Friday, June 10, 2005

Musical purgatory

I've long held the admittedly quirky view that there is something about music recording that is an abomination. I've participated in my fair share of recordings--the lure of lucre strong as it is--and have my favourite CDs like most people. But a part of me has always felt that something essential is lost when music is recorded. As if CDs are to music what zombies are to people: sure, they walk and talk, but whatever it is that made them who they were (and I deliberately avoid the word "soul" here) is missing. As if by capturing ephemeral sound waves and transferring them to a hard medium, whence they can be recreated at will, the music has been sent to a sort of purgatory, never to rise or fall as was its destiny. OK, maybe I'm pushing the metaphor here, but you get my point.

All this was brought to the forefront of my mind again after reading Alex Ross's fascinating New Yorker article entitled "The Record Effect", in which he discusses the many and various ways recording has affected not only how we listen to music, but also how it is performed and composed. That article garnered a fair bit of attention, especially regarding the parts where he talks about recording's influence on vibrato. One of those who found the article food for thought was none other than David Byrne.

Byrne, judging by his long and thoughtful response, is a pretty smart guy. His blog post is almost as interesting as Ross's article (though not as well written). But I wanted to cite here a passage that struck a chord with me.

Byrne writes: Probably as a musician I find music either one or the other — completely invisible, inaudible — even sometimes when it’s playing loud — or completely intrusive — impossible to ignore. As a musician there are times when even quiet background music in a bar or restaurant is completely distracting and impossible to ignore. It’s like the effect of having a TV on in room is for most people — it tends to demand attention. All conversation either stops or has to deal with the TV program. Music is like that for musicians.

He also says: "Music is now everywhere. It’s not a special event to hear music as it once was." Which brings me back to the title of this post. Music is everywhere because it's recorded, zombie music. Music has in many ways become merely a soundtrack, creating or enhancing a mood. Most of the time, people don't really listen to it for its own sake. I think part of the reason is that it's zombie music. Yes, a jazz trio in the corner playing lounge music is still considered musique d'ambiance, but I think that's because we've gotten into the habit of not really listening to music. If somehow we woke up tomorrow and all the recordings were gone, I think music--live music, of course, since that's all there would be--would start to demand attention like a TV program does today, and everybody--not just musicians--would find it increasingly hard to tune out because music would be something special, something rare--something that could float up into the heavens, where it belongs.

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