Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Medieval maw Day 03

Last day of rehearsals, first of recording (tonight). Historically, medieval music (like most Renaissance and Baroque and other classical repertoires) has been recorded "live" to 2-track--all players in a resonant room together, balancing the audio sound that the stereo pair of microphones here via physical location. Half the engineer/producer's art was in locating the players, "tuning" the room and the orientation of the microphones, and in getting good sound, both for the sake of the master tape, and to maximize the players' ability to communicate and get good musical processes going. This is still the way in which most classical recording is undertaken.

But that does not mean that what you hear on the CD is precisely what was played in the room. On the contrary: a second large part of the engineer/producer's art was in the editing process, the process--as our old friend the master engineer Peter Nothnagle put it--of "putting two 8th notes next to each other." This meant recording all sections of all pieces (e.g., "covering" the pieces), ideally in single, complete, and contiguous takes, in such a fashion that both the expression inherent in the particular performance, the notes being sounded, and the quality of the sounds going to tape, all coincided. This is the ideal, and historically it's precisely the way that most jazz "blowing sessions" (and old-school Irish music recordings) were made: book three hours in a good studio with good instruments and top-notch players, "blow" for three hours on familiar repertoire, with a couple of takes on each piece, and walk out at the end of three hours, leaving the producer to select (and occasionally to perform minimal edits upon) the best takes.

But the reality is that most classical recordings are not realized in this way. Yes, everybody typically plays together in a room at the same time, with the engineer employing some combination of "ambient" (e.g., relatively distant mics "hearing" both the instruments and the room's sound) and "close" (e.g., next to and isolating specific instruments) microphone placement. But even if they do play single complete and contiguous takes, it is very very uncommon for a single take to appear unadulterated or unedited on a final CD release; far more common is to select the best bits from multiple iterations ("takes") and then have the engineer digitally marry those bits together into a single, composite, and unnaturally highly-polished performance. That is simply the expectation of classical music CD listeners anymore: that the performance will be both sonically and technically without flaw, while at the same time achieving some kind of "unique" interpretation, even though the version on the CD was never actually played all at the same time.

This is impossible and unrealistic, and the result is that listener expectations are superhuman and unnatural: the typical classical CD fan hears a performance from another, pre-editing era, and says "why are there all the wrong notes? why doesn't it sound perfect?" This is not the fault of the fan, but of the technology--because technology changes the way we listen. Most people who consume most of their music from pre-recorded sources have little idea what music--even that same music--actually sounds like in a room. Which is sad, because those imperfections, asymmetries, moment-by-moment unexpected choices, are precisely what make both errors and repairs, struggle and transcendence, possible in a musical performance. The reason that we listen to music made by humans (those of us who think about human versus machine issues) is because we value that human imperfection, and the unique experiences it makes possible.

Thus, the aural expectations set up by superhuman technical perfection limit the possibilities for experience that come from listening to recordings, but present a tremendous potential opportunity in the realm of live music. If practitioners of various niche musics can shift the way they market their music, and the music's unique appeal in performance, then there is a chance that they can likewise shift audience expectations. And that the unexpected, the unique, even the ways in which live players get themselves into and out of predicaments, can become a selling point, rather than a handicap.

20 years ago, at the magazine's request, I wrote an article for the principle early music organization's newsletter about this newfangled phenomenon called the "World Wide Web," and the DIY (from punk rock: "Do It Yourself"; e.g., to quote a touring publication of the period, Book Your Own Fucking Life") ethos that early music people could stand to learn from touring folk, punk, and jazz musicians. I argued that the great strengths of early music performance (especially the medieval repertoires, but also Renaissance and Baroque) lay not in their sonic similarity to classical music--which is the way, over the '80s and '90s, they were marketed: as a safely-and-slightly "exotic" experience closely aurally allied with what the symphony and string-quartet audiences already knew--but rather in the way that their procedures, and the experience of seeing those procedures in live concerts, linked early music to these other, more vital, more immediate, less object- and more process-oriented, niche musics. I argued that the Web's self-marketing and -presentation capacities, and the "live music is better" philosophies of these other niche repertoires, presented a far more vital, immediate, far-reaching, inspiring, and, oh by the way, realistic set of possibilities for early music.

Sadly, it didn't take. The Early Music Boom went bust, around 1992, as the Baroque and early-Classical repertoires and performers got swept into the maw of subsidized "it sounds like Mozart so it doesn't intimidate me" recording, and pretty much every festival, agency, and radio programmer ignored anything that didn't sound like Mozart. Some of the best experiences we ever had playing medieval music live were either in Europe (where, as Dharmonia puts it, it is their folk music) or at folk- or world-music festivals in the USA (where the audience was prepared to hear medieval repertoire as simply one more "world" music). And then the entire record industry went bust (hint: do not invest in any record companies) and it became both mandatory and preferable for artists to release their own recordings, on CD, or mp3, or some permutation of the above.

It--and we--are still out there though. Live, improvisational musical performance, players communicating directly and with immediacy with audiences and one another, is still a unique and uniquely rewarding experience, one that cannot be objectified, bought, sold, or copied. If you're a "recording artist" and you're worried about people bootlegging your CDs, you are, to quote Dharmonia's favorite lolcats website "Doon it Rong." Recordings are like calling cards--they let people know that you're out there, and pique their curiousity about coming to hear you live. Once you have them in the room, it's your job--your ancient and eternal job--as a musician to give them an experience so vital, so unique, so emotionally and viscerally satisfying, that you convert them to returning the next time.

Audio recording has been around for a little over 130 years. Live musical performance has been around for about 40,000 years. When the chips are down and the economy slumps, which one do you want to count on for your daily crust?

I know my answer.

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