On (Making) Recordings Versus (Living) Live Music

by Thomas Brett

“Record stores”, a friend of mine once memorably observed as we drove past one, “are where music goes to die.” And with the demise of record stores, music recordings–and by recordings I mean CDs–have had a tough time surviving since MP3 downloading became the primary way most people get their music. For musicians, it used to be a big deal to make your own recording. Once upon a time you needed money to go into a studio and record, and you needed more resources to have your music mastered, packaged and promoted. If you had distribution, your recording might even find its way into a bin at Tower Records, where it would sit and be mostly ignored. But these days any musician with a computer and an Internet connection can make a recording and distribute it around the world to anyone who may want to listen (and getting people to listen is harder than it may seem). So our recordings don’t go to die in record stores anymore; they just languish in relative obscurity among the billions of other bytes of sound swirling out there in cyberspace.

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In his recent New Yorker article “Flight Of The Concord”, classical pianist Jeremy Denk artfully describes the process of recording and editing a piece of solo piano music. The music is Charles Ives’ “Piano Sonata No.2″ (1920), also known as the Concord Sonata, an eclectic piece in whose transcendentalism-inspired polytonal and polyrhythmic juxtaposition of musical styles–from marching band music to quotations from Beethoven all mashed up together–one hears a musical postmodernism well before its time.

In explaining the process of recording Ives’s difficult music, Denk conveys the challenges raised in a typical studio session–from the way microphone placement affects (and often misrepresents) an instrument’s sound, to matters of musical interpretation and fidelity to the piece’s printed score. There are so many moving parts to capturing a live performance that it’s a minor miracle that any studio session ever goes right, especially considering what Denk calls the “tragedy” of recording itself. As busy as the musician (and the sound engineer, the producer) is “engaged in a task of reproduction, you keep coming up against the irreproducible.” In other words, what makes music music is very hard to capture and reproduce on a recording.

In pointing towards this ineffable quality of music as the source of its mystery, Denk gets to the core of the dilemma of recordings for performing musicians. Recordings are not the real thing, they’re simulacra, “manicured artifacts, from which the essential spectacle of human effort has been clipped away.” And I imagine lots of musicians reading Denk’s article will have a good idea of the considerable physical and mental effort involved in learning a piece to the point that the music is internalized and can be performed (for those listening microphones) convincingly. Recordings may capture performances, to a degree, but they’re also entirely different beasts. They circulate one’s music, sure, but what is circulating is not the sonic-social transaction of the performer and his/her audience but rather an edited snapshot of a pseudo event that is the recording session.

It’s no wonder, then, that Denk concludes his finely tuned article–with his finished CD in hand, by the way–anticipating his next live performance of Ives’ Concord. Next time, he assures us, it will be totally different…

You can read Denk’s writing here.

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