Recorded music, an abstraction of the live performance, doesn’t have the same effect
Musicians — admit it. You weren’t born making the music you make now. Somewhere there have been inputs — inoculations of musicality, like the language a poet learns.
Inputs. I think there have been many generations of us now who see recordings as acculturators. Our modern attitude about music is conditioned on the artifact — the sound, the essence, we assume.
Recorded music is an incredible technology. I mean the core of it — hearing later what was heard then. Let alone electronically created or digitally manipulated music — hearing now what was not heard then.
But let’s face one fact squarely — it does not give you the impression you would have gotten had you been there. Not even close, regardless of fidelity.
In like vein, facebook is not friendship, but maybe it’s starting to look like it, especially if you grew up with it. Or maybe the kids are alright.
And in seeing a recording as something to cherish when it’s good, something to learn from, we ought to give proper place to this fact: it is an abstraction from a more robust version of itself — a version situated in people and a happenstance, rather than situated in a relic. What great grandpa would have called music was something you either did or went to — with your body, and crucially, with others.
The human being is the most interesting technology for music reproduction by far. This is my main point here.
And the most durable, in a heritage from forbearing elders to wide-eyed prodigies, whereas you could build a bridge to Hawaii with all the defunct records, tapes, CDs, failed hard drives, etc (and I think we’ve already started to do that, with the immense garbage patch of plastic in the Pacific Ocean).
And the most profitable. Recorded music as a business is now a famous dead horse, but the concert “is that it is”, there’s no remix, WYSIWYG.
A big part of that is because it’s about more than what you hear — the sound is not actually the essence of a concert. You always “had to be there”, because what music actually is, is an experience that happens once.
I believe that the gathering is the condition for true music, which is a people phenomenon, and a communication. And what’s best about music is its capacity to order a gathering, to bring people “in concert”, with shared experience as a substrate for fellow-feeling as much as for pure aesthetic relish.
And as an acculturator, music people make is much more valuable than music speakers make. You remove the human at peril of losing track of the source. This same problem plagues our food system, and is being recognised. Know your farmer, limit your processed food. Know your singer, limit your processed music.
You’re not going to make all your music yourself, and shouldn’t. You're not going to attend every concert you’d like to hear, and shouldn’t have to. And it’s impossible and undesirable to hear “live” much of the music that is being made these days, because humans made it with computers. All of these are liberating, good things, and a credit to technology, and something to be thankful for in our age.
But docking your iPod will never be as enlightening as learning a song from a teacher or friend, pushing play will never be as rewarding as waiting for the guy to retune. And remember that you can never witness without being present — and witnessing may just be what is most human about us, most irreplaceable. It’s not what a tape recorder does.
(Gautam Tejas Ganeshan is a vocalist, and director of the Sangati Center, a concert venue for Carnatic music in Berkeley, USA; website: sangaticenter.org.)