Friday, October 13, 2006

Authentic Performance

Today in my counterpoint class we embarked on yet another tangent, this time on historically informed performances (HIP). I brought up the old debates on authenticity in music, how some advocates of HIP felt (or feel) that this was the only authentic way to perform a piece. I was reminded of this when reading Kenneth Woods' post about electroacoustic enhancements. Kenneth and the bløgösphère's curmudgeon criticize Cal Performances for electronically enhancing Zellerbach Hall. Hilbert Circle, the home of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, has been using electronic tricks to increase the reverberation time for about six years, as the hall was originally designed as a movie theater. There just isn't enough volume for decent reverberation, so they enhance it in the same way that Cal Performances does. As I examined the equipment used in Hilbert Circle, I noted it was very different from rock-n-roll soundboards, so Kenneth's equation is misplaced. And after my countless hours acoustically analyzing the output of musical instruments, I can assure everyone that acoustic instruments are remarkably chaotic. The chaos that Kenneth worries about from the electronics is nothing compared to the harmonic fluctuations caused by the stick-slip mechanism that makes a violin work.

But what struck me about Kenneth's post was his insistence that there is only one correct sound: "You cannot put the sound of a Strad through an electronic circuit and have it emerge on the other end with equal clarity, detail and purity." Kenneth's stance seems to suggest there is an authentic acoustic sound, and an inauthentic amplified sound. ACD is more explicit: "Astonishing (and depressing) to tell, there's an entire generation walking about out there that imagines what they're hearing through their iPod headsets is what music — genuine music; classical music — really sounds, and ought to sound, like." This is what reminded me of the authenticity movement in HIP, judging all performances of 15th-19th century music on modern instruments to be inappropriate. In the same way, ACD and Kenneth have judged all amplified performances of classical music to be wrong. I can easily imagine a bad musical sound, whether caused by amplification or other sources. The awfulness of this sound may even be a self-evident truth, at least within a specific culture or subculture. But I could not call that sound "wrong" or "unauthentic." Just as I cannot justify condemning a process without considering the individual products (as far as I can tell, Kenneth and ACD have not heard a performance in an electroacoustically enhanced hall). I encourage people interested in how technology has changed musical performance to read Mark Katz's Capturing Sound.


Anonymous said...

I agree that the criteria for artistic judgment should revolve around the quality of the musical experience. One could also imagine playing early music on instruments that are 500 years old and sounding terrible because the instruments are thin-sounding, won't tune, etc. Another thing that strikes me is that ACD considers themself the judge of what classical music ('real' music) should sound like... it seems that among well informed people, there is no consensus on the issue. Full disclosure, I am an electronic musician and sound designer for theater, so almost necessarily regard amplification as a useful tool. I do, however, see the difference between going to a concert hall to see the orchestra play and going to the hall to listen to a cd of the same work.

KW said...

Hi Scott-

Actually I grew up going to an electroacoustically enhanced hall, and did have a number of listening experiences that did show the,er, limitations of the technique.

I certainly wouldn't begin to suggest that things are inherently good because they are produced acoustically. Rather, I would suggest that a truly great acoustic performance cannot be fully captured by electronic means, and that this remains one reason to go to a concert- to hear what a great artist really sounds like. Maybe I'm being too idealistic here, but no matter how skillfully one manages the signal chain, a signal chain is just that- a detour between the performer and the listener.

Ideology aside, I wish I had a better answer for acoustically bad spaces, especially as I work in one. When it is so frutstrating for everyone to have to fight a hall, I can't begrudge anyone trying anything. I'm just suggesting that maybe this isn't a real solution, even if it is a partial improvement.

Thanks for reading, and cool post.


Neither a HIPster nor a curmudgeon (to the best of my knowledge)