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June 15, 2007

Ars longa, vita brevis (visual or otherwise)

by Robert Levine

Doug McLennan wrote:

" If a twenty year old has five CD's of their favorite rap star, they are probably going to knock themselves out to attend a live performance if the opportunity arises." I think that this largely used to be true. But I think for many people the recorded experience might now be preferable to the live one. Live pop for example almost never delivers in purely musical terms. The sound isn't mixed well, the crowd is noisy, and the acoustics are terrible. I suspect the attraction of these events has more to do with having an encounter with someone famous or plugging in to the energy of a crowd than it does an appreciation of the music.

But why does it matter? In purely musical terms, a recorded performance by artist X of concerto Y with orchestra Z is almost bound to be superior in many respects to any live performance they'll give together, but people come to see artist X etc. anyway. It's a superior experience in some ways and not in others. And it's been like that for a long time.

Doug went on to write:

Not to say that isn't important, but it's very different. Watching sports on TV is also a different experience. With replays, multiple camera angles and constant stats and analysis on the screen, one can participate in a deeper way in the pure game.

Except you can't. ... most people would identify an essential "being there" experience that generally trumps the comfort of your own living room.

Opera and baseball (and movies like "Titanic") are best experienced in their native habitats rather than at home, purely on the merits. One problem that orchestras face is the absence of a similar level of spectacle.

Okay - I realize I've just argued against my initial point. But perhaps not. I think the recorded experience - one which we increasingly have more control of (think Tivo, iPods, etc) - is increasingly different from the live experience, and speaks to entirely to different needs. No more is the recorded experience a shadow of the live version; it offers different things, speaks to different needs. Most people's encounters with artists these days comes not from a live experience, but through a screen or speaker. Even if you're a big music fan, your bulk relationship with music is through recording. Live has largely become the boutique experience.

But how is that any different from the past 50 years?

I have a friend who's an audiophile. For him the sound is everything, and witnessing his fanaticism about the minute placement of expensive speakers and super special wiring sometimes makes me question what he really finds important in music.
As my wife once said, audiophiles are people who listen to the hiss.
At the other end, I know music critics who seem to be quite content listening to music in crappy MP3 files on lousy equipment. For them, the sound is not so relevant as the ideas or artistry expressed in those ideas. Sound be damned.

We live in a visual age. One of the things that has happened with computers and video in recent years is that the sophistication of our video language has moved away from the visual language that can be employed in real life on a stage...live linear story-telling is increasingly a foreign language (the theatre audience is much smaller than the TV or movie audience)

Again, how is this different from the past 50 years?

I can buy an argument that the live musical experience is about participation and being involved. But if that kind of involving experience is increasingly a foreign experience for someone who's used to using recorded music to accompany their day, how do you convince them that it's important? Their experience of music in the recorded world might not require them to have the live experience to be a music fan.

There is a school of thought (made famous by the monumental James C. Petrillo, president of the American Federation of Musicians through the 1940's and 50's) that, for a musician, making a recording is like playing for one's own funeral. I think the problem is more that, as Doug said earlier, we live in a visual age. That's the one shift above all others that TV has brought us. And orchestras aren't visual experiences.

Posted by rlevine at June 15, 2007 9:32 AM


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