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):