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November 7, 2007

The Ultimate Musical Experience

As someone who owns an indecent number of recordings (I've never actually counted, but I'd guess about 5,000 LPs and more than 20,000 CDs) I have often been enticed into discussions concerning the difference between live concerts and recorded music. Some severe fans of the latter claim a strong preference for the recorded form. At a concert, they say, you get distractions - audience members talking or jangling jewelry or ruffling through the printed program to be certain their name is spelled correctly in the donor listings. And you have the risk of (horror of horrors) a musical mistake! In the peace and quiet of your home, you can choose the music and the performance that you want to hear, and with today's technology the sound may even be better than that in a mediocre concert hall...

Despite my addiction to recordings, I never find myself convinced. No doubt, I can choose from a far wider range of music than I'll ever find in any city's musical season (where might I encounter all 27 of Nikolai Miaskovsky's symphonies except in my collection?), and no doubt there are many truly great performances worth re-hearing. Those are some of the reasons I have all those recordings. But give me an opportunity to go to a concert, and I'm there in a heartbeat. Why? After all, am I truly likely to hear an Eroica Symphony performance to equal my 1944 Furtwängler recording?

But the key word there is equal. Musical experiences should not equal each other - they should differ from each other. We have a mad desire in our culture to rank artistic experiences as if they were sports achievements; this team finished ahead of that team. But that is not the essence of art. Each artistic experience is, or should be, unique. There is of course some value in hearing that Furtwängler Eroica again. But to reduce one of Beethoven's greatest work to a performance carved in stone, never to change, would surely be to minimize its greatness. It is the unexpected, and the visceral impact, of being in the concert hall - even with occasional coughs and jangling bracelets, that is the ultimate musical experience.

And then there is the fact that we human beings are, for the most part, communal animals - beings who actually find value in the shared experience. If I want to see the details of a basketball or baseball game, I can see them much better on television than I can at the stadium - and with the advantage of instant replay in slow motion, I can see it even better. And yet, offer me a ticket and it's just like a concert: I'm there in a heartbeat. Why? Because of the emotional value of the communal experience - of sharing that game with thousands of others - some sitting near me, and some I'll never actually cross paths with on the other side of the stadium. Different as the concert experience is from a baseball game, the idea of the shared experience is not so different. There is something very special, and not possible at home, about one or two thousand of us in a room experiencing the same artistic impact at the same moment, each in our own way. My record collection will never replace that.

Posted by hfogel at November 7, 2007 2:39 PM

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I agree completely, Henry, but...

No longer having access to the several concerts per week I used to attend, I'm sure happy I've been collecting recordings for many years and have a very fine high-end audio system. Without them, life in a small town would be far less enjoyable.

Posted by: Peter Smith at November 12, 2007 9:44 PM

The longtime motto of the AFM has been "Live Music is Best." While there was surely a self-serving motive there in terms of trying to ensure continued work for union members, it's nonetheless true, for all the reasons you indicate.

I would add that I also prefer the experience of watching a film in a theatre as opposed to on a DVD in the comfort of my own home. It's not only the communal experience; no home equipment can match the big theatre screen - or the sight and sound of 100 musicians creating a performance onstage.

Posted by: Marko Velikonja at November 16, 2007 2:15 PM

People more knowledgeable than I am have written about how recordings can commodify music and potentially distort the relative importance of performance versus the piece itself. Or maybe it's the marketing that's the culprit, not the recordings themselves, if the two can be separated. What I've noticed in reading old reviews in long-gone mags like Stereo Review is how some critics fed that consumerist attitude. They'd actually write that a new recording would replace a previous favorite. Like they'd throw away that old Szell now that they have the new Solti. Weird. Fortunately, reviewers today usually manage to make recommendations without suggesting that other options are invalid.

Gotta run now. We're going to a concert!

Posted by: Carl at December 14, 2007 5:14 PM