Monday, May 04, 2009

Some thoughts on recordings

A swell post from Douglas McLennan here. (Though I thought we were doing a moratorium on titles including violence to classical music, i.e. "the death of/"who killed"/"the death throes of", etc...)

McLennan raises two points: 1) that the excessive focus on perfectionism in classical studio recordings is problematic and that we should think about a return to live recordings, and 2) that the perfectionism performers seek in the studio may lead to less risky, more homogenous live performances.

I find the second point a bit less convincing. Besides recordings, I can think of a lot of reasons why performers turn in performances which seem more homogenous today--the general level of technical proficiency is higher, competition is greater, and jet travel means you (and the audience) have constant opportunities to assess that competition. International concertizing is a high profile, winner-takes-all profession like any other. As there are more people in the world who are reaching for that brass ring, the prerequisites for entry, those things that entrants can ensure are optimized, are all pushed to the limit, i.e., if you want to be Babe Ruth in the 21st century, the first thing you need to do is lose some weight and stop drinking in the club house. A highly idiosyncratic performer prone to dropping notes just can't make it past the profession's gatekeepers anymore.

But the reasons for better accuracy at least aren't all bad. Today we place a lot more emphasis on performers' fidelity to the composer's score, a benefit of which is that we now actually get to hear what they wrote. I'm pretty sure I heard an interview with Horowitz somewhere where he told a story about some great pianist of the previous generation coming up to him after a concert and being all "WTF. How am I supposed to keep up with you when you're playing all the notes?" (or something to that effect). The advent of studio recording has certainly played a part in this, but I think its hard to disentangle its effect from the whole.

The first point, is the more interesting one, I think, and an area where the opera world may have some lessons for the rest of the classical music world. Opera fans, of course, REALLY love their live recordings. And not just live recordings, but live snippets of all size and quality. Even if one tends to be a wuss about hardcore archival material (like me), there is still a huge amount of great quality live material out there for even the casually interested fan.

Now, live opera recordings don't really compete with studio sets on the store shelf (to the extent that such shelves exist anymore) but the studio sets aren't a substitute for a healthy live recording scene: instead, they serve as reference documents. Opera fans learn about new singers almost primarily by hearing live performances, either snippets on the Internet or through broadcasts and rebroadcasts of live performances. And these recordings are considered far superior to studio efforts in capturing what is exciting about a singer. Its widely acknowledged that you could learn virtually nothing about the experience of seeing Angela Gheorghiu live on a stage from one of her antiseptic studio records. This understanding helps live performance stay at the center of the opera experience, and, I think, inspires some of the excitement and commitment in its fan base that other areas of classical music would like to replicate.

Opera, of course, has an advantage here. The discrepancy between a studio opera or recital recording, with all of its polished edges and preternatural stamina, is so clearly different than the live experience, with its epic struggle between singer and orchestra and myriad opportunities for spectacular failure. Still, there are more mundane, even trivial things that help live recordings achieve that connection. The sound of a live hall. The applause. And yes, the little imperfections that show up. They don't have to be wrong notes--it could be the momentary lapses in coordination that result from an attempt to take a movement at a breakneck pace. A conductor engaging in overindulgent pauses that might seem excessive in the studio but gives the performance extra drama. These are the little things that help bridge the gap between the unreality of riding the subway with your headphones in and being engaged in a performance as though we are there, with the performer, communicating directly. That is the heart of experiencing classical music, and getting back to it should be at the center of the artifacts we create.

Of course, its odd to talk about elements of the live experience as somehow variations on the normal experience when, unlike with pop and rock recordings, the classical music studio recording is by definition a fantasy. One assumes in rock music that all bets are off for whether what one is hearing on the record was performed in one take at the same time. Sure, there is a spectrum, but we expect modern pop musicians to make use of the full possibilities of the studio to create their work, unconstrained by what would be feasible live with no prerecorded elements or mixing voodoo. The recording is the thing--that's what conquers our imagination.

But with classical music recordings, no matter how much you know about how the tracks are pieced together, you can't help but trust the illusion that the piece you are listening to might have happened in a concert hall. And while that illusion can produce many brilliant valuable documents (clearly, I would not give up those meticulously produced Glenn Gould recordings for anything), the document isn't really the thing: it is the live performance. So there is something fundamentally problematic about trying to maintain a vibrant live performance culture when your audience has this notion of a perfectly polished vaccuum-packed sound in its head. More audience members fail to see the utility of going to a live performance if they are simply expecting that flawless sound, while those in the audience have trouble engaging with the performance as a live event, and not just an approximation of the reference recording playing in their head. While conductors and musicians are making choices all the time that make live "live", appreciating those choices unless they are glaringly obvious seems more difficult.

But what to do? More high profile live recordings would be certainly be great. For piano in particular, it would help to blunt the impression of endless re-recordings of the catalogue. Moreover, there is something about a live piano recital recording that really connects a listener to the live experience--the juxtaposition of repertoire, the excitement of being in the same room with the virtuoso--I know I count some live recital recordings as among my most beloved. Record companies could also do more to enable live footage of recitals. You can watch Mattila in almost all of her major roles on Youtube, but there are only a handful of good live clips of Pollini. There are clearly more opportunities to get video of Mattila out there, since operas are broadcast more frequently, but you'd think an enterprising label could do a lot to make up the difference.

Clearly, the economics may be against this. And, as McLennan notes, a lot of performers may insist on strict control of their recorded material out of fear that audiences will be critical of any slip ups (which seems to me a highly irrational fear, but OK). But the current situation is far from ideal. Watching virtuoso performers in person is a sensational experience that truly can't be captured on record. Recordings need to be an incitement to have that experience, rather than a barrier.

Speaking of making live "live":


Gert said...

I think there's a really important point that you alluded to in closing.

It is perfectly possible to listen to orchestral and symphonic music and know that it's as the composer wrote (or a close approximation).

Audio-only recordings aren't opera; they're just recordings of operatic music.

They were all that people had in the early days of recording, which makes a lot people think that it's complete without visuals, because that's all they had when they were forming their tastes.

In fact, there are few - if any - studio recordings of complete operas. So the more correct argument concerns complete vs audio-only performances. There will for a long time yet be more incomplete recordings available because audio-only is logistically easier, and radio space is more plentiful than TV space, and because of bandwidth etc issues. But we must not lose sight that operas were written to be performed on stage and anything less than that, concert performance or audio-only recording, is a pale imitation of the real thing.

Gert said...

Where I said 'symphonic' I mean 'instrumental'

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