Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Classical Music Unplugged

OK, I've sat listening to the on-going debate about the future of classical music for long enough. It's time to dive in.

The form of classical music, as discussed by Greg Sandow in his blog is not central to the problem. Neither is its typically aged audience. Though these issues, and many others have a bearing on the future of this increasingly abstruse art form, at the core of the problem is, I believe, the public’s diminishing ability to listen to acoustic music.

There is a fundamental difference in the perception of real sound, and electronically reproduced sound in the same way as our appreciation of theatre differs from our appreciation of cinema.

Film is a powerful and influential medium, but its persuasiveness depends partly upon the passivity of the audience. I’m not suggesting that cinema audiences are unintelligent, only that film is essentially a passive form. The director has the power to direct our attention by focusing the camera on the screen characters that he wants to appear most prominently and to use the music soundtrack as a key to our sensibilities. Of course, we are aware of the manipulation and complicit in it, but everyone knows intuitively with which character to empathise. Nevertheless, self-abandonment to pleasurable manipulation is one of the delights of cinema.

Theatre on the other hand is more demanding; and I don’t mean in the sense that it is necessarily difficult. Rather, that it demands our involvement; we have to decide where to direct our attention and on whom to bestow our sympathies. It has become an accepted aspect of theatre that it asks more questions than it answers without telling us what to think. Consequently, the emotions that theatre evokes are real, whereas the emotions of the cinema are merely realistic.

The appreciation of recorded music, and electronically amplified live music is akin to cinema in that it is an essentially passive activity. The sounds that one hears in either instance are not the original real acoustic sound waves but a stylised electronic reproduction. This is equally true of recorded classical music as it is of a rock concert. In both instances the sound engineer assumes the role of arbitrator of our sonic taste. Of course, the audience is able to assess the fidelity of the engineer’s reproductions: but even then, its judgements are based on experiential preconceptions, [derived mostly from the work of other sound engineers] rather than on real acoustic sound.

Take for instance the sound of a grand piano. How many people ever get to hear one – for real, in the flesh? Aside from the classical piano recital, which, for the sake of argument let us assume that almost no one attends these days, these instruments are to be found in the living rooms of pianists and the very wealthy; neither of which are likely to be frequented regularly by the average person. So, our conception of how an acoustic grand piano sounds is derived from recorded music, amplified concerts and the sound model portrayed by an electronic piano or synthesizer. Yet, notwithstanding the limitations of the virtual sound world, I expect most people believe themselves to have a pretty clear idea of how a piano ought to sound.
We begin to realise just how circumscribed our notions of sound are when we realise that the public’s sense of sound is conditioned by the work of sound engineers, who are themselves no different from the rest of us in as much as they are bound by accepted taste to ensure that their work conforms to the norm. They too listen to popular music where the piano appears in its stylised guise. They also work with samples, where the sounds of only one or two pianos are now the benchmark building blocks of film scores, TV advertisements and even music recordings. As a result, when in the course of practicing their craft, they reproduce the sound of a real acoustic piano they will be impelled [by their own tastes] and compelled [by the desire to please the producer, musicians and the public] to transcribe a stylised sound without challenging the accepted model of the virtual world – even if it does little to reflect their direct acoustic experience.

The classical music concert is not a passive stylised experience. Like theatre, it demands the involvement of its audience. The very act of listening actively and attentively, as opposed to hearing [having sound impinge on one’s consciousness] requires effort – a skill that is seldom required and even discouraged in the modern world [See Mike Zwerin’s article in The International Herald Tribune]. This is especially true considering the very low sound levels and the comparative dominance of reflected or reverberant sound produced by acoustic music in a large concert hall. The black art of artificial reverberation is a subject to which I will return, but the beautifying bolt-on version with which we are all quite familiar in recorded and amplified music is very, very different to the real thing.
The proliferation of naturally decaying sound or reverberation obfuscates direct sound in real acoustics in a way that recording engineers know how to avoid or turn to their advantage, but it makes concert listening much more difficult. With few concert hall seats offering the ideal vantage point, each audience member hears something slightly different to his neighbour – each, more or less confusing, and all rather less than perfect. Listening and understanding therefore requires effort, interpretation, discernment and patience; in short, a rather large slice of mental activity.

Am I suggesting then that classical music is unpopular because the public is too lazy to listen? Perhaps, but only in as much as laziness is endemic in the modern world, which promotes conformity while disguising the pleasures and rewards of searching, seeking and development, behind the more obvious luxuries of instant gratification and impassive comfort.
Now follows a discussion with Greg Sandow on the subject of his book, The Future of Classical Music.

GT: Looking forward to reading your ongoing contributions to this perplexing question. Don't know what you've got in store, but I wonder if, amongst the many questions to resolve, you've considered what I regard as the diminishing ability to listen to acoustic music. I've started on the subject (here - Classical Music Unplugged). {please excuse the first glib reference to your blog - it was intended to sound provative - but not necessarily to provoke you)

G Sandow: Thanks for the comment, and you raise an Interesting point. But then on the other hand, there's been a great upsurge of acoustic music in pop during the past couple of decades, marked most notably by the popularity of "MTV Unplugged" in the '90s. I remember Mariah Carey doing that show in the early '90s, with really complex acoustic arrangements of some of her songs, involving more than 20 instruments, if I remember correctly, including a harmonium. (I know I'm remembering that one right.)Though of course the ultimate pop acoustic sound is just one singer, with an acoustic guitar. We could get into complicated discussions of live vs. amplified live vs. recorded sound, but the current pop audience, or large niches within it, are completely comfortable with this version of an acoustic aesthetic.

Posted by: guthrytrojan at February 20, 2006 12:44 PM Mmm. I realise that acoustic instruments haven't disappeared entirely - that's partly why I chose the title I did for my blog article. But my point is that people only hear these so called, 'acoustic concerts' via an amplification system - so they are not hearing acoustic sound, but amplified acoustic sound, which as I explained, is idealised and stylised and quite another thing from the actual acoustic experience. To many people these days, [unamplified] acoustic music is alien, demanding and unappealing.

G Sandow: Well, maybe. But it's worth asking whether what you say is really true. Is it based on real experience with the people we're talking about, or is it a hypothesis? A reasonable one, I'd add, but still a hypothesis. I think a lot of people play the guitar at home, for instance, or have friends who do, or play the piano, or hear marching bands. And I'm not sure that for me, at least, the experience of hearing (lightly) amplified acoustic music in a club has quite the effect you describe. I haven't noticed that it seems amplified or stylized, any more than classical music does on a good recording. If the miking is done well, you just get a more audible version of the original acoustic sound, complete, very likely, with the sound of fingers moving on the nylon strings of a guitar. An example from a record might be "You Had Time," an Ani DiFranco song, which starts with a lot of apparently improvised solo acoustic piano. I don't know what the difference would be between hearing this on a record and hearing a Beethoven piano piece. And if she plays this part when she does the song live, I'd think it would be even less idealized, because you'd see her playing it.

Posted by: guthrytrojan at February 22, 2006 03:47 PM
Obviously my views must necessarily be an hypothesis to some extent, but it's one which I've gleaned from direct experience of working with others. For example, at the moment I'm engineering a solo piano recording. At the start of the sessions, the producer [who one might expect to know better] asked if I could make the sound "a bit more stereo" - by which he meant that he wanted to hear the high notes on the left, and the low notes on the right. Anyone whose ever listened to a real piano in a real acoustic - without having his head glued to the sound board - will know that such expectations are quite foreign to the real acoustic experience. To your second point ["I'm not sure that for me, at least, the experience of hearing (lightly) amplified acoustic music in a club has quite the effect you describe"] - I would say that the fact that you've not noticed any change in sound indicates that the engineer has done a good job rather than that the sound is not idealised. 'The Sound' is always idealised to the extent that it represents one single perspective among an infinite variety of different perspectives. The sound of any acoustic instrument appears to change as one moves around it in the same way as an object looks slightly different depending on the angle and the light in which it is viewed. The differences are subtle, but they are nevertheless differences. Once it's amplified - even a little bit - the sound is immutable. And yes, I agree, it is so on recordings too. That's the craft of audio engineering and that's just the point!