I love some of these recordings of mine. They're such liars!
They sound like I was having a great time playing all this wonderful music. They are full of bold gestures, the joy of life...when maybe....
the truth is I was sick that morning. I didn't know if I could get through the take. I managed to. Then again, I may have had to stitch together two takes that did manage to go well. Then I went home and stared at the wall and tried to get over my virus, or headache, or whatever was ailing me. Or...
...I was in the middle of a busy schedule. I thought if I don't do this now, I'm not going to have time later, either. (Many of these recordings are things I was playing in concert or for church services at the time, and others were what I call extra-curricular, meaning I was trying to jam them in between obligations). I flipped on the microphone, and despite being tired after lunch, or in haste because I had another rehearsal in half an hour, I did my best to get it on tape fast. Maybe I was practically sight-reading the piece into the microphone, trying to make musical interpretive decisions about something I hadn't had a chance to digest. Or....
I was several variations into a set. Then the door opened and a staff member walked in to see me about something. On the original tape you can hear us having a twenty minute conversation about some church business. When I got home I edited that out and what you hear now is a continuous performance that gives no sign of having been interrupted. Or...
It was a noisy afternoon. Several trucks went by during recording. The roof settled a number of times, making a racket. Or I spent several minutes trying to locate and kill a cricket that was singing in the wrong key. Somehow most of it got erased through the editing process. The music, serene and beautiful, spoke louder than all the chaos around it. After the fact, anyway.
One of my favorite recordings was made while recovering from an energy sapping illness that had lasted all week. I only had enough strength to do one take. The piece is 15 minutes long. You'd never know I was under the weather.
Another involves playing the piece out of order. It was a single, 4 minute piece, but the back third of it was the trickiest, and I wanted to make sure, on limited energy, and with little preparation time, I could nail the thing down technically. So I made a few takes of the last two pages. Then I started at the beginning and recorded to that point. Without using a metronome, my tempo was entirely consistent, so that it is impossible to tell that at a particular measure (well edited also) you are now listening to me playing twenty minutes earlier.
Such is the magic of recording. Some people don't find it very magical, however, and may even find it offensive. There is a powerful drive toward the 'authentic' which is supposed to be the unfiltered witness of whatever is happening at the time. It is rare to non-existent in reality (particular reality television) but as long as people can't see the script or notice the manipulation, they are happy.
In a live concert, of course, there is no editing. For me, recording and concerts are quite different from one another. In a recording, I assume you would like to hear Brahms with the correct notes, and if I've missed a few, I feel it is more important to fix them than to be 'in the moment.' You would also like to hear me playing Brahms, that is, what I think or feel about the music, but if you want to be assured of getting a particular moment in time, you should come to a live concert. There is a magic that happens there that can't be preserved in a recording, even a live recording. Even then you are hearing the net result of hours in the practice room and my accumulated thoughts on how I planned to play each passage, although I usually find that once I've done all that homework, I am free to interpret the music as I am feeling it at the time, so there is indeed some element of spontaneity. And frankly, I usually find myself more relaxed at a concert in front of a microphone. A missed note or two doesn't seem to matter in the midst of good music making so long as it isn't preserved forever. Which ironically makes it less likely to miss notes in the first place.
That may be true of a recording too, actually. And there are many recordings on pianonoise that have no editing whatsoever--you are hearing exactly what I played, beginning to end, no fiddling involved. I just don't feel the need to advertise which ones.
If you are looking for complete spontaneity, improvisations are good ways to get it. The other week, our resident saxophonist and I created a piece on the spot, and the recordings I posted on this blog are records of exactly what happened in those moments.
It's just that, like all of society's gods, I'm a bit skeptical. Authenticity as spontaneity has a place, but doesn't planning what you want to say, or choosing the strongest material rather than just accepting whatever comes to you as gold not have at least as much value?
And when it comes to the material I'm recording, improvisations aside, we are dealing with compositions written down. We don't know how these came to be. The composer may have written it beginning to end in one fit of inspiration, but it is not likely (despite popular notions by people who aren't composers about how the process works). What is more likely is that he or she wrote a few lines, crossed out a measure or two, changed their mind a few times, paced around, had to answer the doorbell five times between measures six and seven, finally gave up, resumed composition the next day, and what you and I possess as a finished piece of music was actually written out of order and over several days or weeks. And if it seems like the composer was in a particularly somber or elated mood based on the affect of the music, there are plenty of historical rebuttals to this idea as well. That doesn't make the composition unrelated to mental or spiritual states of the creator's soul, but not on a particular day at a particular hour. It should argue for something more permanent; a kind of experience, rather than a one-off. Something that translates to us because it lasts, rather than being an ephemeral moment that comes and goes and is not worth the preservation.
I've often said that if something is only important today, and will be unimportant next week (much of the day's news falls into this category) I'd like to get a jump on ignoring it a few days ahead of time. If it is only the day's trivia, why not be ahead of the curve and forget about it before everyone else does. It is a time saver.
But there are times when the moment is pregnant with meaning and that means it will live on. Improvisations captured on tape that we relish again and again. An interpretive gesture that I didn't even realize I was going to make until it happened. Even those moment, however, rely on those moments that came before. Ideas accumulate in us until they find expression in the moment.
In one sense, that moment is all we have. We are creatures bounded by time. And yet, we have access to so much more.