October 30, 2011

And Now Live!

As Tomoko and I were driving from the airport, we listened to the radio as it played a lovely classical piano performance. While the effect was soothing, it also garnered little attention. The sound was flattened, and didn’t reflect the composition’s inherent richness. I doubt if the composer imagined that his piece would be heard on such an “instrument.”

Indeed, the quality of a recording has a significant effect on the listener’s experience. As performances are recorded “live” digitally, all the notes are transformed into on-off electrons. No in-between sound exists. Somehow the total effect is almost too precise and pristine. Older analog recordings are effected by the technology itself, such as the quality of the need and the groove, so that the audio quality can be uneven at times, but the overall effect seems more nuanced and “real.” Audiotapes also suffer from the quality of the recording material, and can get stretched or crinkled (analogous to an LP getting warped or scratched), so in respect optical disks are more permanent, but even those get corrupted over time.

Probably the least satisfying but increasingly common practice is to digitize an analog recording. Recording itself is one step or “generation” away from a live performance, and digitizing a recording is then two steps or generations from the original experience. The uneven aspects of the analog record are “smoothed” out digitally but can result in more variation from the original performance in the process.

Obviously, the most authentic musical performance is the one by the composer him or herself playing the piece. The composer externalizes the music that is imagined and played in the mind. The notes are transcriptions of that imagination, but can never completely capture the expression and emotion of the composer. The next closest rendition would be experienced by a skilled pianist, particularly one who has played many different pieces by many composers, so understands how music should be performed and translated both technically and emotionally. Deep knowledge of the composer’s style provides context resulting, theoretically, in more accurate interpretation of the composer’s original intent. In any case, the performing pianist can feel the music both internally and kinesthetically.

For a listener, a non-performer, the best option is attending a live performance. The attendee can hear the music, see the performer’s body as it also interprets the music, and sometimes feel the vibrations as the music is expressed. The interaction of the audience with the music and performance adds another dimension to the experience in a communal way that sharing food does.

For a child or other beginning pianist, a recital can be a stressful experience so that the visceral experience can be overwhelmed by the pressure of public performance and the deep emotional wish to be accepted by the audience, which the beginning pianist may fear will not be attained due to possible faulty performance. That fear can motivate the player to prepare carefully and thoroughly for several reasons: personal pride of accomplishment, desire for external approval, and regard for the piece and the composer. The heightened level of public performance can either bring out the best – or highlight other distracting issues. Ideally, the performer can focus on the moment of live performance: a unique and surprisingly fleeting experience that may well be captured only in one’s mind. Even if the experience is less than stellar, it will be memorable.

Even that fear or anticipation brings a certain electricity and unpredictability that makes each performance unique and special for both the performance and the audience. For that reason, along with the closer proximity to the music itself, Tomoko highly recommends that more people attend live piano and other performances. Get real! Go live!