Minding the Memorex

In my wrap-up of Spark last week, I mentioned a number of things that the festival had: Internationally renowned guests, fantastic performances, Indian buffet. (Did I mention the Indian buffet? Superb.) But compared to other electronic music festivals, Spark was characterized just as much by something it didn’t have: fixed-media audio pieces. There wasn’t a single tape piece during the whole week; a handful of video works were presented, but by and large the vast majority of music at Spark was produced by one or more humans on stage.

Longtime readers will be well aware that I am a sworn foe of the presentation of fixed-media music in the concert hall. I haven’t been to a concert featuring tape music in years, and I hope I never have to go to one again. Home listening, for me, is where it’s at; my colleague Brett Wartchow mentioned in his New Music Scrapbook interview that the possibility of investigating tape music in one’s living room suggests that concerts are happening all the time, which is a pleasant thought. But sitting in a darkened recital hall while accelerating clicks swoop around a 5.1 system is about my least favorite kind of musical activity, especially when everyone feels compelled, mysteriously, to applaud. And the composer isn’t even there! You are clapping for a CD player, I want to shout—but my mouth doesn’t work. It’s only 44.1kHz. According to the Nyquist theorem, people who clap for tape pieces are suckers. Never again.

This year’s Spark was 100% free of such degradation. I wonder whether other festivals will move in this direction as well: If a critical mass of participants feels the same antipathy toward the concert presentation of fixed-media that I do, I imagine it’s only a matter of time until tape pieces are enjoyed at home and concerts are for actual people to see other actual people perform. Has anyone noticed a trend one way or the other? Please share your experiences. . . or, alternately, tell me what I’ve been missing all these years so I can finally dig tape music at concerts.

10 thoughts on “Minding the Memorex

  1. curioman

    …with calling it tape music. When’s the last time you played a tape? Or saw someone play a tape?

    But I catch your drift. While I don’t hate these types of shows as much as you (indeed, I’ve curated these types of shows), I think it’s probably better for the audience to see/hear a truly live element to the show. It’s more dynamic, more ‘on the edge’. More to experience. And there’s a relationship between audience and performer that is of course absent with prerecorded material.

    It depends on the context whether or not tape… er, prerecorded music is successful ‘live’. Maybe they should be called listening parties, with the composers in attendance to talk about the pieces. Now that’s not half bad.

    Or, add some dancers, ie. 60×60 Dance.

    There’s more that can be done than just sitting in the dark and clapping to loudspeakers.

    Reply
  2. gregdixon

    “I haven’t been to a concert featuring tape music in years, and I hope I never have to go to one again.” “tell me what I’ve been missing all these years so I can finally dig tape music at concerts.”
    You answered your own question. What you’ve been missing is getting off your living room couch and going to these concerts and LISTENING. How can you come to finally “dig” these concerts if you are not going to the concerts? This is kind of like someone saying, “I’m fat and I hope I never have to do exercise ever again!” and then following this with “Can someone tell me what I’ve been missing all these years so I can not be fat anymore?”

    “You are clapping for a CD player, I want to shout—but my mouth doesn’t work. It’s only 44.1kHz.”

    Maybe you are, but I’m clapping for a musical composition that has been realized with care in a studio by a composer hopefully with unique ears and skills along with appreciating the quality of sound created from the D/A, the amplifiers, the loudspeakers, the acoustics of the hall, the diffusion (live performance!) of the composer or technician, my ears and brain and how they respond. This is like someone saying, “Why clap for the performer? They’re just muscles, blood, guts, and skin.”

    “Home listening, for me, is where it’s at”

    I do not know of a single person who can afford the space, acoustic treatment, loudspeakers, amplifiers, etc. in their homes that exemplify the experience of going to a high-quality multi-channel concert of fixed media. Plus, all the distractions of your home do not promote intent listening. Not to mention, audience can play a great role in your reaction to a work.

    “my colleague Brett Wartchow mentioned in his New Music Scrapbook interview that the possibility of investigating tape music in one’s living room suggests that concerts are happening all the time, which is a pleasant thought.”
    But didn’t you just say it’s not really music, the composer is not really there, it’s only 44.1kHz, and we shouldn’t clap. How then do these living room concerts really equate to “concerts” for you, but live events with composers often incorporating this technology do not?

    “but by and large the vast majority of music at Spark was produced by one or more humans on stage.”
    You’re forgetting the composer that has for months and maybe even years of preparation in his or her studio been working tirelessly on this music, (which often employs elements of fixed-media, which you claim to despise).

    “This year’s Spark was 100% free of such degradation.”
    A lot of interactive music/ installations/ video works involve some type of fixed-media component. You want to take that away completely? Let’s not forget that the genres you are honoring evolved along with the tradition and techniques involved in electroacoustic fixed-media compositions. What about the visual arts? Is a Picasso painting and its reproductions a degradation, because they remain fixed on a canvas or paper? Should we confine viewing paintings to our private homes, because they are only worthwhile in that context and not in public? The answer is an obvious one- NO.

    Reply
  3. colin holter

    But didn’t you just say it’s not really music

    I absolutely didn’t! Fixed-media music is most certainly music—and I would never claim that it’s necessarily careless or ill-considered music, for that matter. What I object to is its presentation in the concert hall. You rightly note that a lot of “tape” pieces hinge on surround-sound setups that are prohibitively expensive for home ownership, and I hear you, believe me. But for me, the immersion of a 7.1 system (no matter how artfully deployed by the composer) isn’t enough to compensate for the weird alienation of being in a hall full of people with the lights off and hearing music with no live performer. Not everyone feels the same way: This very weekend in Chicago is Electronic Music Midwest, an event that will no doubt recreate the very listening situation I described in my post, and I guess the festival’s attendees must weigh those factors differently than I do.

    Thanks for the reply.

    Reply
  4. mclaren

    Suppose you sat in a concert hall in front of a muslin screen hearing electronic music. At the end of the concert you might be told that it was performed live, or you might be told that it was played by a CD player.

    Would it decrease your enjoyment of the music if you were told the music was played from a CD if it was actually performed live?

    One of the great concert experiences of my life was listening to accelerating clicks on a 4-speaker surround sound system at Stanford: John Chowning’s Turenas.

    Reply
  5. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Maybe it’s where one started (my first experience was at the Montreal Expo where electronic music haunted the French pavilion), but I enjoy listening to multichannel, surround, and even discrete/separated playback pieces in halls and other environments where they are molded to the space — and far prefer it to a bunch of tech composers doing the wiggly-jiggly with laptops and inputs.

    Dennis
    Yes, it’s just a year away

    Reply
  6. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

    I’m with Colin on this one.

    Love “tape” music as I may, sitting in a hall where the composer isn’t even present is a big fat slap in the face of the audience, of the expectations of a concert, and of the relationship between creator and listener. Maybe if we stopped calling these presentations “concerts,” and instead used a more accurate term- “exhibitions”- I wouldn’t feel guilty if I make a sound in the middle of the piece, when the composer isn’t there and the tape spinning somewhere doesn’t give a damn. It’s more than a little demeaning to expect an audience to sit quietly and patiently for a machine with no operator.

    Most importantly, it breaks the human contract of composer, performer, and audience. I go to concerts because music being created by real people is infinitely better than the diminishing returns of a CD spinning in my stereo. “So, Mischa, stop whining and don’t go to tape music concerts.” No way- I have a right to enjoy this music, and if the presentation of it hinders my enjoyment, I blame the presenter and composer, not myself. If the creator wants to change the stakes by removing performers from the picture, he/she needs to account for it in a new way. It’s not enough to make the music and walk away. This idea of musical production and reproduction carries with it no sense of audience whatsoever, and it is insulting to be made to feel as though I, the listener, am worthless to the situation.

    Now, people twiddling around on laptops aren’t much to look at, but at least there is a semblance of “performance” as we understand it taking place. A living, breathing person on the stage gives the impression of an exchange with the audience.

    One of the best concerts I attended was a full reproduction of Alvin Lucier’s “I am Sitting in a Room.” Lucier was there, and he spoke to us before the tape was played. When he finished talking he said, “and if you don’t mind, I’m going to join in the audience, because I’m dying to hear this myself.” Doesn’t get more personal than that.

    Reply
  7. mclaren

    Most importantly, it breaks the human contract of composer, performer, and audience.

    This is absolutely true. Live electronic music really does break the human contract of composer, performer, and audience. When you can’t figure out any connection twixt what the alleged “performer” is doing — typically on a laptop or at some console — and the sound that results, as is usually the case in misnamed “live” electronic concerts, this distracts from the performance and ultimately destroys the drama of the music.

    No question about it, listening to a CD play on an empty stage beats live “performers” whose onstage tardive dyskinesia typically bears no relationship to the sounds coming out of the loudspeakers.

    Reply
  8. mclaren

    Mischa Salkind-Pearl’s claims so comprehensively contradict observed reality that they really deserve a detailed deconstruction.

    Love “tape” music as I may, sitting in a hall where the composer isn’t even present is a big fat slap in the face of the audience, of the expectations of a concert, and of the relationship between creator and listener.

    Exactly the opposite usually proves true — the bloated egos and uncontrolled one-upmanship and rampant self-centered showmanship of egomaniacal live performers is usually a big fat slap in the face of the audience, an insult to the music, and a travesty against the composer. Removing that rampant egotism and showoffy virtuosity by playing a spinning CD offers a blissful and welcome return to the music as the center of attention, a consummation devoutly to be wished and long long overdue.

    Maybe if we stopped calling these presentations “concerts,” and instead used a more accurate term- “exhibitions”- I wouldn’t feel guilty if I make a sound in the middle of the piece, when the composer isn’t there and the tape spinning somewhere doesn’t give a damn.

    What’s wrong with an exhibition? All art gets shown at exhibitions. Now this is somehow a lower state of existence for art? This claim is so bizarre, new words must be introduced into the English language to adequately described its bizarreness.

    It’s more than a little demeaning to expect an audience to sit quietly and patiently for a machine with no operator.

    On the contrary — it shows the utmost respect by the audience for a composer who isn’t even there. And this is typical of almost all music. In almost all cases, the composer is dead…so the composer isn’t even there. As for a “machine without an operator,” an orchestra is a human machine without no operator — so what? Doesn’t Misha realize that all creative arts results from emergent processes where there cannot be “an operator.” In fact, the hallmark of a really great performance is that something grabs hold of the performers and they take flight, as though possessed, in a synergetic coming-together where no one is in charge. If you hear a musical performance where someone is obviously in control, is the musical ensemble ever sounds like “a machine with an operator,” it’s a sure sign of a rotten performance.

    Most importantly, it breaks the human contract of composer, performer, and audience. I go to concerts because music being created by real people is infinitely better than the diminishing returns of a CD spinning in my stereo.

    This is so nutty it doesn’t even make sense. So a CD wasn’t created by real people? That would come as a helluva shock to all the hundreds of millions of people who listen to recordings of music made by passionate and deeply involved people. And why is a CD spinning in your stereo a case of “diminishing returns”? Only live performances are really good? So you can’t really enjoy a performance unless cellphones are chirping and the people next to you are talking and someone is crackling paper in the next aisle down? That’s so crazy, words can’t describe it. Recorded performances on CD are infinitely superior to live performances, and for obvious reasons — the recorded version is the best take of multiple renditions, the recorded performance doesn’t have all those ugly distractions from the audience, the recorded CD typically has much better sound than the live performance, and you can control the sound with EQ or whatever else you need to improve the clarity of the performance. Live performances are inferior in every way to a spinning CD.

    “So, Mischa, stop whining and don’t go to tape music concerts.” No way- I have a right to enjoy this music, and if the presentation of it hinders my enjoyment, I blame the presenter and composer, not myself.

    You don’t have a right to do anything. You’re bitching and griping about ‘rights’ instead of what you clearly want to talk about, which is that there’s something deeply dysfunctional with your responses as an audience member. That’s an issue for you to deal with, not the composer. The composer is under no obligation to make you feel good. Deal with it.

    If the creator wants to change the stakes by removing performers from the picture, he/she needs to account for it in a new way.

    This is so absolutely bizarre, it doesn’t even parse. Every time a recording gets played the performers have been removed from the picture. Nobody has ever claimed that the composer has to do anything to “compensate” for this alleged loss, and none of the millions of listeners who’ve enjoyed recorded music since Edison invented the phonograph have ever made such a weird claim…until Mischa came along.

    It’s not enough to make the music and walk away.

    Why not? Every composer does this eventually. It’s called “dying.” Deal with it. The whole of Western music consists of people who made music and died — i.e., walked away.

    This idea of musical production and reproduction carries with it no sense of audience whatsoever, and it is insulting to be made to feel as though I, the listener, am worthless to the situation.

    Clearly this is spoken by a person who has never done even a smidgen of audio engineering. The sound engineer sculpts the recording as artfully and as passionately as the performers. This level of ignorance about recorded sound and reproduction might have been excusable back in the 1950s, but today it’s simply mind-boggling. The work of the sound engineer is aimed precisely at the fact thta you as the listener are crucial.

    Now, people twiddling around on laptops aren’t much to look at, but at least there is a semblance of “performance” as we understand it taking place. A living, breathing person on the stage gives the impression of an exchange with the audience.

    On the contrary — the single most notable characteristic of all laptop performances is that there is absolutely no iota of give-and-take with the audience. The laptop ‘performer’ typically sits with head buried in LCD display, tweaking the laptop’s touchpad, oblivious to the audience. A more hermetic and isolated situation could scarcely be imagined.

    One of the best concerts I attended was a full reproduction of Alvin Lucier’s “I am Sitting in a Room.” Lucier was there, and he spoke to us before the tape was played. When he finished talking he said, “and if you don’t mind, I’m going to join in the audience, because I’m dying to hear this myself.” Doesn’t get more personal than that.

    Sure it does. A recorded performance is infinitely more personal in every way — you as the listener can change the volume, move around the speakers to change the soundstage, change the tone controls, put on headphones to hear more detail, back up a section to hear it again…recorded music quintessentially personalizes the listening experience, whereas a live performance is a generic one-size-fits-all affair, like squeezing toothpaste from a tube.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Conversation and respectful debate is vital to the NewMusicBox community. However, please remember to keep comments constructive and on-topic. Avoid personal attacks and defamatory language. We reserve the right to remove any comment that the community reports as abusive or that the staff determines is inappropriate.