Why Concert Halls and Live Performance Still Matter
Much ink has been spilled (now there’s an outdated metaphor) on NMBx pages of late on the alleged obsoleteness of the concert hall in the age of iPod, or its socio-political tendentiousness, or its aesthetic this-or-that-ness, etc., etc. Nobody seems to have addressed the elephant in the room: The concert hall is itself a fine musical instrument—an instrument that is an indissoluble constituent of the hearing experience (notice I didn’t say listening experience). A concert hall is acoustic architecture that interacts with and enhances music. An iPod is not. A sound-designed downtown club is not. Let me join the argument by requoting my own words from the fall 2005 issue of Opera Today:
Lest we forget, our own bodies are flesh and blood membranophones that resonate in a live concert environment with instruments and voices. We are all sounding boards. A few more live bodies in the hall and the acoustic changes dramatically….Many naturally occurring sounds, and not just the sub-bass frequencies, are felt, not heard, by the live listener, but are lost to listeners of reproduced sound….We hear with our entire bodies, and in order to hear optimally with our entire bodies, we have to be there live. To fully appreciate the sheen, the sheer heft of the sound of the Metropolitan Opera Chorus singing while lined up in a row standing downstage, you have to be there in the house to feel it as well as hear it. No high definition audio recording or video could possibly do it justice. It requires the “naked ear.”
In other words, regardless of your politico-aesthetic predilections about the concert hall, your own ears and body interact with the concert hall (whether you fancy it or not) in a way acoustically richer than any interaction with an earbud. To which I would add, the composed literature of centuries of music-both Western and non-Western, by the way—was, until about 125 years ago, entirely achieved by brains that knew music only through live hearing. The instrumental choir balances of the art of orchestration were arrived at by trial and error as a result of hearing live performance. Furthermore, all musical instruments—again, both western and non-western—were, until the advent of electricity, invented by instrument builders whose hearing was calibrated to live performance. On a 24-hour timeline of human history, epiphenomena such as the microphone, the loudspeaker, the mixing board, and the PDA are 11:59 p.m. blips. Historically, music as art and human phenomenon only exists and survives at all because of live performance.
Every sound recording is a lie—some are less egregious than others, some are closer to real, but overall, recorded music is “truthiness” that passes for reality. No greater proof of this exists than different digital renderings of old historical recordings. I have a BMG CD of the tenor John McCormack digitally reprocessed by Ward Marston, a guru of sound restoration. It is mysteriously bereft of that signature warmth of McCormack’s voice clearly audible on other, scratchier reissues. (It reminded me of the hilarious semi-human third-generation clone of Michael Keaton in the movie Multiplicity.) Conversely, when one listens to 1903 acoustic horn recordings of Caruso, Caruso sounds as if he’s shouting half the time; that’s because he was projecting as he did live into the house, and the acoustic horn was like a close-up photograph of an elephant.
I remember as a teenager seeing (and hearing) Arthur Rubinstein, live in concert, play a Chopin piece I had already heard his recording of, and being amazed how different his live performance was. I also recall hearing Vladimir Horowitz live at the Met play the piano in front of giant acoustic baffles that amplified the buzz of his bass range blasts, trying to imitate his own recordings. On his recordings you can hear he had them engineered for this effect. How do I know? Because they appear in the first recorded reissue of his 1965 Carnegie Hall return, but not in the second, “cleaned-up” issue which restores the live sound of the hall and makes the 1965 concert actually sound like the other Horowitz recitals I heard with my own ears live. I have heard Placido Domingo, Lauren Flanigan, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Dawn Upshaw, Susan Graham, and many other singers both live and recorded, and nothing ever compares to live. The “touch of sound” of live performance is beyond rendition by reproduction.
As I previously wrote in an NMBx post, certain painterly effects of light in oil paintings are beyond the resolution of however many pixels. You have to be there, looking. They were designed for that. So it is with music. Appreciation of these nuances, in a now-antique era, used to be called connoisseurship, a term now in eclipse from political opprobrium. James Gibbons Huneker, Bernard Berenson—these were intellectuals who would sniff the wine of live music or art and report back. But electronically-enhanced musical instruments have voided all that. They present just one plane of sound. (Yes, I admit my vice: I’m a chauvinistic acoustic music man. Guess I’ll have to enter a 12-step recovery program.)
Zounds! We’ve become musically podified! Maybe Aldous Huxley did see what was coming.