21 August 2013

The Good and Bad of the Gramophone

When Thomas Edison demonstrated his phonograph in London 125 years ago this year, he asked Sir Arthur Sullivan to record a message.  This is what Sullivan said; “I am astonished and somewhat terrified at the results of this evening's experiments – astonished at the wonderful power you have developed, and terrified at the thought that so much hideous and bad music may be put on record forever”.  How astonishingly prescient of him (and something which only reinforces my belief that Sullivan was a much greater man than his admirable tunes in the Savoy Operas and English hymn books imply).

Unquestionably, the power of the gramophone has transformed the world of music beyond all imagination.  It is amazing how many people, for whom music would not necessarily have meant anything at all, have suddenly become absolutely passionate about it (remember the stupefyingly daft stickers the staff at Tower Records used to have to wear which read “No Music, No Life” when most of them had never even heard of Sir Arthur Sullivan?). People who cannot sing, regularly tell us that they “love singing” when, what they really love, is dancing along and mouthing the meaningless texts of pre-recorded rock music.  A whole industry of “music” has grown up, fed and nurtured not on music, but on the recording industry.  And shopping, flying, eating and sleeping all have to be carried out to the accompaniment of recorded music.  The gramophone has had the power, quite simply, to revolutionise daily life, bringing music to the ears of those for whom it would never have had any meaning and, I hope, greatly enriching their lives.  Speaking for myself, I have had my life immeasurably enriched by the gramophone and my knowledge of music has largely been derived from its pervasive influence.
The trouble is, as Sullivan foresaw, the very ubiquitousness of the gramophone has effectively dulled our critical faculties so that those who profess a “love” – sometimes even a “passion” – for music, have no idea whether what they hear is good or bad.  Of course, most will claim that this is a subjective judgement and if they like something, therefore it is good.  Slowly but surely, the health professionals are teaching us the folly of this attitude.  Cigarettes, alcohol, fatty foods, sugary drinks – people love them, but generally most people know that they are bad.  So the culture that “I like, therefore it is good: I dislike, therefore it is bad”, is gradually dying.  If only it would die when it comes to music!

It is one of the sad consequences of the invention of the gramophone that it has come to supplant live musical performances.  I know of a great many “music-lovers” who not only proudly proclaim that they “prefer” to hear recorded music than live, but who show no shame in confessing that they have never ever heard a live performance.  The expectations of a recorded performance have become the yardsticks by which live performances are measured.  Notwithstanding the ridiculous Malaysian critic who, in his review of a live performance by the MPO, wrote that it was “not as good” as a recorded version of the same work by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Karajan, people have come to expect absolute accuracy in every live performance, happily forgetting that it is achieved in the recording studio only by means of multiple re-takes.  To be fair, performers have worked hard to meet these unrealistic aspirations and many actually do achieve a level of accuracy in live performance which would have been unthinkable in Sullivan’s time. 
At a more prosaic level, we find this obsession with the standard of accuracy found on recorded performances impinging on humble week-by-week piano lessons, when a teacher’s demands for “getting all the notes right” allows little room for individual interpretation or expression of the music’s inner spirit.  How many music students are put off by this dry obsession with a technical impossibility when the true spirit of music is never even mentioned in a lesson? 

Another common feature of recorded music which impinges on live performances comes in the practice established with the arrival of the CD in 1983 of putting precise timings on music tracks. Examiners are continually faced with diploma candidates who, expected to give the timings of their proposed programmes, will suggest that they can rattle off Haydn’s Sonata in E flat in precisely 14 minutes and 39 seconds, or a Bach Cello Suite in 8 minutes and 32 seconds.  YouTube can be that precise; the reality of a live performance cannot, and it’s good fun (if rather unfair) to work out by how much the actuality of performance digresses from the stated timing. 
What is even more sad is that technology is such that live performers are no longer necessary.  For years the classical music industry has accepted that there is a difference between performing for a recording and performing for an audience (and the expressed preferences of some of today’s leading instrumentalists – I can’t say that I know of a singer who takes this attitude – only to record “live” reinforces the point), but in the world of pop the concept of a live performance has long gone.  What is “live” there is at best an attempt to recreate a recorded performance, and is more usually merely a “lip-synch” to the recording itself.

In many ways this shift of emphasis from live to recorded performances is a good thing.  It certainly ensures that the performance stands up to repeated listening (which is something few live performances can claim), and has widened the reach of music far beyond the kind of public who appreciated it in Sullivan’s day.  But at what cost?  Forgetting the obvious frisson you get in any live performance - that sense of things being “on the edge” and likely to collapse at any moment – are we not in danger of taking the adrenalin out of a performance?  True, in the recording studio no matter how many takes you allow yourself, there is adrenalin pumping through the body. But that is nothing compared to the blind panic that sweeps through any performer just before a live performance, knowing that one false move can destroy, perhaps irretrievably, a reputation and a career.  Performers can be excused for opting for the safe course, and trusting their reputations to the skills of engineers and producers, but we the public lose that incredible sense of excitement that comes with any live performance.
Soccer fans lose interest in a match when they already know the result; for them it has to be live or nothing.  F1 fans do not experience the same thrill watching a replay of a race when they already know that it wasn’t interrupted by a spectacularly fiery collision.  It is a pity that music fans do not show such commitment and involvement in their art.  A source of endless fun for me is to sit through a live Wagner opera and see how badly a singer gets it wrong and how well a conductor manages to cover things up; an aspect you never get with a recorded performance.

Sullivan got it right about the bad music.  But even he, in all his wisdom, was not able to anticipate the plethora of bad performers made good in the public eyes by the record industry

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