Is Perfection Killing Classical Music?

Not literally, of course, at least not yet. The ability to edit and fix recordings has long conditioned audiences to expect that the music we hear should be perfect. Has it changed the way performers play in live concert?

recording.jpgThe role of recordings in the music business has changed. Once, recordings were primarily a product, a way to make money. But classical music recordings haven’t made significant profits in
years and most large recording companies have dropped their classical
labels. Increasingly, recordings are a marketing tool.

In the pop industry, the ability to share and freely distribute recordings has helped develop careers and propel unknown bands to stardom. So if big labels aren’t recording much classical music anymore, perhaps live recordings could help classical musicians?

Take away the not-insignificant issues of union recording contracts, and among musicians there’s still resistance to the idea of routinely recording and releasing live recordings. Why? Because performers have been conditioned to believe that when they’re being recorded, the performance needs to be perfect. What if you miss that high “a” and you can’t fix it in the mixing booth? Many performers have come to believe that they have to play with a different level of caution if they are being recorded live. They won’t take as many chances in a live recorded performance.

So a missed marketing opportunity. Okay.

Even without live recording, perhaps the culture of perfect edited recordings has had a negative impact on concerts. From an audience perspective, listeners used to technically-perfect recordings come to performances with an expectation of every note in place. Performers who understand that the bar is set at technical perfection work with that goal in mind. Perhaps artificially-achieved perfection has become a baseline that has led to a homogenization of musical approach.

Maybe that’s okay (though a fixation on technical control can erect a wall between performer and audience).

But something else: most people these days encounter artists primarily through speakers or screens. I wonder if audiences aren’t getting tired of polished perfection because it’s become so corporate and commonplace with widely available cheap professional tools. Perfection is now an aesthetic choice rather than a rarity.

This is an anecdotal observation, but it seems like the vast majority of hit performances on video and audio share services have a significant live raw quality to them.  The video quality can be rough; the audio can be second-rate. But the performance has to have a visceral element of risk. Performances under glass are less attractive in the way that corporate blogs and corporate video are. Not that we’re celebrating wrong notes; but maybe the essential element of a performance ought to be performance, not perfection.

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  1. says

    very interesting column, and as the pianist member of a piano trio, may i suggest that there is another crucial dimension in which recordings have "permanently" skewed the ears of listeners? that would be the balance among instruments. with music turned into "electricity" via microphones and engineers, no one recognizes what the instruments are supposed to sound like in a natural acoustic live anymore. if the piano is too loud in the studio, it can just be "turned down"! not that i EVER play too loudly! thanks for your important point of view. sincerely, frank daykin

  2. dolceedallineare says

    All performers should master improvisation. That way a memory lapse or a "wrong" note can be turned into a rhapsodic interlude.

  3. Bruce Meyer says

    Yes, I think so: let us celebrate both the raw and the cooked.
    As a music lover, I wanted and want music to take me somewhere, and not be wallpaper. Let me date myself. I grew up at a time when Omnibus TV and the Bernstein Young Peoples Concerts and the Fiedler Boston Pops were the gateway to high culture; and I was a pop music fan with strong crossover stirrings. I loved the Beatles then, and my favorite Beatles album now, so to speak, is Paul McCartney's Tripping the Live Fantastic. I thought that Glenn Gould had it right, then, when he retreated to the studio to make perfect recordings, for the recording not the performance was the artifact; and I later thought that the Grateful Dead had it right when they encouraged bootleg recordings to capture the human reality of the musical experience, besides being a marketing tool.
    In my musical experience, the recording serves as the default official version, having supplanted the script of written notes on paper. The flawed live performance, face to crowd, is the lived experience that makes music fulfill its potential as a human thing.
    I don't like to relisten, revisit, some (many?) studio recordings that I know by heart. But I can reexperience the human touch of mistakes in lyrics by John Lennon on the Ed Sullivan Show singing Help!, or Eric Clapton going over the top on the Wheels of Fire Crossroads recording.
    During high school, I had a crush on the seeming-adolescent Jacqueline du Pré, for her sensual abandon in her playing, and sexy good looks too. I did not particularly care if notes were right, I wanted some passion, some human touch.
    So now, when I shop concert hall recordings, I gravitate to archival material, where the perfections rendered still differ as between Toscanini playing his own or George Szell being the taskmaster of the celestial Cleveland Symphony, or Denis Brain's French horn. Other than the classic names with their stylistic eccentricities, I can nearly count on interchangeable perfections between any performances on major labels. What's left to guide my purchases? Either a remaindered price or else some kind of human touch: a beautiful woman or heroic man with inspirational stories, or a passionate live performance that moved those before me, or a risky artistic innovation. Sometimes these all will come together, as in likely in Yo-Yo Ma's Memoirs of a Geisha soundtrack album, or his Obrigado Brazil Live In Concert.

  4. says

    Missing one important point here, Douglas…with the reduction in classical recording, contemporary works by living composers lose what little exposure they were receiving previously. While new music recordings were a niche within a niche, labels like CRI and others allowed works by living composers to reach outside of their own local environments. That reach is constantly being reduced to the point where the latest generations of composers and their works will never attain the same level of exposure as those before them.

  5. says

    @Rob: Ah, but promotion of new composers and music is a whole other story. The classical music world's system for identifying and promoting new music is seriously broken. I disagree that there is less opportunity now, though. Any composer today has more opportunity to record and distribute his or her music than ever before.

  6. says

    I completely agree, Douglas, and I'm really pleased you wrote about this. It's something I've been thinking about a lot. I think this is especially poignant for young singers, actually. The "generic" voices seem to do quite well, the voices that are very accurate and yes, very often beautiful, but might lack the edginess or personality of the Golden Age voices. As a result those voices that might be considered more "communicative" yet not as perfect are often discarded as too difficult to deal with, too much of a risk. This is not to say, of course, that vocal perfection (technically and musically) is not something we should always be striving for, but there is more to it. Hope to hear more about this in your future posts.

  7. says

    @Kala: And I think this is one reason that the big competitions that used to identify and promote young careers have faded in importance. Competitions too often rewarded safe technical mastery over quirky communicative performances. Problem is, audiences missed the personality.

  8. says

    I've gotten so frustrated with the relentless perfection in the creation of studio recordings of orchestral music (my business, btw) that I've devised a way to take my "digital orchestra" into the concert hall and perform live, with hall-generated acoustics (not reverb plugins), soloists and even a new hair-raising worry … that my instrument may miss notes or even stop working at any moment.
    Shameless plug …
    You are all cordially invited to come and hear for yourself on May 20, 2009 in Boston. This concert not only will premiere two arias for mezzo and orchestra by Tom Myron, but will also be the world's first live performance of a Beethoven symphony by a digital orchestra.

  9. says

    I agree. Pop artists have been altering live performances for general release for decades, but this doesn't negate the fact that often some of the best performances come with a measure of imperfection in them. The same principle could be applied to classical music – perfection in a live setting with so many variables is not possible, nor necessarily desirable.

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