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Much ink has been spilled (now there’s an outdated metaphor) on NMBx pages of late on the alleged obsoleteness of the concert hall in the age of iPod, or its socio-political tendentiousness, or its aesthetic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.

9 thoughts on “Why Concert Halls and Live Performance Still Matter

  1. coreydargel

    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.

    Yes, and on a 24-hour timeline of Earth’s history, the human race is a blip at 11:59:59:59:59:59pm. Let’s not get too caught up in the enjoyment of our frontal lobes. Our abilities to experience consciousness, conceptualize our own future, make art and poetry and performance, etc… these are only very recent phenomena. We might be better off as prehistoric hunters and cave dwellers before the advent of spoken language.

    Every sound recording is a lie…

    Well if you want to take such an extreme rhetorical stance, then so is every live performance, at least for those sitting in the nosebleed sections, behind a structural column, next to someone with a noise-making hearing aid, too close to one side of the ensemble, etc. etc. etc.

    [E]lectronically enhanced musical instruments… present just one plane of sound. (Yes, I admit my vice: I’m a chauvinistic acoustic music man….)

    Well if you’re a chauvinistic acoustic music man, then we would not expect you to make an informed statement about the subtleties of electronically enhanced musical instruments. You don’t have the listening experience to really understand what you’re saying. Never mind the fact that you’ve ignored the possibility that electronically enhanced sounds are just as capable as acoustic sounds of producing a physical response in the body of the listener.

    Regarding the electronic/amplified vs. acoustic situation, Baudrillard might argue that amplified music sounds more natural to us than unamplified music. I know some who would agree with that statement.

    I think there are benefits to both acoustic and electronic sounds, in terms of listening and composing. Wouldn’t you agree? I would hope that you support the invention and exploration of new technologies. If you do, then I’d suggest you not immediately criticize them for not having been around long enough.

    Reply
  2. Colin Holter

    I think you two might be having different arguments, but Mark’s rather sweeping statement about “one plane of sound” is legible in at least two ways, so why not? Although a recording of a live performance strikes me no more as a “lie” than would a retouched photograph of Janet Napolitano, I certainly see Mark’s point; just the other day I was lamenting that all we have left of Ettore Bastianini is a bunch of recordings, some of very dubious quality. But Corey seems to be addressing the wider matter of electronic sound diffusion, a topic hard to generalize about because of the degree to which specific pieces of audio gear shape the result. The liquidity of Bryan Ferry on my friend’s Cerwin-Vegas surpasses, in many ways, even the best vocal performances I’ve heard on stage in terms of frequency response, detail, etc. Can I agree with both of you?

    Reply
  3. philmusic

    Mark, no matter how strong your argument is, or weak for that matter, will not make the folks who disagree with you go away. If you make your argument too narrow then the fur will fly!

    I agree that live music is best because I want a direct relationship with performance and performers—but I do happen to like live electronic music and mixed live/electronic performed in said concert halls. Where does that fit in? Jazz bands, for example, amplify the string bass as a matter of course. I think if you look again you might find many exceptions that work quite well. Live and electronic music are not mutually exclusive.

    Phil Fried

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  4. rtanaka

    Every sound recording is a lie…

    Scores too, by that account. Heck, nothing is perfect. Even our ears aren’t perfect. Wait, what if everything I hear is a lie? My existence is a sham! Hah.

    There’s the idea that the “map is not the territory” — notes are not the sounds, and the recordings are not the music itself. But you wouldn’t say that maps are useless, because they’re very useful tools for guiding people towards something that they have no first-hand knowledge of.

    Probably what I think a lot of people fear the most is people using recordings as a kind of ideal state of being, rather than the purpose it was intended to serve — dissemination and documentation. I hear a lot of complaints that performances of classical works all sound the same nowadays because everybody has started to imitate recordings produced in those so-called “landmark recordings”. Even in jazz, I hear some younger students say things like “I wanna play just like Coltrane!”, even though that totally goes against what improvisation was supposed to be about — being yourself. Pretty crazy stuff.

    Recordings are a commodity — they were meant to be mass-produced and disseminated among a wide public for consumption. I think it’s probably best to treat it that way rather than add sentimental value to what’s essentially just a tool. I honestly think that pop and jazz styles have employed the recording medium much more effectively than classical music has — the live aspect is still there, but it’s largely used as a calling card (or a map, if you will) to guide their audience toward their shows.

    The idea of listening to a recording in a concert hall has always struck me as being a little bit odd, since it seems to defeat itself in terms of what the medium is capable of. (Although I’m OK with live processing, since it becomes an extension of the instrument.) People want the live experience, and this seems to be pretty agreed upon across the board regardless of style or genre. I don’t think anybody really has to worry about the concert setting really disappearing anytime in the near future.

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  5. Chris Becker

    “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.”

    Debating this is insane…

    Reply
  6. A.C. Douglas

    You’re way late to the argument, sir; one in which I’m entirely on your side. See, for instance, this 2004 blog post:

    Or type in the blog search box the terms, “ipod people” or “ipod generation”, for even more on this.

    Keep fighting the good fight!, although, sadly, it appears a losing one in today’s pop-culture-infested Zeitgeist.

    ACD

    Reply
  7. McDuff

    While it’s certainly somewhat endearingly eccentric in a batty old uncle kind of way to insinuate that Elvis, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and the Ramones were somehow fraudulent musicians and their music somehow incapable of touching people to the same extent as a performance of something by Chopin because their music relied on electrical contrivances like microphones and amplifiers rather than on acoustic contrivances like sounding boards and concert halls, don’t you also feel that it is dangerously close to being utter bollocks?

    While human musical appreciation certainly predates the microphone, it is hardly fair to insinuate that it does not also significantly predate the concert hall, which is itself a primitive kind of amplification technology. The retro faux-purist belief that the technology of yesterday is somehow more emotionally pure obscures the fact that all through that yesterday people were saying exactly the same thing about this new fangled acoustics that meant you could make pipe organs really loud, except they would tend to add extra accusations of devil worship in for good measure. Y’know, because they were nuts.

    Music has been around ever since primitive people discovered that you could bang rocks against other rocks and dance around in groups to the sounds. The vast majority of human musical experience throughout the ages has nothing to do whatsoever with gentlemen in tuxedos and concert halls, and much to do with drug-fuelled dancing, bawdy ballads in local taverns and badly tuned catgut. While the subgenus of music that has to do with cellos and listening only to the amplified sounds of strings and skins within tuned environments is important and certainly not to be discarded, claiming that this tiny section somehow taps into a fundamental truth in a way that, say, Jimi Hendrix’s performance at Woodstock could never hope to achieve is skating a thin and rightly derided line between pompous irrelevance and nonsensical gibberish.

    Live performance is, indeed, an entirely different kettle of fish to recordings, but if you think electricity gets in the way of the transmission of this live musical energy I can only suggest that you need to test your hypothesis at the front row of a Motorhead gig.

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  8. MarkNGrant

    …to insinuate that Elvis, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and the Ramones were somehow fraudulent musicians and their music somehow incapable of touching people…

    Where did you get this? Where did I say or imply this? Of course they touch people. Who said otherwise? And who said they were fraudulent? “Yesterday” and “In My Life” are two of my favorite songs ever. In my book The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical I write on page 45: “Presley was a protean singer who could do many things well.”

    While human musical appreciation certainly predates the microphone, it is hardly fair to insinuate that it does not also significantly predate the concert hall, which is itself a primitive kind of amplification technology.

    Thank you, sir! You‘ve just eloquently restated the selfsame premise I initially stated in my post above (ahem, are you aware of this?). Yes, you’re right, or as I put it, the concert hall is “acoustic architecture”; thank you for (your self-unbeknownst) agreement with this unassailable fact. But where, pray tell, did I say or insinuate that musical appreciation does not predate the concert hall? Let me re-tag a few of my words to assist your attention-deficient reading: “the composed literature of centuries of music…until about 125 years ago…all musical instruments—again, both western and non-western…until the advent of electricity…”

    The vast majority of human musical experience throughout the ages has nothing to do whatsoever with gentlemen in tuxedos and concert halls…

    Hmm, allow me give you a helping hand again there. This is what I wrote: “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” OK, what that means is: “the acoustic issue has nothing to do with tuxes and tails,” i.e., if one translates my plain English into…plain English.

    The vast majority of human musical experience throughout the ages has…much to do with drug-fuelled dancing, bawdy ballads in local taverns and badly tuned catgut.

    Indeed. All of these activities were accompanied by live acoustic instruments. Thank you, again, for re-reconfirming my premise.

    Live performance is, indeed, an entirely different kettle of fish to recordings, but if you think electricity gets in the way of the transmission of this live musical energy…

    Let me try putting it this way: if you want to optimally display a fine painting, you need to put it in a frame. Paintings need frames to bring out their inherent qualities. There is an art to selecting the right frame to enhance the canvas. Concert halls are frames for the canvas of acoustic sound. A concert hall is a musical cofactor. That’s why a classical guitarist playing a solo recital in New York’s Weill Hall will probably not need to use a pickup (Weill is exceedingly live and resonant) but will, in, say, Ethical Culture or Christ and St. Stephens.

    Electricity is not a frame. An acoustic musical experience is not fungible with an electronic musical experience, not because of tuxedos or diamond horseshoes, but because it is simply different, acoustically/physically. Amplified music will sound the same irrespective of physical environment, even in the concrete and asphalt of a garage. That’s why they call them garage bands. But wood breathes. It is a living material. It is pliant. The reeds of wind instruments breathe and are pliant. Living materials impart a color and body to music not attainable by electronic sampling. Tweeter and woofer cones may vibrate, but loudspeakers do not breathe and are not pliant in the same sense as cedar or maple or other materials used in acoustic instrument building. Amplification erases the distinctive sound signature of acoustically made instruments: if you listen to an overdriven electric pickup on a violin, it doesn’t matter whether the violin is a Stradivarius or an Amati because you no longer can hear the difference. Yet nobody would claim that there are no actual sound differences between these instruments. If you like amplified sound of that kind, fine. I myself think it is appropriate to certain kinds of styles. The first time I heard it on a recording in 1969, I thought Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock was a fascinating piece of virtuosity and gutbucket expression, and I still think that. Sure, it needed the energy of electricity to make its statement.

    I don’t think electricity is a paradigmatic replacement for acoustic music, however. You cannot have nuanced musical expression by eliminating the noise floor, as does amplified electronic music. (Piano tuners have to “quiet down” to listen for beats.) The interaction of harmonics among natural acoustic instruments (the “bleedthrough” that gives color to mixed timbres), room tone, and ambiance in concert hall spaces, all tend to get erased in situations where amplification and sound design drive the sound. On an electric guitar, artificial harmonics, sul ponticello, sul tasto, and other special effects might or might not “speak” but they will not “land.” (For a fuller treatment of this see “The Loudspeakers Are Alive With the Sound of Music” in my book The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical)

    The retro faux-purist belief that the technology of yesterday is somehow more emotionally pure…

    Are acoustic instruments a priori retro? Not according to Harry Partch or Conlon Nancarrow. And I didn’t say anything about “emotional purity.” I said that acoustic music is physically different, that that difference is a physical fact like the percentage of hydrogen in the amosphere, and that the difference shouldn’t be confused with issues of politics, sociology, taste, or aesthetics. And yes, though I favor acoustic instruments, I’m hardly a “purist” since I have composed a work for theremin that has been performed before a live audience, I have quite willingly employed electric pickups for instruments like the jaw’s harp in pieces I’ve composed, and I have occasionally employed sound design in my own music theater works. If my ear wanted the sound of an electric violin, I wouldn’t hesitate to use one. At the same time, I find even state-of-the-art digitally synthesized “orchestrations” of classical works grotesquely poverty-stricken, as if one were looking at a stick-figure cartoon recreation of a Leonardo painting.

    new fangled acoustics that meant you could make pipe organs really loud, except they would tend to add extra accusations of devil worship…

    It wasn’t about volume, it was about registration. Organ registration. Mixture and mutation stops made diapason stops more penetrating without being quantitatively louder. It wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century (long after devil worship) that organ-builders like Ernest Skinner deliberately constructed humongous organs of ear-splitting volume (see Craig Whitney’s fine book All the Stops).

    While the subgenus of music that has to do with cellos and listening only to the amplified sounds of strings and skins within tuned environments is important and certainly not to be discarded, claiming that this tiny section–

    “Subgenus”? “Tiny section”? All the novels written in all languages since Lady Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji are a subgenus, a “tiny section” of human prose, by this arrogant (and incoherent) sophistry.

    May I respectfully suggest that before you indulge in self-congratulatory Tarzan-chest-thumping and trash-talking, you would be well advised to take into account that rather too many clearcut distinctions made in my post went completely over your head.

    Reply

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