If classical music is not live, you can still hear it on your home stereo equipment or through headphones on your portable media device, it just may not be quite as cool.


Not part of a live performance. Or a balanced breakfast.

Succinct title is succinct.

Over the course of the last week, there has been a discussion about live music versus recordings spurred on by some very engaging posts over at On an Overgrown Path, with the general consensus being summed up by the title of the initial post: “If classical music is not live it is dead.”  Here is a brief excerpt from the post:

To date classical music has actively courted new technology as a desirable and superior partner. But is it not time to rethink this position and start driving home the message that anything other than live music is actually a poor substitute? Marketing and social media could play a big part in the call to action in the concert hall. How about aggressive collegiate marketing campaigns for live music built around straplines such as ‘Test drive a concert hall’, ‘Live classical music is louder than your iPod’, ‘Play an instrument not Facebook’ and ‘If classical music is not live it is dead’. And why not attention getting offers such as discounted concert tickets for anyone trading in iPod earbuds?

Several of the comments have taken it a step further, essentially claiming that recordings have little or no value and that any and all marketing energies ought to go towards the promotion of live performances.  There is talk of the communal and social aspect of a performance, the unreasonable expectation created by recordings for “perfect” performances, etc.  With all the concern over fidelity of sound, purity of intent, and true realization of musical concept, it seems that one fundamental element has been missing.  If Shostakovich is performed in Moscow and I live in Kansas City, did it really make a sound?

The notion of classical music being best served by a live performance is indisputable.  Recordings are what they are, and no matter how many times you play it, how great your speakers are, or how Super Audio it is, it will always have a natural ceiling that it can never break through.  Even with the threat of missed notes, questionable intonation, and the occasional tuberculosis breakout in the audience, the possibilities of a live performance are higher (and lower).  It’s no different than passing through a small town on a road trip and stopping for dinner; you can certainly get a wholly edible Turkey sandwich at Subway, but there’s a chance that Doris over at the Corner Café makes a really kick-ass meatloaf (or a terrifying one made partially out of human meat for that matter).

A live performance offers the potential for moments that simply cannot be replicated with recordings, because of the inherent risk of live performance.  A couple years ago, the KC Symphony did a live performance of Britten works in preparation for a recording.  I’ll never forget the concert; the climax of the first movement of the Sinfonia da Requiem tore my face off.  The recording is spectacular (winner of some Grammys), but that moment, while still plenty hair-raising, is unable to match the feeling I had sitting in the audience.  But what about those people who didn’t even have a clue that the concert was taking place?  The recording is as close as they can come.

I may be way off base, but it seems that the feeling is that we should forgo recordings whenever possible in favor of live performance.  In a theoretical sense, I agree.  If I have the workable option of driving to Chicago to hear the orchestra perform Mahler 7 under Boulez or watching the Great Performances broadcast of it on television, I should pack my bags.  But I can’t really afford to drive to Chicago; aren’t I fortunate that they’re broadcasting it?  And while I may not get quite the emotional high as those lucky folks who attended the performance, isn’t it still pretty rad that I get an emotional high anyway?

Furthermore, I would argue that not all performances are created equal, and it is possible to have a more earth-shaking experience with a recording in some cases.  Back in 2006, I went to a performance of Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony with an orchestra in the Pacific Northwest; it was a terrific concert, and the band really played their asses off that night.  But I can say unequivocally that the performance didn’t impact me as much as the old Rostropovich recording with the National Symphony on Teldec, through no fault of anyone’s.  I’ve had profound experiences in concerts.  I’ve had profound experiences listening to recordings.

What about rare repertoire?  One of my favorite pieces is Miloslav Kabelac’s Mystery of Time, which I discovered through an internet broadcast.  I can certainly hope and pray that my local music ensemble programs it, but I might be hoping and praying for a mighty long time.  It’s distinctly possible that I will never hear this music in a live setting, and while that’s sad, at least I can still hear it in one form or another, compromised sound or not.

In a way, this argument is connected to the digital music quality issue.  I’ve encountered dozens of avid listeners who refuse to listen to anything other than lossless audio, or only accept the highest possible quality of a broadcast recording.  Ultimately, doesn’t one miss out on hearing any number of compelling performances if they stick to a rigorous principle like that?  Is it better to hear the Pittsburgh Symphony lay waste to Mahler 3 via a source that doesn’t really capture the entire essence of the performance versus being there in person to experience it?  Obviously not.  But is it better to hear anything at all than to not even have an understanding of what took place?  I would assume that’s a resounding yes.

It’s like sex.  Sex without a condom is the pinnacle of the experience for most people (and a manifestation of God’s will to other, crazier ones).  Sex with a condom isn’t quite as appealing; you have to stop what you’re doing to put it on, it’s kinda gross, cleaning it up isn’t very nice, etc.  But dammit all if it doesn’t still feel pretty awesome.  All other factors being equal, I imagine the overwhelming majority of us would choose to not use protection.  But all other factors aren’t equal.  You don’t want to get pregnant right now, so your choices are protection or abstinence.  One still gives pleasure.  The other gives…I’ll have to check with Texas on that.

At the end of the day, this is why I cannot agree with the assertion that classical music needs to shift its attention heavily to the live concert.  Accessibility is not a bad concept when applied appropriately.  Downloading the complete Mahler set conducted by Sinopoli in mp3 is probably not a terrific idea if you can swing the extra $30 for the CDs.  And it would have been better still had you been in London for the performances themselves way back when.  But no matter how you hear it, you hear it.  It moves you.  It’s still music and your experience could be a powerful one.

In a fantastic world where I’m super-rich and have many servants who shower me in fine oils and perfumes and I don’t work at a bank and can travel anywhere and everywhere on a whim, I attend concerts all over the planet, sleeping in between shows on my beautiful private plane.  In the real world where I actually do work at a bank and have to shower my damn self in nothing but warm water, I’ll take whatever quality of recorded music I am reasonably comfortable with in the hopes of hearing something I’ve never heard before.  So promote the live experience with all the energies and resources available, but don’t do it at the expense of something that can still provide satisfaction, imperfect though it may be.


4 thoughts on “If classical music is not live, you can still hear it on your home stereo equipment or through headphones on your portable media device, it just may not be quite as cool.

  1. This argument brings to mind the Glenn Gould mantra that live music is dead and should be outlawed. His reasoning boils down (I think) to fear that the disasters are far worse than the epiphanal moments. I can see his point, especially if I’ve paid $85, spent 90 minutes in transit, sat next to a coughing monster and seen a technically flawed performance (from the far far left 3rd balcony).

    However last night we attended a string quartet performance (Orion Qrtt) of Stravinsky’s Concertino, his 3 Pieces for Qrtt, a Brahms qrtt and Bartok Qrtt 4. All of which made my hands red and swollen from clapping so much. All of these works I’ve heard at least twice on my iPod/stereo and enjoyed them. Only the Bartok made it to a coveted spot on my iPod “permanent” collection, and the rest I kind of dismissed as “interesting” but non-essential. Seeing these live made all 4 pieces about 10 times better than I could have ever imagined.

    On a personal non-Gouldy note, I have this urge to wave my hands around in the air and do lots of head banging when listening to classical music. It really helps me to follow the melodic and textural flow of a work. Also knowing where the downbeat is easier when I do air-conducting. Also I rarely fall asleep while standing up. Sadly in the concert hall I have to condense all this interpretive physical activity to the wiggling of my big toe.

  2. Yeah, I would definitely disagree with Gouldy on that point…I’d take the chance at transcendence in spite of the potential for disaster any day.

    And yet, I don’t extend that same outlook to most other genres. I much prefer the polish of a studio recording of a rock album to a concert. We went and saw The Black Keys last year, and while I enjoyed the concert a lot, I’m much more musically satisfied by the cohesion and spit-shine of the produced album. Perhaps that’s because I don’t seek the same transcendence from rock, blues, soul, whatever.

    Jazz is the other obvious genre that benefits most from live performance…the chance for a really epic improvisation is always just around the next chorus.

  3. Performing Beethoven is great – sometimes its even a near religious experience.

    But, there is something about those dim sounding live Furtwaengler performances, no one else has ever captured.

  4. And that’s pretty much my overall point, Pete. The impression that a live performance will ALWAYS be the best and most profound experience for classical music is, in my opinion, wrong. The best and most profound experience for classical music can occur in any number of places. One of my strongest memories of being impacted by classical music was listening to Schumann 4 for the first time…in my 1993 Chevrolet Cavalier.

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