Recordings: A timeless tradition and innovation of western music. We record great performers, actors, and we store them… permanently.
But it isn’t music.
“But sir, why would you say that? I listen to recorded music all day long!” I realize this; we need recordings, and we can enjoy them, but we should avoid them.
When we gather our families together, we sit down, enjoy the company (or not) and we spend time in person with one another, there is a certain feeling or atmosphere that can only be experienced by being there.
When we do experience these things, we often see someone “snapping pictures” and grabbing photos with everyone, to remember the times, the people, who was there, who wasn’t. But we don’t say, “OKAY! I have my pictures! That’s all for now!” and never gather back together… right?
Well this is what recorded music is like. Recorded music, on CD and record, are snapshots, “pictures,” or just windows into the past. However, like looking at pictures of a family reunion is not indeed a family reunion, Recordings of music are not music in of themselves.
Yet, this is how we treat recorded music. And, it is peculiar to our culture, our western, hyperactive, and technologically drugged culture. Music CDs are cheap, at least much cheaper then going out to a concert, seeing a symphony, or going to play… and we have made this form of viewing/experiencing media too much like actually going to a concert, a symphony, or a play.
It is also peculiar (or curious) that we need it. If you wanted to listen to Bach’s music as a commoner in his time you either had to go to his church (and hear a limited side of his music) or afford to do it with your own money in your own house (which was expensive). Commoners could only listen to live folk music, people improvising and playing common bar tunes, drinking songs, and other things in the public square. The performers were not trained (often just picked up the instrument) and did it for fun or did it for very little money (drop change, really).
We have come into an age where we depend on the recording of music because we need it; we need it like a drug. We cheapen our artists (because it is cheap to record), and we cheapen the product as a result.
It is like people are addicted to pictures in picture frames, and not in anyway desiring real human interaction.
In fact, the idea is that if you take a good enough picture and “freeze” the moment in time, you will have the perfect memory of it and will never need to create another one. The only problem with this picture is that it goes against a robust theology, and it goes against principles of excellence.
If principles of excellence dictate that one cannot come to a perfect interpretation, but always a better interpretation with each study and each performance, then the only thing that one can do is to search for the live music more and more. People are addicted to their favorite recordings, and I often hear people say “I like the recording more than the live version…” and this is startling given what I said. What we are essentially saying is that we like the professional, supped-up, and “genetically-modified-version” of a song rather than a living, breathing, circulatory system with a brain, emotions, and mistakes (excellent mistakes even).
A robust theology says that we should always strive to invest our “talents” and continue to bring ourselves closer to the perfection our gifts, not because we have to, but because Someone has already run the race before us, and that we WANT to. We need live performances because they cannot be faked. We need live performances because they connect us as humans on a human level.
However, after digressing slightly, I should note that recordings are somewhat of a necessary thing.
Recordings serve the purpose of archiving our achievements, for gaining insight without visiting the performer and asking them to play a piece several times. Recordings are good in the same way that pictures are good for someone studying or casting visual art: They serve as a reference point for when we cannot have the person there to be our muse. They are also economical.
And, in all honesty, though, I have lots of recorded music. One can enjoy musical recordings like we enjoy a walk through a photo album. I like many of the recordings I have, and they are reference points, but I try not to let them become my standard in my mind, and I don’t let them bypass (when I can afford to) the effort of seeing live music.
The biggest take-away that I would like to emphasize is the idea that recordings of music are not real music. They are snapshots of music, like a photo album is a snapshot of a reunion. When we promote recordings to the level of live music, we take the photo album and allow it to replace the event of the reunion. We should make an effort for recordings to motivate us towards a “live” goal, and not just allow it to “capture” our hearts and create resolve in us to use recordings rather than live concerts or events.