Can recordings adequately recreate the “space” of a live performance? Daniel Asia

Daniel Asia
Photo by Steven Meckier

As a young composer just in graduate school, I submitted a piece, Dream Sequence I, for solo amplified trombone, for recording on Max Schubel’s enterprising Opus I. I was very happy when the piece was accepted, but when I discovered that I had to pay to have the piece recorded and produced, I was somewhat mystified and perplexed. It hadn’t occurred to me that this is, in fact, how most of the recording business works. Much to my present chagrin, I passed on the opportunity that Max presented to me. Later, while teaching at the Oberlin Conservatory, I had the good fortune of sharing in a concert with Anthony Braxton. After hearing my work, Rivalries, for chamber orchestra, he asked me if it was recorded. I said no, and he replied that he thought I should really be “documenting” this and other pieces on disc. It was at this point that I began to think about, and perhaps even begin to understand, the importance of the recorded media. Not that it necessarily produces or captures a perfect performance (since there isn’t any such thing anyway, of course), but that it documents a piece in another way from a score, and that it provides access, and repeated access, to any one who is interested, and who may never have the opportunity to hear a live performance.

Since that time, I have had the good fortune of seeing eight discs devoted to my music make it out into the world, on the Summit, New World, Albany, and Koch International Classics labels. All my symphonies are recorded, as is other orchestral music, including my Piano Concerto (with Andre-Michel Schub, its dedicatee). Most recently, Summit has released two DVDs of music, in surround sound. These include the song cycle disc, Breath in a Ram’s Horn, featuring the singers Robert Swensen and Faye Robinson, and pianist Tannis Gibson, and the electro-acoustic cycle Sacred and Profane, a 45′ cycle co-written with Kip Haaheim. This recorded body of work provides a pretty good view of the development of my music over the last thirty years or so. This seems to me a good and beneficial result of the recorded media.

There is, however, a potential danger here. This is the problem of feeling like a piece is not quite real until it is recorded. It would seem to me that live performance is still the more important, and preferred, form of communicating the essence of the musical experience, at least for acoustic music. However, given the ephemeral and episodic (at best) nature of live performances, recording seems to me another means of communicating with a segment of the listening public. And as Anthony said, it is also certainly a way to “document” a piece’s existence, and, if the composer is involved in the recording process, to create an insipient performance guide and tradition for future performances.

The issue of spatial presentation in music is, of course, not a new one. As an ardent young trombonist in my youth, I discovered this musical idea in the multi-choir music of Giovanni Gabrieli and his other collaborators in the San Marco School of Venice. I remember feeling the glee of realizing the possibility of actually being ‘surrounded’ by glorious music on all sides.

In my own compositions for acoustic instruments, I have rarely realized this spatial notion. The sole exception is the work Rivalries, for chamber orchestra, which has two separate trios located on either side of the orchestra. This allows for essentially disparate musics engaging each other from separate locations, which perhaps helps to highlight their individual qualities.

It would seem to me, however, that the most effective utilization of space has occurred in the electronic medium. Of early works in the medium, one need only think of Déserts by VarËse, Gesang der J¸nglinge by Stockhausen, The Wild Bull of Subotnick, or my Miles Mix. Quadraphonic developments of the 70′s were great for composers of electronic music, in as much as an established format was created to allow the music to move in three dimensions rather than just in two. The difficulty was, of course, one of control. One simply didn’t have as much as one would have liked.

In my most recent releases on DVD, which include the electro-acoustic cycle Sacred and Profane, and the song cycle disc, Breath In A Ram’s Horn, I have been able to return to the question of space with the flexibility and control that I always desired, and that the digital domain can provide.

In Breath, the surround sound medium simply creates a sense of a superb, and normal, concert hall. In other words, one hears as if one is in a great concert hall, with the sense of space and resonance that this implies. This is no small accomplishment.

For Sacred and Profane, I spent vast amounts of time realizing spatial locations, as well as speed and directionality of movement, with Kip Haaheim. We initially produced a stereo mix. When we went back to do the surround sound mix, we worked a bit more quickly, and perhaps even more intuitively, as we realized that we could rely on our previous decisions to work exceedingly well when expanded into the newly enlarged space. The result, in this latter version in particular, is a degree of sensuous spatial movement and presence that I would like to think rivals that of hearing all those brass in the San Marco Cathedral. Only now, each player can move and fly throughout the space with exceptional speed and without hitting each other.