06 February 2011

Live vs Recorded Music

There is an animated funny doing the rounds on the internet at the moment in which a musician booked for a wedding is confronted by a Wedding Organizer.  As a large musical instrument is manhandled into the venue, the Wedding Organizer complains to the musician; “This music looks too loud!”.  The musician replies; “Music is something you judge by hearing, not looking”.

A clever little quip but sadly out of touch with reality.

It was the music video (and surely that’s an oxymoron if ever there was) which finally killed off live performances of pop music; when the attraction is more the heavily edited and produced visuals than the music itself, a live performance is only ever going to be a pale shadow.  Even the terminology of pop fans reflects this; “Have you seen xxxx on YouTube?”, rather than “Have you listened to xxxx?”. But, there again, from its origins in the 1920s as short musical lollipops designed to fit on to a single side of a 78 rpm record, pop music has always been intended primarily for consumption on record, and one only needs to attend a “live” show and see the banks of speakers, theatrical paraphernalia and vast electronic gadgetry – not to mention the performers’ obligatory cheek microphones, like so many miniature face-tattoos, which have no connection to any method of amplification – to realise that the intention is to recreate as closely as possible the recording, even down to the performers miming to it.

Classical music, on the other hand, has always been designed for live consumption and although the advent of the record has opened up the world of this great art to vast audiences who would never otherwise have heard it live, one must never forget that even the most brilliant of recordings can only be a poor relation to a live performance.  I have often held up to ridicule the loony Malaysian “critic” who compared (unfavourably) a live performance of the MPO performing some work or other with a studio recording of Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic – I liken it to comparing the handling of a Perodua Kancil with an Airbus A380; they both set out to do something totally different but they do have in common the aim of moving people from one place to another.  He was not a unique basketcase, and too many so-called music-lovers believe music exists only on disc.

Of course, CDs (or any other type of recording) do provide hours of listening pleasure to us, and our lives would be infinitely the poorer without them.  In my case recordings have opened up whole vistas of musical repertoire I could never have hoped to hear live.  For example, I am a passionate admirer of Stanford’s symphonies, yet I’ve never heard any of them performed live.  My recordings are tantalizing, but until I hear a live performance I will never be entirely sure whether or not these are, as I strongly suspect, some of the greatest British symphonies of all time.  No matter how strong the temptation to regard recorded music as the ultimate musical experience, we must always recognise that it is only a substitute for the real thing, and when the opportunity to attend a live performance comes along, we must grab it with both hands.

Why?  It comes down to my stock answer when asked if I have heard a certain piece of music.  If, like the Stanford, I only know it through a CD, I reply; “I’ve heard a recording, but I’ve never listened to it live”.  The crucial thing there are the verbs hear and listen – the former implies a passive activity, the latter an active one.  When you hear a recording, it’s there and you need do nothing about it.  In fact, even as a professional CD-listener, I readily confess to being distracted while CDs are playing.  I set the thing spinning with all good intentions, then the Call of the Coffee is heard or the Pull of the Phone, and my mind wanders.  Those distractions do not (or at least should not) enter the concert hall where the environment is carefully crafted to ensure full active concentration on the music.  Only when you concentrate exclusively on the music do you really listen to it.  It’s so easy to take Karajan and his Berlin Phil out of the jewel case and relish the sound while you go about your daily chores, but it takes a superhuman effort actually to listen to music on disc, and I suspect very few do.

Recently, however, I’ve come across a composer who has thus far written exclusively for recordings but is now setting out to promote it in live performances.  For some time now I’ve been aware of the Japanese composer Joe Hisaishi, who celebrates his 60th birthday this year.  I was aware that he wrote film music, primarily for Japanese animated movies (a genre which doesn’t really impinge on my consciousness), and that his audio-recorded soundtracks for these movies have developed something of a cult following.  Indeed, I am increasingly being asked what I think of his music.  The answer has always been, and still is, nothing.  I’ve never heard it (to my knowledge) nor yet sought it out, but when the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra notified me that they were to devote an entire concert to his music I decided to delve further.  I was actually on the point of rooting out a CD when the HKPO told me that he had decided to write his own notes for the concert and that I would just be required to edit them into readable English.  The notes duly arrived.
An essential function of writing programme notes is that the writer makes the reader WANT to listen to the music.  I try to do this even with Chopin, whose every note I find execrable, but when a composer describes his own music as “pleasant”, “delightful” and “magnificent”, I switch off, assuming that such words are an attempt to instil preconceptions into listeners’ minds and prevent them forming their own independent opinions.  However, I realised that Hisaishi had written his notes in Japanese and the translator may have added a gloss to it or, more likely, failed to translate what would be perfectly normal Japanese idioms into English equivalents.  All the same, I left it as it was and, I have to say, were it not for the very fervent advocacy for his music from some quarters, I might have done the same to his music.

But, while my ears are precious and I don’t like them being polluted by the force-fed noise which is what so much music designed to be heard on record rather than live is all about, Hisaishi has clearly decided that his music deserves the legitimacy of a live performance and, as such, deserves being listened to.  I won’t be running out to buy the discs before I hear the music live, but when I’ve attended the HKPO concert on 8th or 9th December (follow the HKPO link to book your own tickets) and if I do like what I hear, I will certainly buy the discs to remind me of how the music sounded live.  Surely, that’s the best way to approach listening to music on record.

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