Can recordings adequately recreate the “space” of a live performance? Elliott Schwartz



Elliott Schwartz

Whether we’re moving Shakespeare from English to French, the Mona Lisa from a wall in the Louvre to the pages of an art history book, or a Tchaikovsky symphony from concert hall to a compact disc, “translations” can be a tricky business. Even at their most successful, they don’t pretend to offer more than reasonable approximations of the originals. And when they’re not successful, they can fail spectacularly—by misrepresenting, extending or even contradicting their sources.  Given this rather iffy context, I’d say that one can (more or less) “translate” certain kinds of spatial music to the medium of recording. Two loudspeakers, separated as widely as possible, can handle the antiphonal effects of a Gabrieli canzona (right-left), or create the illusion of three locations (right-center-left). More complicated arrangements can be suggested by way of artful microphone placement, fooling the ear into equating volume level with physical distance. I recall an old LP record which included one of Henry Brant‘s “Millennium” series for brass ensemble, with Henry speaking about the piece at the start of the recording. His voice and his words set the stage perfectly, describing walls of brass players lined up on opposing sides of the concert hall; my imagination was sufficiently fired up that when the music began I could visualize the entire event, even on a stereo LP. (And by “visualizing” it, I convinced myself that I could “hear” it.)

A verbal description, then, can trigger a useful sort of illusion which (for some listeners, anyway) might be translated into a spatially separated quality. Ironically, this verbal program note may be more useful if it describes visual arrangements–the physical, architectural context–rather than sounds!  When a listener already knows the context in advance–an opera-goer familar with the last act of Mozart‘s Don Giovanni (one orchestra in the pit, another on the stage), for example, or the electronic-music-buff familiar with the multi-speaker setup of the Varèse Poème Électronique (in its original Brussels performance)–the spatial separation can be imagined, often quite vividly.

With the exception of the Brant, these examples are basically two-dimensional, in that the spatial activity is in front of the listener. To record anything more elaborate, such as Henry’s Orbits for 80 trombones or the great Thomas Tallis 40-part motet Spem in Alium, both circular in-the-round, one would need four-channel quad capabilities (which, ironically, existed in tape-decks and playback systems of the 1960s and ’70s, but never found a mass market and eventually disappeared). An easily assembled latter-day variant of that quad technology would be two CD systems (left-right-front-back) with their disks playing simultaneously. They could be perfectly synchronized (if control were an issue), or randomly “performed” by two individuals (if spontaneity counted for higher priority than rigor). In the future, perhaps a brand-new body of music will be composed specifically for such a format. And as a simple test of the system (!) I would love to see a major recording company issue a version of Charles IvesThe Unanswered Question for which the three spatially separated forces were recorded on different disks. Then listeners could actually perform the piece in their own living rooms or wherever. Fantasy, I know. (Dream on….)

Mention of the phrase “living room” raises another concern, and that is the issue of space itself. Most great spatial works of the past were designed for very large performance areas–vast, resonant, often awe-inspiring–and for specific architectural features such as balconies, alcoves, plazas, domes. The grandeur of such music isn’t all that suitable for the “space” of our living room (or the space between our ears, if we happen to listen via headphones).

I’ve composed a number of works that used spatial separation of players, including a few which depend upon separation for their very existence. These include my Chamber Concerto I (where members of the chamber ensemble leave their seats and join the percussion section), Magic Music (a mock piano concerto where various musicians from the orchestra gather at the piano & eventually force the soloist off the bench), Scatter for large wind ensemble (in which the performers move all around the hall), and Elevator Music (players on different landings, audience traveling up and down). I would NEVER think of having these pieces recorded! They were designed almost as an antidote — a radical alternative –to the permanence and fixed quality of the recording medium. A great many other composers have explored spatial (and multi-media) possibilities for the same reasons. To record such pieces would be to distort their intent. On the other hand, such pieces do get recorded. When listeners put on such recordings, they should realize that they are not hearing “the piece” but a particular realization in performance. Perhaps we should remember that when we hear recordings of Brahms as well!

Why bother “translating” one brand of space into another (totally antithetical) kind? For the same reason, I suppose, that people buy art picture books with reproductions of the Mona Lisa. They fill a need; we recognize that they’re approximations, and we learn to live with the compromises they entail.

It also needs to be said that, although many translations “fail,” they often lead to unforeseen developments. In fact, they may become new originals. Think of the 17th century Florentine Camerata trying to recapture ancient Greek drama (and instead inventing opera), the earliest violins and flutes imitating voices, early tape-music technique based on film editing, the first computer-generated sound programs modeling themselves after Moog and Buchla synthesizers; the history of music is filled with wonderful “translations.” Where would we be without them? Here’s to their continuation!