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June 15, 2007

Not so Different, Yet All The Difference

by Douglas McLennan

Robert: How it's different from the past 50 years is the amount of control people now have over the experience. Yes we've had recordings for a long time, but the ease of access and portability now makes it different. Yes we had Walkmen and portable CD players, and before them the radio and record player. But being able to find the things you want and access them whenever you want is different I think.

I also think that (particularly in visual culture) there's been more of a separation of experience between live and recorded. In other words, as long as the video experience was a pale representation of a performance - second best except for its accessibility - there was no question as to the supremacy of live. But as video has evolved it stopped trying to recreate/mirror/represent the live version, and created something of its own that is increasingly different from live.

I would say, for example that the Met's moviecast operas in movie theatres is a different artform than staged opera. It's based on the staged opera, but by virtue of its ability to reinvent the visual language in ways that in some cases are much superior to what you can see in the theatre, it has become a different artform.

What I'm arguing that is new is that there's a separation of experience that's taking place. There are concert halls where you just can't hear an orchestra as well as you can in a well-done recording. If what interests you is aural clarity, it's not at all certain that the concert hall is the best place to experience that. Again - nothing particularly new about that. But my ability to control most of the aspects of how I'm going to encounter art might mean that I'm less willing to give up that control to somebody coughing or a bad seat. And I would argue that encasing the live experience in temple-like garb is also a turnoff for many people. There's much about the temple experience that is wonderful. But there's also something about the physical experience that can seem arid, too.

Yes we live in a visual age, and I'm not arguing against live performance or for spicing up the visuals. What I'm trying to question is what is the essence of the live experience and why performers think its charms are so immediately obvious. The list of inconveniences associated with being an audience member at a live performance is long - from ticket cost and transportation to the things I mentioned above. What is the essence of live that is going to keep me coming back, especially if I encounter a string of performances that cost me much to participate but failed to deliver on my heightening demands for "peak" experiences?

Don't get me wrong - I love live experiences when they work out. There's no substitute, to my way of thinking. But I do seriously want to know: as my calculations about how I spend my time get more and more complicated, what's the indisputable can't-get-anywhere-else ingredient of live performance I just have to have? Or (I worry), perhaps there isn't any such a thing?

Posted by mclennan at June 15, 2007 12:22 PM


It's all about multitasking, friends. I cannot remember the last time I JUST listened to a recording (classical, jazz, hip-hop or other). My days are filled with music. I listen while I eat breakfast, ride the subway, walk the streets, work, shop, talk, make dinner... How much of it I really hear between the traffic noise, chatter, phone ringing, etc. is a whole different matter. I cannot fathom a situation where I would switch my phone off, shut the door, sit comfortably in my chair and just listen to a 45-minute recording of a symphony. I can be stopped in my tracks by something I hear on the radio but the spell does not tend to last more than just a few minutes. I feel like I have to get on with my day. The only situation that disciplines me to give my undivided attention to music is a concert hall. Which is why I regularly attend concerts. In the world of endless possibilities it is sometimes nice to have no choice but to listen, for a change. And the chance of hearing something extraodinary is enough to justify the risk of running in to a bad performance or a snoozing fellow audience member.

It is assumed that a 20-year old who owns five CD's of their favorite rap star they will do anything to attend a live performance and meet the artist in person, but I find that the reverse is true for classical music. I have heard countless recordings of Elgar Cello Concerto in various contexts but I went and bought my own after I was smitten by a live performance. If only to capture an imperfect reflection of that catharsis experienced live. I bought my own recording of Hélèn Grimaud's performance of Shuman Sonata for Piano and Cello in E minor only after I met her in person and was fascinated by her intense emotional talk of love and friendship.

I wonder if the binary opposition of live vs. recorded isn't slightly overrated. Do we really chose one over the other?

Posted by: Nastya at June 16, 2007 12:14 PM

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