I’ve written in two previous posts about the experience of music, especially live performance and including how the experience of music or listening compares with other art forms, e.g. the experiences of visual art through looking or of literature through reading (see “Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and the Experience of Art [Musical and Visual]”
and “Reading, Looking, Listening”).
About a week ago I had the pleasure of witnessing a phenomenal performance of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. In light of that experience, I’d like to raise two points for discussion as an addendum to those earlier posts.
Obviously music per se can’t be watched – it’s comprised of sound. But the physical performance of the music by live musicians can be. The theatricality of a rock show is as much about the visual performance of the band, a light show, etc. While not typically involving things like laser light shows, watching the musicians play is an important component of experiencing live jazz or classical music or any other music.
One of the most engaging aspects of watching live music is the way that visual clues can cue you in to subtle aspects of the music otherwise not noticed. In Carmina Burana, in addition to the full orchestra and chorus, there are three vocal soloists: a soprano, tenor, and baritone. The tenor only sings one song (a lament for a cooked swan), and in the case of this song, the singer is accompanied primarily by the viola section. Before seeing the piece live, I had actually not particularly noticed the violas nor the subtle beauty of the music being played in that section of the music. I’m not sure why I had never noticed before – maybe I’ve always just focused in on the tenor’s voice in that song, but it was initially seeing the physical actions of the violists’ bowing (while most of the rest of the orchestra sat still) that made me focus my attention on that component of the music. For me, and I think for most music lovers, this aspect of musical experience is one of the main reasons and joys to experiencing music live.
Hearing Live Music in Relation to Recorded Music
As Claude Lévi-Strauss discussed in the “Overture” section of The Raw and the Cooked (and as I discussed in my essay “Reflections on Meaning and Myth: Claude Lévi-Strauss Revisited,” Anthropos, 2005, V. 100: 221 – 228), music offers an experience that is simultaneously diachronic and synchronic. It unfolds through time (hence the diachronic) – music is largely about our experience of time – but it is simultaneously experienced as if all at once (hence the synchronic) in the sense that what is experienced at any moment is experienced in relation to the memory of what has gone before and the anticipation that sets up about the still unfolding music – with much of the joy of the experience of music coming from the way in which the music meets our expectation or does not and surprises us. It is through this combination of diachronic and synchronic experience that music actively engages the mind.
Over the past century of so, recordings have upped the ante. Before the prevalence of recorded music, the only way to experience music was via live performance. This limited (though it did not eliminate – especially in the case of “folk” genres that would have been more familiar to most people) the ability of people to “know” the piece of music being played before its performance. It’s now possible to enter into a live performance of most music of any genre with a thorough knowledge of what that music usually sounds like.
This has had multiple effects. Many histories of classical music that I have read indicate that one effect of this has been to raise the expectations of audiences and to raise performance standards for musicians and orchestras. When avid (and even not so avid in the case of particularly famous pieces of music) fans enter the performance with a thorough sense of how the music is “supposed to” sound, the bar is raised. In general, this is a good thing, though it might also increase the chances of disappointment from perfectly adequate performances that might simply not reach the highest pinnacles of performance of the last century.
Some worry that the prevalence of recording has homogenized performance. This is to some extent true, e.g. distinct national styles of instrumental or vocal performance are much less in evidence in classical music than was true several decades ago. At the same time, to some extent the presence of so many recordings of repertoire pieces encourages diversity of interpretation. If you’re going to record yet another interpretation of Carmina Burana at this point, you ought to present something new in the piece. An example of this is Simon Rattle’s recent recording of the piece – his pacing to me seems a bit too fast for the work to enjoy listening to too often, but he definitely presents a distinct interpretation the distinctiveness of which would be apparent to most people even casually familiar with the work.
Entering the experience already familiar with multiple recordings of Carmina Burana, I had high standards for the piece (which were abundantly met). Further, though, having the memory of pre-existing experiences with the piece (and with the Atlanta Symphony under Robert Spano and with other performances of other pieces I’ve experienced by this symphony), my experience and pleasure was heightened by the recognition of particular aspects of interpretation that made this particular performance distinct. In this case (as with the performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring I enjoyed earlier this spring), in certain movements the percussion was prominently emphasized. (Both Carmina Burana and The Rite of Spring are highly percussive in places in any interpretation, but this was more prominent than in most.) As a result, I noticed certain percussive elements, e.g. the almost machine-gun-like snare drum in the early moments of the piece, that I’d never particularly noticed before – and that experience now informs each further experience of the piece, whether live or recorded.