On Recordings…

8 November 2013 § Leave a Comment

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about recordings vs. live performances lately. It’s probably due to the fact that I have auditions coming up for Master’s programmes at a number of reputable schools, but I’ve been thinking about the consequences of sending in a recording vs. playing a live audition. One of the schools I’m applying to is too far away for me to go in and play live, so thankfully I have some help and support to send in a good recording. However, how do our expectations compare?

Over the past couple of years I’ve had the privilege of seeing some performers that I have admired over recordings since the point where I started getting serious about music (12? 13?). I’m not going to name players or ensembles as they are well-respected by the public and myself, but I must say, I frequently came away disappointed with what I heard. Not always, but this has happened enough to make me question what my expectations are in a performance.

I know from speaking with other musicians my age and older that the automatic response when looking for performance ideas, interpretations and general knowledge is to go to a recording. Spotify is so handy for giving you a wide variety of possible departures for a piece of music and if none of those are satisfying, there’s always iTunes and Amazon (for the antiquated medium of CDs, of course). When one listens to these recordings there is always an expectation of perfection, vivacity and clear artistic goals. The performer must know exactly what they want to convey as they have many takes (how many depends on budget and time constraints) to show this idea. If a technical mishap occurs, it can be rectified easily with some quick splicing.

I would largely argue that my generation, and probably the one before it as well, seems to come to the concert hall with the expectation of a recording-quality performance that has the same vivacity and technical perfection that your sitting at home can provide. However, as a performing musician, this is almost impossible to make happen. When you’re performing, stuff happens. Your A string might break in the middle of a quartet performance (this happened recently to someone I know) and you have to continue playing. You might be tired and on the second to last stop of a tour. There might have been an argument just before you went on stage. As a musician you can do your best to rectify issues, but ultimately, a live performance is never going to be as perfect as a some splicing and multiple takes, among other things.

Despite its lack of perfection, I think Sousa’s fin de siecle fears of a life without live music are still unfounded even in our technologically filled world. The groups that I find most compelling to hear live record far less and focus on live performance (for a number of reasons). The raw passion that you can hear in a young group (either musicians my age at the university-level or older) is something that you don’t hear as frequently in a well-seasoned quartet. While these ‘legendary’ groups can put out heaps of useful and enjoyable recordings, sometimes they are less enjoyable to hear in concert. Despite this, the amount of knowledge they can provide to a young group of performers is invaluable in continuing our classical tradition. As I focus here on Western Classical Music, I can safely say that our tiny part of the music world would be totally lost without the guru-like relationship we frequently have with our elders.

Although our world may shift ever more rapidly to digital everything, the live performance should never go away. While it may be less compelling and perfect than a recording, it provides extremely valuable information for today’s performers, and of course enjoyment for the public. It simply means that our focus must shift away from expecting a recording in a concert, something that I can easily say is difficult. However, our enjoyment will be greatly increased if our expectations are shifted and we recognise value in both worlds.

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