Thursday, April 21, 2011

The closest approach to the live performance

Being present at a concert, as either a performer or as a member of an audience, is a different experience from that of listening to a recording. The presence and the relevance of a moment simply cannot be captured in any more than a superficial way, even with the finest audio and video equipment. The presence and relevance of a moment can be enhanced by technology, but the experience, in that case, is being controlled by a director, a producer, an audio engineer, and/or camera operators. The resulting object can be terrific, but it can never be more than an object.
Those wise words come from composer and violinist Elaine Fine. They were just some of those written in response to my post If classical music is not live it is dead and the consensus was that classical music needs to get back to selling the live performance experience. Since 1936 leading hi-fi manufacturer Quad has summed up its design philosophy with the words 'The closest approach to the original sound'. Similar thinking provides a very powerful acid test for any form of reproduced classical music - how close is it to the live performance experience?

Audience engagement is the current mantra. Yet in the haste to turn art into entertainment in the pursuit of accessibility, the first law of classical music has been forgotten. That law is - 'The further the reproduced music is from the live performance experience, the less likely it is to engage with the listener'. How close to a live performance is a single movement of a Sibelius symphony played on a breakfast time radio programme and bookended by the presenter reading out banal text messages from listeners? How close to a live performance is a Mahler ringtone?

Yes, of course classical music needs marketing. But the current obsession with accessiblity has allowed the centre of gravity to move too far away from the live performance experience and too far towards the virtual world. Marvin Minsky, one of the great pioneers of artificial intelligence, was once asked when would we be living in an entirely virtual world? His answer was that this would never happen as long as we looked up after two hours at a computer keyboard, saw a tree, and marvelled at its beauty. Trees, concert halls and symphony orchestras are today both things of beauty and threatened species. To protect them classical music needs to do a much better job of communicating the beauty and power of the live performance experience.


Some readers have pointed out, quite rightly, that domestic listening to recordings on a good quality audio system can bring the listener gratifyingly close to the live performance experience. Confirmation for this view comes from a new CD of Johann Kuhnau's Musicalische Vorstellung einiger biblischer Historien. On this disc organist Richard Apperley plays the Flentrop organ that was relocated in 2008 from Holland to St Paul's Lutheran Church in Wellington, New Zealand and which is seen in the header photo. The two manual Flentrop instrument is particularly suited to the music that accompanies the Lutheran liturgy and which has Bach, Buxtehude and contemporaneous composers at its centre. Listen to a very illuminating Radio New Zealand podcast about the history of the instrument here.

Kuhnau is an important and sadly neglected composer who preceeded Johann Sebastain Bach as Thomaskantor in Leipzig. The Musicalische Vorstellung einiger biblischer Historien (Musical representation of several Biblical stories) is simple, elegant but profoundly spiritual music. It is played with total conviction by Richard Apperley, and engineer Reuben Moore and producer Kyle Macdonald capture his interpretation in commendably lifelike sound.

If there is a live performance of Kuhnau's Musicalische Vorstellung einiger biblischer Historien near you this Easter do not hesitate to attend. If there is not, and if you have an audio system with very good quality speakers, this new CD will take you very close to the live performance experience. But it is a sign of the times that this disc, released on Richard Apperley's own Organism label, is much easier to find as an MP3 download than in the CD version which I auditioned - for a taster of both follow this link. Johann Kuhnau featured in one of the very first overgrown path posts, and in a beautiful piece of synchronicity it tells how he published an early satirical novel titled Der musicalische Quack-salber - The Musical Quack. Perhaps I'll rename this blog?

Also on Facebook and Twitter. The CD of Kuhnau's Musicalische Vorstellung einiger biblischer Historien was provided as a requested review sample. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

6 comments:

mrG said...

John Cage relates the story of attending a concert after which a young boy in the next row remarks to his father, "That's not how it goes!" -- this is another compelling argument to slam classical recordings: recordings set an unhealthy expectation of mass production quality control.

Concert music spent hundreds of years as a living breathing LOCAL thing, but when faced with the deviously crafted sound-candy high-fat high-salt high-sugar McMusic of the factory-produced pop-music recording, abandoned its anthropological role and started jealously chasing Billboard ratings with ever greater spectacle and razzle-dazzle marketing and rosters of superhuman trained seals, all in an effort to make the record into a must-have Ripley's Believe It Or Not; we lost something there, I think, something important, culturally. Bits of plastic in shrinkwrap is not culture - culture is people sharing something of a common identity and experience. IMHO, calling both 'music' is where we went wrong.

And I think it is safe to say that fillet mignon and vichyssoise will never outsell the Big Mac regardless of the packaging. Nor will mama's homemade Irish stew or any other either thoughtful or healthy dish. So it is pointless to pretend it is anything other than what it is, a social thing, an exercise in 'culture' the way a petri-dish and gelatin is an agent nurturing bacterial culture.

This is quite apart from the question of the metaphysics of presense -- here again, the recording industry is engaged in the sculpture of disk artifacts for the purpose of feeding electronic playback Furniture Music, which is a very different goal from the research into the live and personal and always unique composer-conductor-player-audience experience; it is significant how so few rock-music live recordings will make the charts vs how so many multitracked heavily processed and 'enhanced' studio classical recordings will tank. There are notable exceptions certainly (Greatful Dead bootlegs vs Glen Gould) but overall one world is after a nearly-anonymously presented environmental experience in the moment whereas the other (as every jukebox band knows) is designed from the start to be a highly directed looky-me attention grab for a uniformly repeatable and strongly identity-branded sale.

I recognize the economic necessity of it for the composer and for the performers, and I strain my brain to think of any way out of this mess, but it is nonetheless highly ironic that there exist John Cage recordings. The man spent a great deal of the latter part of his life emploring people to live in the present moment, and here are now great masses of fans who are listening to some long past and distantly enshrined present-moment repeated over their ipod buds, over and over on each play, exactly the same as last time. They are not listening to John Cage, they are listening to anti-Cage.

Records do make a good record, an excellent transcription of some historic event, but I think we shot ourselves in the foot by presenting and accepting such as 'music'. If I had my way, I'd require people to present a musician's union or school of music student card before allowing them to buy recordings ;)

A.C. Douglas said...

Since 1936 leading hi-fi manufacturer Quad has summed up its design philosophy with the words 'The closest approach to the original performance'.
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I don't mean to make a habit of this, but as a lifelong user of Quad's products (I bought my first pair of Quad ESL speakers and amplifiers in 1960 or thereabouts) I wish to point out that their design philosophy is actually, "The closest approach to the original sound [emphasis mine]", not "performance". More substantively, I agree completely with your point that no substitute can properly replace experiencing classical music performed live. I've repeatedly made that claim on Sounds & Fury over the years, and addressed the matter most definitively in this 2004 S&F post.

ACD

Pliable said...

ACD, please do make a habit of correcting my silly errors, as I seem to be getting into the habit of making them. At least, unlike others, I will both acknowledge my mistakes and correct them. And I did not misspell 'Johann Kuhnau'.

Elaine Fine said...

Thank you for continuing the conversation so eloquently (and I'm flattered by your use of the quotation from my blog).

Pliable said...

Nice heads up via Twitter from the Boston Symphony Orchestra no less -

Neat post on the importance of the live experience in classical music from "On An Overgrown Path" http://bit.ly/fsQm10

Pliable said...

For those wanting the Kuhnau CD Richard Apperley tells me there are various New Zealand based stores which will ship internationally - the best is probably http://www.amplifier.co.nz/release/64639/musicalische-vorstellung.html.