Monday, 2 January 2012

Acoustic Performance 1: Value

Last night I finally got round to seeing The Buena Vista Social Club. Wim Wenders' documentary concerns a group of old but vital Cubans who used to play at one of the musical hotspots of Havana and were rediscovered after more than a decade of neglect by American musician Ry Cooder. The film culminates in footage of a live performance given at Carnegie Hall as part of a tour promoting the album that they recorded with Cooder under the same name as the film and after whose success the film was green lit.

So far so good. But I was a bit put out by the sound quality of the concert footage. Wenders' film is largely shot on digital cameras in 1998 and so the quality is always going to be, er, investigative compared to what we are accustomed to 14 years hence. But that isn't the bone of my contention. It's quite clear that the sound quality in the hall is also rather poor, blocks of claustrophobic sound crowding one another out, imbalancing onstage ensemble. This is a great shame as the sound of the individual artists as heard at various points throughout the documentary are delicate and brim-full of acoustic interest.

Clearly what the audience at Carnegie Hall are responding to is not simply the music but a composite of the already-heard album as well as the unique back story of the performers. What they cannot be reacting to is the unmediated sound of the performance.

Again, this cinematic record dates from 1998. Since then we have had the digital media explosion, which has enabled the high quality reproduction of audio-visual performance both recorded and live, from all sorts of performances. It has also democratised the distribution of such material, allowing previously market-marginalised artists (such as The Buena Vista Social Club performers might once have been described) to be heard.

Furthermore, one of the counter-intuitive spin-offs from the digital explosion has been the general interest in live performance. The fact that high quality reproduction is widely available and many more people are able to see & hear performers up close as-live means that hearing performers actually live has acquired a new desirability.

Yet this is still a rather pseud full-circle. Gigs these days are still amplified and mediated by a sound engineer, elements which come between the performer and audience whatever the quality of the equipment and the artistry of the engineer. And if further proof is needed that audience's prize proximity itself alongside the quality of the performance content, one only need refer to the irony of a consistent proportion of the audience watching the performance through the screen of a phone's camcorder, on which they are recording the performance rather than engaging exclusively with it.

On the periphery but disconnected from this helix of audio-visual media are the performers and their art. As Alex Ross put it in his book Listen To This,
For better or worse, classical music no longer inhabits a separate room; it is in the mix. At the same time, classical music stands partly outside the technological realm, because most of its repertory is designed to resonate naturally within a room.
'Classical music' because Ross is talking within the frame of that genre, such as it is one, but it also applies to any music that is performed by any number of musicians reacting between themselves, to the characteristics of a space and to the attentiveness and responsiveness of their immediate audience. There is a separate discussion to be had about the art of using a microphone and how a different intimacy is achieved through that - but that's the same discussion as acting for the camera rather than on a stage, both live situations requiring the physicality of projection which is the hallmark of true live performance.

UPDATE 3/1/12: Tenor Alfie Boe has suggested that Royal Opera and ENO performances are routinely amplified. Tweeting singers largely disagree. Hat-tip -

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