Musical Criticism

In the digital world, we apply all manner of effects, mixing, processing, and manipulation for creative purposes and/or to create surreal sonic environments. “In classical, folk, world music, most jazz, and some rock, the focus is more on unobtrusive mixing, editing, and processing to get a balanced, natural sound” (Devaney).

When a performance is recorded on a tape, there are many different aspects that affect the recording. If it is recorded in a studio, there will be no props or acting. If it is recorded live, there will be much more enthusiasm and emotion. It is hard to criticize a studio recording the same way a live performance recording is judged because of the combination of different factors in both settings. Everett-Green proposed the question about the performance once it is recorded on tape.

Is a studio recording, especially of a complete opera, so much better than a live performance captured on tape? Is an edited sequence of perfect takes worth all the losses in continuity and physical atmosphere? And is the studio recording really finished, or is its rumoured demise just clever promotion? (Everett-Green)

The earliest classical recordings were made according to a snapshot principle: What you got was what the performer would normally do in a public performance. “It was Walter Legge, EMI’s main talent scout and producer in the postwar period, who pioneered the idea that recording should be a more ideal realization of the music than any concert could provide” (Everett-Green).

“‘I wanted better results than are normally possible in public performance,’ Legge said. ‘I was determined to put onto disc the best that artists could do under the best possible circumstances.'” (Everett-Green) The prime examples of Legge’s output in this line are his opera recordings with Maria Callas and Herbert von Karajan, and the Tristan he produced in 1952 with Wilhelm Furtwangler.

There is a historical transformation of music by mechanical reproduction. Before 1898, when magnetic tape-recording was invented, music was always “live” and the audience was part of the labor of music, for example, by inspiring the performer with their attentiveness and applause. Listeners also were part of the sound projection. “A person standing in a music room listening to a piano performance was literally standing inside the “speaker,” inside a room that amplified and colored the sound of the performance” (Thevenot).

Legge’s like-minded rival John Culshaw spent seven years in the early sixties getting a dream cast together for the first stereo Ring cycle on Decca, and used sound effects and aural perspectives unlike anything available in an opera house. Cushaw’s sound-stage innovations brought a whiff of Hollywood into classical-music production and prompted Glenn Gould to start thinking about recording in frankly cinematic terms.

To that extent, it’s not really possible to say one is better than the other. A live opera recording measures so many things, including the performers’ trajectory in their roles over two or three hours, their chemistry with each other that particular evening, and the influence that the physical enactment of the part has on the way they sing. Tristan lying on the stage, waiting for love and death to arrive, may sound quite different than the same singer sitting in front of a microphone in a cozy studio. The environment plays one of the biggest roles in a live performance or recording compared to a studio recording. The biggest problem is that the voices may sound the same in both of the recordings, you just may not feel the emotion in the studio version. “The studio version may be more relaxed, but it won’t necessarily be better music drama” (Everett-Green).

In the appreciation of music, we get a momentary and fleeting glimpse of the nature of that reality to a full knowledge of which the movement of life is progressing. For that moment and so long as the glimpse persists, we realize in anticipation and almost, as it were, illicitly, the nature of the end. We are for a moment there, just as the traveler may obtain a fleeting glimpse of a distant country from an eminence passed on the way, and cease for a moment from this journey to enjoy the view. And since we are for a moment there, we experience, while the moment lasts, that sense of liberation from the urge and drive of life, which has been noted as one of the characteristics of aesthetic experience (Jacques Maritain, 310).

Of course, a great singer-actor can inhabit a role wherever he needs to. Domingo’s invisible Tristan is a compelling one, full of power and subtlety, and sung in a warm, ringing voice that sounds several years younger than 64. “Domingo reclaims and emphasizes his role’s lyrical qualities, with his Italianate sense of line and vocal production” (Everett-Green).

Certainly live music seems to have a basis in ritual and certainly a lot of recorded music seems designed for reproducibility. The current craze of music file-swapping on the Internet amply demonstrates music’s value as a reproducible commodity. However, some recorded music also appears to have maintained a grounding in ritual. For example, a lot of contemporary “club” music is valued less for its “exhibition value” than for the existence of its rhythmic properties, which are valued for their use in the ritual of dancing, which can literally be a communal or spiritual experience. Ironically, the production of rhythm is particularly facilitated by computers (often perceived as the opposite of primal), which make it considerably easier to produce recordings with repetitious cadences, particularly through the use of samples and loops. This includes looped samples from old, analog recordings, such as the sampled phrase from an old song, “I want to praise you like I should,” used in a recent hit. Consider that one type of club music played by DJs is called “tribal.” Another currently popular form of dance music, called “bangra,” incorporates Indian drums, such as the tabla, and Indian rhythms, which in their native setting are often used in religious rituals.

Studio based popular music does not accept the same critical appraisal because it does not have the same amount of performance as a classical recording does. Sometimes two or three people will record the entire orchestra on a different track and then mix them. How can you grade two or three people the same way you grade an orchestra with 150 members or more.
The aura of a musical performance is shaped a lot by the affective labor of the musical performance. However, cybernetic music challenges this labor by making humans “machines in the middle” (Nichols, 133), as mere operators rather than artists. “Human beings are subjugated by their own apparatus of production” (Alastair Williams, 8).

Listening to works that achieve a symbiosis between performers and electronics, one senses that one is hearing only a glimpse of the future, for computer-realized sound appears certain to evolve decisively in the direction of ever more intricate performance interactions. From the perspective of artistic achievement, electronic music is an accomplished fact, and so one might pause for a moment to look back. . . . In one form or another, computers are here to stay, as so, too, or course, is music (Kriesberg).

Studio recordings are by far much crisper, clearer, and more perfected. Though emotion, acoustics, and other things affect the way the recording is made in the studio, a studio recording may not be all that horrible. The biggest question to a buyer purchasing a studio based popular CD recording and a classical live performance recording CD is whether or not they want to hear perfection or emotion.

Works Cited

Devaney, Johanna. “Introduction to Digital and Electronic Media.” Introduction to Digital and Electronic Media. 11 Mar. 2003. Musi1140. 09 Nov. 2005 .

Everett-Green, Robert. “An Operatic Ending?.” 5 Nov 2005. 09 Nov 2005 .

Kriesberg, Matthias. “Teaching the Ear New Dialects of Sound.” New York Times. 14 November 1999.

Maritain, Jacques. Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1953).

Nichols, Bill. “The Work of Culture in the Age of Cybernetic Systems.” In Electronic Culture: Technology and Visual Representation. 121-43. Edited by Timothy Druckrey. (New York: Aperture Foundation, 1996).

Thevenot, Chad. Souching Toward Utopia. 1 May 2001. Sovereign Music. 09 Nov. 2005 .

Williams, Alastair. New Music and the Claims of Modernity. (Aldershot, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 1997).

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