Sunday, May 27, 2012

Muse Sick

For Jonathan.

Is it a good thing or a bad thing that we can record music? Meaning, on balance, are we better or worse off because we have this capability?

It is hard for me to answer that question because I do not know much about what it was like before recording, and it is impossible to picture a world in which all else is the same but for the absence of this one technology. Nevertheless, I think the question is worth asking.

My life has been changed in the last year by my purchase of a high quality set of headphones. I have always spent much of the time at my work computer listening to music, but since getting these headphones the music has started affecting me more. I find the music more moving. It stays in my head longer. I think about it more when I am not listening to it. And for the first time in my life I have actively sought out new music myself rather than just picking up what friends and family pass along. Finally, I have felt that I cannot only listen to music, but that I ought to make some myself. This summer I intend to take up the mandolin.

While those effects are dramatic, the explanation is simple. Recordings have not changed, but the way I listen to them has. I am hearing the music now and I was not hearing it well before. The music is at its core beautiful and wonderful, even divine. It is right that it should awaken latent passions and imaginations within me. But it could not do so beforehand because its nature was lost in transmission through inferior sound equipment.

It goes without saying then that I am very glad for the recordings that I have. Through them I have a richer understanding of what music can be. If there is a downside to our ability to make recordings, it is not that it is impossible to richly appreciate music through them. The problem is that it is far easier to brutalize and cheapen music through recording technology.

Most people do not listen to music on good headphones or speakers. In fact, with the proliferation of portable electronic devices in the last ten years, there are more and more speakers, the large majority of which are low quality. That is because the push has been for these devices to be more portable with a minimalist aesthetic. It is a matter of physics that good speakers cannot be made at the dimensions and power requirements of laptop speakers. Inexpensive earbuds and headphones are likewise of poor quality despite increasing ubiquity.

People listen to music more now than ever before, but it is uniformly crappy, even controlling for tastes. I have been shocked to see kids on buses listening to music as blared from their phones' speakers. It is not primarily that I would not listen to the songs they are playing (though I would not), but that I could not believe listening to music on those speakers was better than silence.

Are we better off with a little of something great, or a lot of a cheapened version of that thing? America has consistently chosen the latter. Are we better off with a lot of something great, or a lot of a cheapened version of that thing? Even when this is the choice we face, too often the default, cheap version is uncritically accepted.

There are other consequences of the widespread use and availability of recording technology. Doubtless our very idea of what music is has changed. Most commercially successful music could never be performed. Recordings are built from fundamental parts and then mixed and processed into a polished whole. It is the same difference as that between a stage play and a film. Human imagination is cut loose from physical constraints. A wholly unremarkable performer can be transformed into a top-20 hit by this artifice, and to ears accustomed to such music, that which can actually be performed sounds unremarkable.

As a result of this inversion, music is elite. People have as much chance of producing successful music as they have of making it in Major League Baseball or in Hollywood, and the ability to succeed in that sphere only marginally follows from talent.

Thankfully, music which is less "popular" is more accessible. Moreover the Internet has disrupted the hegemony of recording monoliths, and for those interested in something different there are abundant alternatives. But such choices remain off the beaten path.

In sum, recordings make excellent music widely available and producible on demand, but for most people music is ever-present and low-quality, and music itself exists only in "recordings" of impossible performances.

As a result are we better or worse off? For me the glory of music is inextricable from performance. It is a mystery that the very possibility of music is hidden and encoded within the laws of physics and of human biology, and it only comes to being through the interplay of human creativity with physical instruments. To me the decoupling of these two represents not the triumph of creativity over physics but the loss of what makes music music. Moreover there is further joy to be had in the production of music and in the shared experience of performer and audience. That this kind of experience has been rendered rare and perceived as elite is likewise to be lamented.

While it need not be this way, I think on balance we are worse off.


Ben said...

I think your points about impossible performances are interesting. It seems to me that the impossible performances(creating sounds through ex post 'production' that cannot be made by a live performer except through concurrent or pre-recorded use of the same technology) and impractical performances (e.g., those calling for many soloists, multiple choirs, and an extensive orchestra; or those occurring in a small concert hall somewhere across the pond) are two places where recording really shows its worth. If it cannot be had otherwise, you bring new life into the world by stirring up the air in those patterns.

Yet I hold live performance without the intermediary of electronic amplification (I'll let my brethren use their cello boxes, not to mention their cello bodies) to be the gold standard of musical experience. I struggle to identify why, since I also have many recordings by great orchestras and great musicians. Part of it might be visual--but sometimes even at a live performance I close my eyes and just listen. Certainly part of it is risk. Things can go wrong, or gloriously and unexpectedly right, and those possibilities keeps the experience interesting. Diversity of experience is a big part of it. Every musician's instrument and interpretation of a piece is unique, and the execution is different each time (albeit in inverse proportion to the professionalism of the musician). There's a real joy to be had in hearing accurately the timbre, expression, and all the tiny decisions of this musician, right here, right now, knowing that it is unique, and sharing that experience with the musician and others. Here at last is the heart of it. Real music is a poly-sensory social experience, often involving multilateral communication, and the best recording played on the best equipment only gives you sound waves.

Nicholas said...

I've been thinking since you commented about where a piece of music lives. Beethoven's Ninth lives in sheet music, and we visit it by getting an orchestra to perform from those instructions. Recordings exist but it's always acknowledged that a recording is X orchestra with Y conductor performing the piece on Z date, just one particular lens onto the piece.

With contemporary recorded music though the gold standard is generally in the recording itself. People don't "perform" a piece someone else wrote; they "cover" it.

I find that difference important, and I prefer the previous ontology because even if you need an orchestra the music is still in the hands of people, not sealed behind a digital veil. Contemporary performances of the Ninth are as authentic as any, except possibly when the composer himself conducted.

I've been thinking about this distinction with regard to my latest album immersion, the stunning and stellar Goat Rodeo Sessions. It doesn't fit neatly into either category. Those songs were composed on paper before they were performed, and even though the fiddler doesn't read music there is presumably a score sitting somewhere.

But where? It does not seem to be freely available, and I suspect it is quite protected by copyright. Moreover, even with access to it, due to the extreme virtuosity of the four musicians it's questionable whether there exist four other human beings who could perform the same music.

So where does the Goat Rodeo Sessions live? In practice it seems more like the capturing of an event that happened once and cannot be reproduced with equal legitimacy.

That leaves me unsatisfied. As I said in my post, the excellent recordings I have listened to spur me to make music myself, but what manner of music ought I reflect back from these performers? How do we common folk respond to the virtuosos recordings have made so near to us?

Ben said...

After some consideration, I'm inclined to return to my gut reaction, which is to recognize the physical necessity of vibrations in the air (or some other medium). How we got the music into the air is an interesting question and an exciting process. There's some kind of plan, sometimes unfolding over both centuries and tenths of a second in advance of the realization. Sometimes we take a picture of it so we can go back and look at it, and sometimes that is "Photshopped", or even just graphically designed from the beginning. That's music again, just as an image is present again when you let those waives travel through the air to your eyes. I suppose I would answer that the Goat Rodeo Sessions live in the air every time you play it.

Looking back at my first comment, I ask again, why do I prefer live performance? Maybe because even though it's planned, it's not deterministic. There can be good and bad performances of Egmont or Eroica, or songs of any sort. Improvisation is limited only by the skill and creativity of the musician. Recordings are frozen. Not dead, but just static. You know what you'll get, and that makes it less exciting somehow.

You also ask about the response to virtuosi, and that is a difficult question. I will never play as well as any number of cellists that I have known personally, and that I have heard live and through recording. But, to the extent I can bring any measure of beauty into this world, I think that effort is worthwhile. Yes, my performance will always be a bad version of the piece, relative to the professionals. But buddy, these are good vibrations, and the more the merrier.