Monday, February 6, 2012

life and tragic death of recorded music, part 2

Recently I read this lovely article (subscription required, unfortunately) by pianist Jeremy Denk in (but what else?) the New Yorker, and it reminded me to follow up on this post about recordings and music. In the article, Denk describes how the process of recording is inherently stressful and tortured, more so than performance, because of the finality of the product, as well as the expectation and possibility of perfection (in some sense, at least!).

A while after writing that last post I realized a somewhat surprising fact about the recorded music that I love and cherish: it is, almost without exception, all recorded before 1985.
Now that's a strange fact! It's not as if there aren't artists out there today, whom I love and admire from live performances, making recordings of their own. But they never seem to capture my interest in quite the same sustained way, and I almost never return to them after a few listenings. Why is that?

Before I jump to any unusual conclusions, I should note that the effect could be one of mere selection bias: the recordings that survive to this day (or to my childhood) from the more distant past are exactly those that were more popular. In addition, because recordings weren't as common in the past, the artists who were releasing recordings were more likely to be "good" in whatever sense makes them more popular. Maybe I haven't made the time to effectively sort through all the modern recordings that are being made to find the ones that would be my favorites. Add to that the fact that, as I mentioned in my last post, I find it difficult to set aside time anymore to listen to something all the way through, maybe it's not too surprising that I get bored easily with new releases.

But with those caveats in mind, though, I suspect that something more nefarious is ultimately responsible! After all, I've been to piano recitals that I absolutely adore, and heard other people rave about live performances that they found truly breathtaking, from people like Stephen Hough, Radu Lupu, Piotr Anderszewski, Alfred Brendel, Richard Goode (who gave the best recital I've personally ever heard live), and yet, when I hear the same music from the same pianist through the lens of the recording studio, it's never quite the same.

If we grant the truth of this alternative hypothesis, there are still a few possible explanations, none of which I find particularly satisfying.
1. Recordings are inherently worse than live performances. Expecting them to be as good is silly. According to this hypothesis, then, if I had ever heard Glenn Gould or Richter play live, I would have been, compared to their recordings, simply, blown away.
If this is the case, then why is my taste so skewed to pianists from mid-century? Were they really better? If so, why?

2. Something about making a recording in a studio sucks the life out of a performance, and modern recording techniques have only exacerbated this trend.
But Glenn Gould was possibly the worst offender (at least, as bad as he could have been at the time) for stopping, cutting, splicing and dicing his recordings. But I still love many of them.

3. Something about recording technology, which is supposed to give us better, purer sound quality as time passes, actually makes modern recordings less appealing.
If this is the case, then modern live recordings should be comparably uninspiring to modern studio recordings.

4. Maybe I'm the problem, and I just like the static hum or low clarity of old recordings. But why? Maybe I (and others like me?) are biased toward recordings that have the same type of sound (in some sense) as those that we listened to and loved most growing up. If that's true, then transferring modern recordings to less sparkling analog formats should make them sound better to me.

Of course, the real answer could be any and all of these four, or none of them. But they are reasonably testable...

1 comment:

  1. A musician setting out hypotheses and designing appropriate experiments. . . .great post.