Modern Musical Expectation, or, Why Doesn’t This Sound Like The Recording?

This post is in response to a piece entitled ‘What’s Lost When Everything Is Recorded?’ by Quentin Hardy, from the Bits blog at the New York Times. 

The year after I finished college, I hung around town. I took some graduate courses in musicology (because even on my year out I couldn’t not be a student). I worked several jobs ranging from classroom aide to bar waitress, and – true to form for many young musicians – I played in a band. One of my favorite memories from my time playing with this group of people was a Halloween tribute concert we did at a local bar. The annual event featured local groups playing entire sets as famous bands – recent years have included sets ‘by’ Nirvana, Fleetwood Mac, The Pixies, Weezer, and The Velvet Underground, among others. It’s always a fun crowd, and a great excuse for bands to cut loose and be someone else for a night.

This particular year, after much discussion, my band and I decided to devote our stage time to Paul Simon, particularly the Graceland years. We conscripted a handful of friends to sing backup and play auxiliary percussion as well as brass and woodwind instruments. The set wasn’t easy – though we included a few Simon & Garfunkel standards like ‘Cecilia’, we were taking on material like ‘Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes’ and ‘Kodachrome’, which are deceptively difficult for all their catchiness. We worked incredibly hard, and had a great time. But during our time together we played plenty of other sets (of our own material) that were the result of hard work and we enjoyed them, too – so why does this one stand out?

Because it was perfect. Everyone played the right note, every time. No one mixed up any lyrics, and the small bar’s sound system was spot on, even with the cacophony of our ragtag wannabe-Ladysmith Black Mambazo friends. The crowd was engaged, singing along with everything, and they adored us all.

Okay, obviously this may not be completely true – people probably messed up all over the place. Words were improvised, chords were reversed, drums were hit in a moment meant to be silent. I’m sure some members of the crowd spent as much time talking amongst themselves as they did listening to us play. But we have no recollection of any of these things, because to this day, I have not seen or heard a recording of this performance. I haven’t even seen a photo of us all onstage as a group. And this is the only time that has ever happened. It wasn’t like we had a huge amount of fame, either — after all, we were just a midwestern band that enjoyed some local success in a college town — but to be any sort of performer in the digital age means you’re going to wind up with some kind of residual media after a gig. Pictures on Facebook, iPhone video posted to YouTube, review in a local music blog, &c. All of which are great for small bands in terms of publicity, but after most shows we played, I remember spending quite a lot of time fixating on these recordings and cringing at the smallest mistakes. 

Admittedly, the recordings were good motivation: if you practice, you won’t have to be embarrassed the next time someone uploads a video of your music (fear is the greatest motivator, after all). But all the same, this era of access, where we can watch something and then immediately watch it again and again…takes some of the gloss away. Rather than allowing ourselves to enjoy the moment we stop engaging and watch footage of something that just happened. And the fear that comes with the knowledge of constant media monitoring disallows for some freedoms of performance – the freedom to make a mistake and smile and get over it, the freedom to improvise something that may not work out, the freedom to change a lyric and not be accused of forgetfulness.

Hardy’s article focuses on human conversation – he wonders what devices like Google Glass will do to the way we speak to one another. He wonders if we will begin to analyse and study recorded speech patterns in terms of, say, what verbal techniques were most persuasive during a successful business meeting. Hardy questions whether this type of analysis will eventually change our daily rhetoric, asking if ‘speaking from the heart could become speaking from the talking points of a computerized recommendation engine’.

Quite frankly? It might. It’s certainly happened with music. Access to recorded sound has completely changed human expectation of how something should sound, especially when attending a live performance. The music being heard in the highest-grossing pop performances today is mostly pre-recorded, allowing for only the slightest chance that the resulting sound will differ from the record. It leads one to wonder what the point is of going to the live show, other than being in the same room with a famous pop star? Might as well get 10,000 people together and put the record on really, really loudly. Throw some choreography and lasers in there and you’ve got yourself a concert.

The ways in which recorded sound has changed audience expectation is not entirely related to the pop music genre. It would be interesting to know how the number of so-called ‘virtuostic’ classical performers has grown, specifically since the advent of recorded sound (The NYT did an interesting piece on ‘virtuoso’ performers in 2011, noting with some wry humor that they’ve become ‘a dime a dozen’). I wonder how much credit technology can take for this. Are we more likely to attempt virtuostic levels of performance because we are more aware of the extant virtuostic talent in the world? How much does recorded sound add to general awareness of the existence of this level of ability? The NYT virtuoso piece noted that since 1954, when Roger Bannister ran the first four-minute mile, ‘runners have knocked nearly 17 seconds off [his] time’. Does this type of self-motivation, musical or otherwise, stem from a mentality that wonders If [s]he did it, why can’t I?

Or, are these virtuosos merely performers who are aware of the immediacy of digital media – performers who believe that they must achieve perfection because the reviews will hit Twitter within seconds, the photos will be up on Facebook within hours, and the recorded video available by morning? When the whole world has access to recorded media, the whole world can critique a performance. Maybe this is why these virtuosos are becoming ‘a dime a dozen’ – because we expect the performance to sound exactly like the recording.

As a performer who certainly does not count herself among the virtuostic, this is why I keep that Halloween show close to my heart. It is my virtuoso moment – a review that is my own, not based on the words of others. It is the one performance that exists entirely in memory, and if I want to believe it was perfect no one can prove otherwise. Maybe they remember it differently, but that’s fine – as of now we aren’t able to upload our memories onto the internet, so any imperfections will just have to remain offline.

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