Dance v Sculpture

Ask musicians why they got into music in the first place and many will tell about an early experience of live music.  They might point to a particular performance or concert.  They’ll tell you about that captivating string quartet that came into school or about that time their Dad took them to see a singer in a local church hall.

For others, it was not the mesmerising magic of the live experience that captured their imagination but the wonderful world of recorded sound.  These musicians will tell you about “that” song they heard played over and over over again on the radio or how they saved their pocket money to go and buy the latest single.  (Apologies, by the way, to younger readers, growing up in a post-iTunes universe for whom none of this makes any kind of sense!)

For me,  the difference between live music and recorded music feels like the difference between dance and sculpture.  Both extraordinarily beautiful.  Both demonstrating talent, commitment and persistence in the execution.  The live performer walks a tightrope – there’s an element of danger.  There’s also (when it goes well) the virtuous circle of audience feedback – an energy in the room which cannot be faked, bottled or summoned upon demand.

Recorded audio is a very different animal.  It’s often painstakingly and carefully constructed.  Even a “live” recording is no longer truly live.  It may have been a recording of a live event but upon second listening it remains unchanging, resolutely fixed in stone, frozen in time.

That brings its own challenges.  If I play a duff note in a live performance it vanishes into the ether.  There’s always tomorrow night.  Besides, the audience might not have noticed…  But make a mistake in a recording and it’s fixed.  It’s out there subject to scrutiny in perpetuity.  It will haunt you forever.  Now, of course, by “mistake” I don’t simply mean a wrong note.  The technology of recording has long given us the capacity to redo the offending passage, edit a composite “perfect” performance from multiple takes.  Pitch and timing have become totally malleable and plastic in the hands of the sculptor.  The “mistakes” now are those errors in judgement which obscure the meaning and detract from the music.  Too many options!  When anything is possible nothing is ever finished.  You end up obsessing over micro-details.  “Does that bass guitar slightly anticipate the drum in a good way or a sloppy way?”  “Should I tweak the tuning of that slightly flat syllable or will to do so destroy the humanity of the performance?”  “Does that guitar come in ever so slightly too loud in the chorus?”  These things matter when you’re producing for posterity.

I guess it’s these challenges that spark something in me.  That could be because most of my early, formative musical experiences were all gained through recordings.  Recordings that I came to know intimately and love dearly.  Over the next couple of blog posts I’m going to be remembering some of those recordings and discussing their importance.  You may be surprised…