There are some folk who don't see the gem inside my rough exterior who might consider me a hot head. To which I say a hearty "bite me". But let this opinion be a caution that within this blog may lurk items of a venting nature or perhaps those which might be considered a rant. So be it. Proceed with caution. You have been warned.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Do I Really Sound Like That?

Last Sunday afternoon the orchestra I am a member of gave a concert. The concert was one of our regular series but in this instance it was dedicated to the memory of a former conductor of the group recently deceased. We commissioned a new work for this concert in memory of this man, a tribute not lightly undertaken for a semi-amateur group that struggles mightily with the funds necessary to stage free concerts in order to make classical music more accessible to those whose financial circumstances don’t allow $50 tickets to hear the “pros”. So we had the composer in attendance at what was a world premier of a new work. The widow of the honored conductor flew in from the east coast to attend and many former orchestra members were in attendance as well. The orchestra more than rose to the occasion and rendered a memorable afternoon of music which was warmly appreciated by the audience.

Twenty minutes after the concert ended our current director took me aside to inform me that the student staff of the concert hall we rent from a local university had failed to record the concert. To those of us who help maintain a recorded archive of the history of the orchestra, who planned to provide the widow with a recording of the concert as a memento, and to the composer who rightly expected a recording of the first performance of her new work this was a disaster.

Last night as I began what will ultimately be a long and somewhat disappointing effort to produce some sort of acceptable recording from a fragmentary dress rehearsal recording made with a digital recorder’s built in mikes from an acoustically poor location on the main floor, I began to think about how unusual the performer’s experience is now compared to 90% of the history of Western music over the last one thousand years. It is only since 1877 that the recording of sounds has been possible and only since around 1930 with the development of the electronic microphone that recorded sounds have been more than a sketchy representation of what an actual performance sounds like. And there are still theoreticians who claim that the “fidelity” of modern recordings still require the brain to complete the analogy between what emanates from a speaker and what it heard at a live performance.

Reflecting on Saturday afternoon when my wife and I listened to the dress rehearsal recording of the second movement of Schumann’s “New England Triptych”, where we have slow exposed extended duets between oboe and bassoon, while mentally making notes about balance, reed strength, and other minutia I wondered how, for that 90+% of music history, performers knew how they sounded.

With the advent of recording technology that could be used in the home and small studios from the 1950s on, listening to recordings of oneself or one’s group has been a huge part of the process of a performer’s education and a valuable tool for conductors. Previous to this revolution, a large part of the job of one’s teacher would be to verbally try to mold the sound the performer produces to conformity with what recognized virtuoso class performers produce. The individual himself was, and still is, not able to accurately evaluate how his performance sounds to others. The phrase at the head of this essay “Do I really sound like that?” is almost universally uttered when one first hears one’s recorded voice and points out how sounds that we produce ourselves sound differently to listeners. For the players of wind instruments this may be more pronounced than keyboard or string performers. (Although I have heard a recording of myself on keyboards that I completely failed to recognize as my own performance.)

It makes me wonder about the “original instrument” school of performance. They want to sound like the original performance. How in the world do they evaluate their efforts? No one knows what the first performance of most of the classical library sounded like. Not even the performers. Beethoven never heard, even once, most of his later works and when he did have his hearing he would be extremely fortunate to hear a composition performed anywhere near adequately a single time. If you wanted to hear a new piece of music, either you found a live performance or you did without. Hearing a major work like Beethoven’s Ninth was a once in a lifetime event and far more people read reviews or heard hearsay than ever experienced the actual music. As a result, every town of any size whatsoever had an orchestra and maybe an opera house as well. Live music flourished everywhere. Quality had to be questionable in smaller towns, but there was no alternative. Now we can listen to music written hundreds of years ago whenever we want, we can compare performances of major works as rendered by dozens of major symphonies. We can hear almost immediate replays of our own performances due to the quality of consumer electronics. But live performances not so much and certainly at a premium price. For those who own a library of recorded music what would the cost be of attending a live performance of every selection owned?

In the last 30 years much has been made of the computer revolution because of its economic impact. But the impact to our leisure, hobby, entertainment and general enjoyment of life because of recording technology is incalculable.

Just sayin’

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