Monday, January 9, 2012

Musical Dishonesty

Is it dishonest to concoct a musical recording that would be virtually impossible to replicate in a live performance?

Ever since tape was invented, people have been using it to create new sonic textures, and many times these recordings represent sounds that cannot be heard in real life. The ability to record musical performances is, of course, one of the greatest breakthroughs in all of history. A similarly important but often overlooked breakthrough, however, is the ability to "record" sounds that never existed in the first place. Take this early example of tape music, a piece called "Etude aux chemins de fer" composed in 1948 by Pierre Schaeffer. I have linked to Youtube:

Pieces like this are forgotten milestones. How would one describe these sounds? The fact of the matter is that I can't describe, but this recording is unquestionably musical all the same.

Of course, experimentation of this sort is not without its detractors. Miles Davis made innovative use of studio technology on his 1970 album "Bitches Brew." The album contains multiple edits and uses sound effects such as tape loops and delay, previously unheard of in the jazz world. Some critics found these effects to run contrary to the spirit of jazz because they did not represent the spontaneity of the group, but rather resembled something constructed in a laboratory. Which side do you fall on?

Now with digital technology, there is no limit to the number of distinct sounds that can be created. We are no longer confined to the standard instruments we have become so accustomed to. Technology is a way for music to be advanced, and it is not something that needs to be resisted.

So all of this makes one wonder if our understanding of the word "recording" is starting to blow up in our faces. Certainly making a CD of a live performance is a recording in the conventional sense. But what if the recording itself is the performance, like "Etude aux chemins de fer"? Better yet, what if you meet somewhere in the middle, like "Bitches Brew" does? Indeed one of the biggest issues artists have to grapple with in the 21st century is the blurring of these lines. With innovations such as auto-tune we can no longer be sure if what we're hearing is the "real thing," and this is frustrating for many people. While I certainly don't advocate for the use of auto-tune to correct one's poor singing, generally speaking it does not offend me if we mix the "real" sounds with the "fake" ones. What is music except the sounds the we order? Does is matter how we choose to order them?

This leads to my initial question. Is it dishonest to concoct a musical recording that would be virtually impossible to replicate in a live performance? This is, of course, a contradiction. Any recording can be replicated in a live performance. All you have to do is press play, and listen.

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