The concert hall is dead. All our futures are in recording. Electronic music is our only future. These are just some of the claims made by Glenn Gould in his seminal 1966 debate with Humphrey Burton, and in his subsequent essay for High Fidelity Magazine that year. After half a century – and a global health crisis – Gould’s prophecy of the extinction of the concert hall has, at least momentarily, become a reality. The current catastrophe has prompted me to further explore the pianist’s ideas, to see what truth lies therein; and although Gould made some rather extreme predictions, it is shocking how accurate many of them were. In this article, I hope to explore not only the validity of these claims, but also their implications, both practical and philosophical.
It is indisputable that since Gould’s interview the importance of recording has grown exponentially, to the extent that we musicians often record at home, on our own instruments, and edit the tracks ourselves (another of Gould’s predictions). Such a change in how music is perceived or experienced, from the rare opportunity to frequent a sacred space like a concert hall so as to bathe in endless combinations of sound waves, to a highly domesticated activity whereby one can listen to almost any recording ever created at the touch of a screen and make additional conductorial decisions regarding volume and balance, must have more profound implications. Suddenly, due to the pandemic, it can no longer be the concert-going crowd who are the target for all our musical efforts, but rather the individual listener at home. And, although this may seem like an arbitrary shift to some, the consequences are drastic, at least from a composer’s perspective. What was once unplayable for the players, or inaudible to the concert-hall-audience is really no longer a problem, for technology can now rectify these issues. This made me ponder: who creates music with this ethos?
One of the first artists to come to mind was Jacob Collier – a musical wizard who often records at home, integrates a lot of electronic music into his work, and writes songs and pieces that would, unless rearranged as he does, be impossible to perform live in their exact reified state. One may argue that popular music realised this claim long since Gould made it, but that would not be entirely accurate. Let us take the music of the Beatles or Pink Floyd, for instance. Although their music was primarily recorded and that is how it became widely known, its playability, its capacity to be performed in its exact – or at least very similar – state, exists. It is also true that the Beatles, along with several other groups, used certain tape manipulation effects in their psychedelic phase recordings. However, those effects do not constitute the entire structure of their songs quite in the way that Collier’s do. One song that demonstrates this point particularly well is Collier’s acapella arrangement of Moon River from Djesse Vol. 2, which not only includes dozens of Jacobs singing together, but explores numerous pitch centres – A4 equals 427Hz, 440Hz and 453Hz. What makes this example so fascinating is that it exists only as a recording and as a YouTube video. Nowhere is the song notated in its exact form (because of the use of microtonality there is some discrepancy between different transcriptions: whether the song’s last chord is B-major or C-major, for example), and unlike some of his other songs it cannot be adapted for live performance; even if it were, it would lack the intimate soundworld that is enhanced by the technology. That is to say, dozens if not hundreds of singers on a stage would be an inaccurate portrayal of the mood that this song carries. Ultimately, this is one manifestation of what Gould was predicting.
In listening to and analysing his Moon River, it becomes clear that Collier’s musical mastery is not in question. What is uncertain, however, is the way in which we perceive such music; how do we define music that cannot be performed? (Afterall, even Cage’s As Slow As Possible and the most current EDM are being performed.) Doubtless, Gould would have considered this music, for he too was partial to editing his music in a way that put into question its exact performability. With Burton, in describing his recording of Bach’s Fugue in A minor from Book One of the WTC, Gould uncovers his decision to use and splice together parts of two different takes to provide a more engaging performance. And, although this is a less technological concept than Collier’s songs, the principal seems to be in similar alignment: creating a final take with an interpretation that was dependent on technology. With both the recording of the Fugue and Moon River, despite being in awe of the sheer skill and artistry on display, there is something about their essence, particularly the latter’s, that does not quite settle with me. It somehow seems artificial, or as Burton put it, “unnatural.” This of course drags the discussion into the realm of aesthetics: is a recorded sound just as natural or as beautiful as a live one? R. Murray Schafer has argued that a live sound is a real sound: “absolutely unique; it has an excitement about it and probably an authenticity.” Gould, however, considers such claims preposterous, and explains this attitude towards recording as a “reluctance to accept the consequences of a new technology.” With whom you agree, dear reader, is up to you. Personally, I believe Gould’s rationality gives him the intellectual edge to the argument – a sound really is just a sound – but I cannot help but feel that Schafer is right about the more experiential side to real sound. As pianist Mitsuko Uchida often says, there is something about sharing that particular moment with a particular group of people. Indeed, a lot of the time I tend to prefer Collier’s live arrangements (examples of which can be heard in his first Tiny Desk Concert for NPR). Not necessarily because they are sometimes simpler, but because that spontaneous interaction between audience and artist is essential to the experience; what I believe Uchida – and even Duchamp! – often refer to.
As I write this blog article, several concert halls and other musical venues, which I have visited myself, are beginning to struggle financially. To lose these temples would not just be tragic for musicians, but existentially so for music too. Because despite the many benefits of recording, live performance – whether it be in a concert hall or a jazz club – is essential to the artistic experience, and without it, is music really music?
Watch the interview here:
Zachary Davies, September 2020
Facebook: Zachary Davies (@ZDaviesMusic)
Gould, Glenn, The Prospects of Recording, High Fidelity, 1966
Gould and Burton: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oy-CuRE1TXk
Collier, Moon River: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VPLCk-FTVvw
Collier, NPR Tiny Desk Concert: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vPBirt1YhuM&list=PL8_NeZn6TSBMC36SiNEqE8qrTzmdzJTH6&app=desktop
R. Murray Schafer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rOlxuXHWfHw