Recording and Its Unfulfilled Demands

More thoughts on recording from Charles Rosen’s Piano Notes:

A record of classical music is supposed to be a reproduction. Like all reproductions it is a substitute for something else, and as a substitute it is thought to be inferior to the real thing, the live performance… However, this view carries with it a number of confusions and some obscure paradoxes.

A record of rock music is not a reproduction, but a creation. The realization of a new sound obtainable only by the machinery of recording is a constant ideal in this form of popular music. We may even say that a rock concert is generally a reproduction of a record, and often an inadequate reproduction at that. There is no aesthetic stigma attached in pop music to the use of multiple tracks, echo chambers, splicing, and all possible engineering sleight of hand….

The classical record, however, aspires to be something it is not: a recital, a concert, or a private intimate live performance. Whatever calculation was necessary to make the record is supposed to be concealed, not flaunted….

It has always struck me as a little odd, a little anachronistic on the part of the late 20th-century composer that an entirely different composing technique never arose for recordings different from that intended for live performance. Henry Cowell urged this in the journal Modern Music as early as 1931: just as he felt the player piano should give birth to a new kind of music that couldn’t be played by human hands (in which he was later obliged by Conlon Nancarrow), Cowell also felt that the medium of recording demanded a new kind of music specifically written for it. “A record of a violin tone,” he explained, “is not exactly the same as the real violin; a new and beautiful tone quality results.”

In the 1960s, there were some attempts to make music specifically for records, sometimes incited by record producers rather than composers. Nonesuch elicited such works from Morton Subotnick, which he called “a kind of chamber music 20th-century style: – Sliver Apples of the Moon (1967), The Wild Bull (1968), Touch (1969), Sidewinder (1971), Four Butterflies (1973), Until Spring (1975), and A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur (1978). Charles Wuorinen wrote an electronic piece for a record, Time’s Encomium (1968-9), which won him what I felt was one of the more questionable Pulitzer Prizes. In general, however (and I’ll mention some exceptions in a minute), these were experiments that didn’t significantly alter the thrust of new composing modes.

In the arena of live-performed music, the music that seemed ready to usher in a new era of “classical” music for recordings (or perhaps that should be postclassical, by definition) was minimalism. Recordings, after all, are rarely listened to straight through with continuous attention. One puts on a CD, answers the door, gets the incoming guest a drink, and returns having missed a moment or two. The early long works of Reich, Riley, and Glass were perfect for this listening mode: they went on for a quarter-hour or more at a time with only gradual changes in texture or harmony, and in concert the audience was even encouraged to come and go. (Of course, Uptown composers and critics find this diffuseness in minimalist music hilariously indicative of feeble-mindedness, because they insist on classical concert listening as the only valid paradigm – but why can’t our modes of listening evolve as our technology and social mores do, and why shouldn’t new music be written for new modes of listening, just as has always happened through the centuries?) With Reich’s Drumming (1974), Glass’s Music in Twelve Parts (1975), Riley’s Shri Camel (1978), new music had, we thought, entered the era of the perfect record.

The conundrum for me has been how few composers born after the 1930s, no matter how impressed and influenced by the minimalists, have continued that minimalist listening mode. After 1980 the younger generation went right back to writing detailed, intricate works clearly meant for the concert hall and only indifferently transferable to record. It’s as true of me as anyone else. Bill Duckworth’s Time Curve Preludes are lovely pieces, and I enjoy Neely Bruce’s recording of them immensely, but the latter feels like a document of a performance, not made for record in the way that, say, Glass’s Koyaanisqatsi seems to be. (Duckworth’s Cathedral, an ongoing internet composition, is a little different story, but still with emphasis on its live components.) Since the mid-1980s, even Reich (City Life, Proverb), Glass (Symphony No. 5), and Riley (Chanting the Light of Foresight) have pulled back toward reproducing the concert-hall event.

My contemporaries, such as the Common Sense composers (Dan Becker, Belinda Reynolds, Carolyn Yarnell, John Halle, and others), the Bang on a Can composers (Julia Wolfe, David Lang, Michael Gordon, Steve Martland, Evan Ziporyn), the Downtown chamber music composers (Nick Didkovsky, Beth Anderson, Bernadette Speach, Elodie Lauten), are by and large writing concert music, documentable on recordings but not made specifically with that purpose in mind. And that’s a peculiar thing given the fact that mine was the generation that grew up with Sgt. Pepper and the first wildly influential pop concept albums. Why did that vinyl sensibility remain ensconced in the popular world and so rarely bleed over into new music? If Cowell could see in 1931 that recordings necessitated a new approach to composition, why, 72 years later, are composers no older than myself still composing as though we’re expecting our next gig will be Carnegie Hall?

The exceptions, predictably enough, are mostly electronic. Paul Lansky, I feel, has an exquisite sense for what kind of music to make for a CD – breathy, atmospheric, pieces interestingly interrelated to each other, rich and full of detail, but not structured in a linear way that requires continuous listening. Carl Stone’s sampler pieces are a little more linear in structure, but always feel comfortable heard through living-room loudspeakers. Outside that electronic realm, Robert Ashley’s magnificent operas will always be, for me, records – so much so that his concert performances of them in recent years at Brooklyn Academy and the Kitchen seem, as Rosen says of rock concerts, like slightly inadequate attempts to reproduce the recording. (Of course, they’re meant for video, and lack of funding has prevented us from seeing them in the form Ashley imagined them.) Then again, Ashley is of that Reich-Riley-Glass generation, and in so many ways has out-envisioned composers younger than he is by decades.

Morton Feldman’s two- to six-hour works, on the other hand, I find very ambiguous in this regard. As much as I love the recordings of For Philip Guston and the String Quartet No. 2 (each six hours), I find that I don’t listen to them as often as I generally intend to. They have the same sense of scale and nonlinearity as minimalism, but in the background they are too disturbing, too intrusively philosophical, and beg to be listened to closely even as they dare you to try. Nevetheless, one could imagine a music similar to Feldman’s, being made for the recording medium, as CDs and with little idea of live performance. Is someone out there doing it?