AHRC Online Conference

Classical Music Hyper Production and Practice As Research


This is a post intended for the discussion unfolding in Musicology that overlaps issues in Performance and Production. With respect to recording, I think it's important to factor in the audience, not just the ways in which concepts of audio fidelity are constructed on the side of musicians, producers and audio engineers. My point is, however artificial recordings are in comparison with the "live" events they purport to resemble, they are not normally perceived that way by listeners.

As a point of comparison, I'm thinking of Robert Crease's book The Play of Nature, in which he details an extended analogy between laboratory science and theater. One point he makes is that for scientists, there is no gap between the perception of data and the recognition of the thing the data represents. For example, in Crease's view, the scientists at CERN did not look at some data and deduce from it the presence of the Higgs Boson. Rather, they looked at the data and saw the Higgs Boson directly. This is because the scientists are what Crease calls "a suitably prepared audience."

Although this is hardly an exact analogy, much the same thing holds true for recordings of music. As "a suitably prepared audience" (that is, an audience that is tacitly aware of the conventions of recording), we perceive data during playback that we recognize as a performance without conscious cognitive processing. When a recording comes along that is not made according to the conventions we find to be legible, it requires some getting used to. For example, Big Brother and the Holding Company's Live at the Carousel Ballroom, which was recorded by Owsley Stanley with the intention of mapping the instruments' and voices' respective positions in the stereo field as closely as possible to their actual position on stage, sounds odd at first, very unlike most live rock recordings. It seems to me that this ultimately has little to do with fidelity per se and everything to do with an understanding of recordings as synthetic and conventionalized representations of performances that are nevertheless experienced directly as performances by suitably prepared audiences.

Where this might lead in practical terms, I honestly have no idea, but I do think it's important to keep the audience in mind as listeners, not just as consumers.

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  • Hello to Daniel Barolsky! I have to say that I don't think I know what a "neutral concept" is or why a concept needs to be neutral to be useful.

    Leaving that aside, I completely agree that what Daniel is calling "aesthetic context" has a great influence on how we (choose to) hear. My reference in a previous comment to the possibility of suppressing certain knowledge we possess in order to hear a recording as a performance exemplifies the way we shape our behavior (to use Daniel's word) to the context. (For me, this concept has its roots both in Goffman's idea that we assume specific "information states" in order to participate appropriately in performances and also in Gadamer's idea that we consciously "grasp" aesthetic objects in certain ways.) One instance of this that I've pondered has to do only with recordings--I believe that we listen to live recordings differently from studio ones. What the differences are and how

    Although Daniel's claim that we may experience live sound as ephemeral and fugitive in ways that recorded sound is not (which may or may not produce anxiety), the experience of listening is equally ephemeral and fugitive regardless of whether we are listening to live music or a recording. As an example, once, about 35 years ago (yikes!) I heard a recording of Eric Dolphy and Richard Davis play "Alone Together" in a particular way that I've never been able to recapture no matter how many times I listen to the same recording. Clearly, the way I heard that recording that night remains an important aesthetic experience for me, since I still remember having had the experience and would love to have it again, though that seems impossible.

    All of this comes down to a distinction I've made repeatedly in my writing on liveness and other topics, the distinction between the ontological perspective and the phenomenological perspective. Ontologically speaking, the recording of Dolphy and Davis is identical each time I play it. However, my phenomenal experience of it absolutely is not. Whereas I started out being interested in questions of recording and mediatization from the ontological perspective, my thinking has drifted more and more toward thinking that the phenomenology of the things we're talking about is even more important. (As a last gesture for now, I will emphasize that by "phenomenological" I do not mean audience studies or reception theory, as my citation of Gadamer may suggest.)

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  • I am reminded of my grandmother who had studied the piano in Dresden about 1915. In the 1960s she would listen to medium wave transmissions of great performances on a small Grundig transistor set with a loudspeaker 1½ inches across. Apparently this 'defective' audio cue would give her sufficient to enjoy the performance and to enable her to discuss interpretation. She was suitably prepared.

    Quite the opposite may be said about the book "Sound Media" by Lars Nyre (Routledge 2008), with accompanying CD. Based on the best philosophers of the day he presents a very interesting "un-learning" approach to the history of sound distribution and recording. He intends to demonstrate "sound" from various eras of recorded sound, and for the 1930s he has chosen a 1931 recording of Ravel's 'La Valse' played by the Lamoureux Orchestra under Albert Wolff. He says: "The track was re-recorded by playing the 78 rpm on a wind-up gramophone, picking up the sound with a microphone and recording it on a wav file". All very honest, good, and dandy. This is indeed one of the correct approaches to providing a sound as it was at a given period, in a given social class. But when the suitably prepared person listens to Nyre's example, it is quite apparent that the gramophone in question is a Crapophone -- a recent visual replica from India that is unable to reproduce a record without frightful distortion and great deficiencies in frequency response. Not to speak about the unneccesary wear on the original record.

    Now, what would my grandmother have done with that? Nothing -- the things she listened for were most likely still there. As a matter of fact I have now introduced a second suitably prepared person: the person who knows about period reproduced sound and the range historically available in reproducing machines, from wreck to EMG. The latter type of gramophone was emulated and expanded by NIMBUS records in their Prima Voce series. Unfortunately, the NIMBUS type of gramophone is only suited for electrical records, but their catalogue only boasted acoustic records. Again a misguided clash of purposes.

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  • George's comment raises two things for me. The first is the question of what kind of mental activity is involved for the "suitably prepared" listener. Are we aware of compensating for "low fidelity," that is, hearing the performance in spite of sonic defects? Crease's original claim about scientists is that this is not what happens, that scientists immediately perceive the data their instruments disclose as phenomena; there is no translation or compensation involved.

    The other thing is fairly obvious but always worth reiterating. For all of the conversation about "high fidelity," it is probably the case that most people most of the time hear music under less than optimal conditions of reproduction. And the success of demonstrably "inferior" formats (45s vs. LPs; portable transistor radios vs. radios built into the home hi-fi console) shows that things like accessibility, convenience, and mobility very often trump considerations of sound quality. This connects to my previous question. Back in the day, when I listened to music on small transistor radios, did I extrapolate a better quality sound from what I heard or did the tinny sound give me sufficient access to the performance as a suitably prepared listener?

    Comment last edited on about 1 year ago by Philip Auslander
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  • As a personal observation and response to Philip's question, my sound systems were for many years deliberately ordinary (and for years I bought lots of 2nd-hand LPs in less than perfect condition) because I told myself that the quality of the performance would transcend the sonic quality of the recording. As a trained musician, I believed that seductive sound quality just distracted from the things I was interested in listening to closely. For years I'd be listening to piano performances (or recordings of live performances of Furtwangler or Mengelberg for that matter) largely in terms of factors such as rubato/tempo flexibility/ distinctive individual shaping and expressive nuance etc and was unconcerned with its "low fidelity". (And at that time it wasn't that hi-fi was trumped by matters of convenience and mobility.) I'm convinced that the way we listen is hugely selective and that we can, and do, extrapolate beyond the sound of recordings to get to the music we are listening for. Of course there are many different ways that we individually choose to listen to music and at times the sonic glory of a marvellous recorded sound gives great pleasure but to what extent should one be consciously aware of the sound quality? For many people (and I expect including many trained musicians such as myself) the preferred mode of listening is for the recording to be completely transparent, even though a little thought shows that to be a delusion. However now that prevailing performance norms in WAM are, shall we say, relatively restricted/unimaginative - not to mention that fact that most people are now listening to classical music in digital forms in ways that were unthinkable even a few decades ago - the opportunity for the medium to help change the message, to revitalise the culture (of both performing and listening) and enable/encourage us experience classical music in fresh ways seems to me to be really promising.

    from Brisbane QLD, Australia
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  • I am really enjoying this conversation and see overlaps between several panels. Coming back to Philip's initial comment about audiences as listeners as well as consumers, has anyone done any research on what audiences want and how we adjust our practice to achieve this (or to change it somewhat)? If so, is there a facility where we might share this research? Could we, for example, share papers through this panel? Create a research topic at Academia.edu?

    from Perth WA, Australia
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  • As a state of examination, I'm considering Robert Crease's book The Play of Nature, in which he points of interest a broadened similarity between research facility science and theater. One point he makes is that for researchers, there is no hole between the impression of information and the acknowledgment of the thing the information speaks to. Assignment Writing Expert

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