Sunday, February 21, 2010

Space, time and music once again

Music, like life, matter, and energy (as well as that Golden Record that we sent up on Voyager in the 1970s to make interstellar contact) exists in time and space. It comes fully alive when both of those parameters are active. That "aliveness" is what makes live music irreplaceable.

These days, recorded ("non-live") music is amazing. On a CD, I can study music carefully, going backwards and forwards, stopping and starting, shutting the rest of the world out with my headphones. Because it's miked so carefully, the inner voices in a string quartet are as clear and accessible as the violin and the cello, so I can hear them clearly. Notes, lines and structures are so wonderfully articulated.

But compared to live music, the CD almost always seems flat. It's like that Golden Record compared to life itself. "Hello" in 55 languages doesn't add up to much of the complexity of language or the interconnectedness of life on Earth.

I keep thinking that in live music, it's the "liveness" of time and space that matters. Space demand that the music be embodied in real people. Performers, unlike their avatars on a CD, can't occupy the same space in real life; they are articulated, positioned, individualized by the laws of physics and biology. So their sounds come from different places, are "engrained" (made distinctive, vital: I'm thinking of Barthes' essay on "The Grain of the Voice" here) by their locations in space.

And there's time, that strange fourth dimension that, unlike the other three, has no reversibility. We can't go backwards in time the way we can on the CD. We have the one chance, performers and audience in the very same moment, to catch the music. One of Blake's strange "Proverbs of Hell" "Eternity is in love with the productions of time."

Two case studies from this week:

Listening to the  lutenist Paul O'Dette play Bach. There were a lot of people in Harkness Chapel at Case Western University, and the lute is a very quiet instrument. The space was large, the instrument small. But as the music started, you could hear the hall contracting. The intensity of his playing and the intensity of our listening made the space alive. The hall became centered on the intimate touch of his fingers on the strings. (An unsolicited endorsement: he was brought to Cleveland by the excellent series Chapel, Court, and Countryside at CWRU. If you live in NE Ohio, subscribe!). Here's Don Rosenberg's piece with much more about this concert.

Singing Thomas Tallis's Spem in Alium. I was honored to be a guest in the alumni reunion for Oberlin's Collegium Musicum, celebrating twenty years of musical leadership by my friend Steve Plank. Tallis's piece is written in forty distinct vocal lines (the score is about as big as a card table) divided into eight choirs. It is a piece you don't get to hear, or sing, often. For me, it made the irreversibility of time totally visceral: the inexorable tactus passes on, each of us singers hanging onto the one precious moment of each of our entrances into the cosmic soup of polyphony. The harmonic rhythm, too, passes by, chord to chord, almost every new entrance shifting the harmony slightly until the next tonality shows itself. And then, the space! Eight different choirs, each its own sonic center, the music enchaining itself around these stations, passing itself towards a new center, living in it a few bars, and passing on to another. It is paradoxical in a blog about live music to reference a video, but here it is. This is five of the King's Singers recording Spem in Alium (overdubbing: the electronic equivalent of acoustic space):

4 comments:

Yuri, Chris, and Aki said...

Nick, how do you feel this compares to the "aliveness" of a staged play? I think recordings are also inferior to live music and drama because every performance is different, even with the same orchestra/performers/actors, in the same hall or theater, etc.

nicksuejones said...

Yes, I agree. I think also that in the theater, that sense of an audience near you is crucial. Well, I guess you have that if you're watching a DVD at home, too, but it's not the same.

Idumea said...

I agree. Annie and Susan and I just saw Billy Elliot on Broadway and the sounds, the vibrations, the sense of space and motion had an intensity to it that was powerful; Itwas a total sense experience. I went back to view a particular dance on You Tube and it did nothing for me.

Angela said...

Hi, Nick--First, thanks for posting the Tallis. Celestial, for sure!
Here are my non-celestial thoughts on live vs. recorded:
1) Live music/performance is simply coming at us from more points in space, and we're probably in a performance-designed space as well--unlike our living-room sofa.
2) There is a whole emotional appeal that watching *with* others has, as well as watching others perform in front of us. I experience this when I get caught up watching some movie I own on DVD when it's on TV--cut, commercialed, bowdlerized. Also, more excited to hear a song come on the radio than when I play it through that same system from my own tape. My theory: It's the lack of control, plus the presence of other listeners/viewers--even when they're the inferred viewers of the TV or radio. Makes sense since we're such fundamentally social animals.
3) When I can see musicians perform, I pay more attention to the particular parts each person is playing. When I listen to the Eroica (for the gazillionth time) I hear "the symphony." But when I saw it performed, I noticed specifically when certain instruments came in. Maybe because I'm not that trained of a listener, but those visual cues really give me something to listen for.