'd like it.


Anonymous said...

I just skimmed that long-ass Gould article. My immediate reaction was that I think there is a lot of music that he simply wouldn't have much interest in. I was curious about his thoughts about jazz and found an article in which he said he admired Bill Evans:
It begins with the following Evans quote: "I have always preferrred playing without an audience."

Digression: actually, I first thought of the following exchange from a Gould documentary, as best I remember:
"NY Cabbie: What kind of music you play? Jazz? Bebop? You don't play that longhair stuff, do you?

Gould: The longhair variety.

NY Cabbie: I guarantee you'll put an audience to sleep with that stuff."

My other reactions were 1) I'm pretty sure Gould would be disappointed in the use of technology in classical music as compared to other music, and 2) aesthetics aside, he was obviously less than prescient regarding the economics of recording vs. performance.

Maybe it would have been better if I'd actually read the whole thing...

Anyway, obviously lots of music benefits from live performance. It's often pointed out that free jazz tends to be a lot more accessible live, and I've also noticed that in fusion, live recordings are almost always better than studio ones, which is why jazzfusion.tv is such a godsend to me.

Andrew Durkin... said...

lots of music benefits from live performance.