I’m not the first person to suggest that there is something inherently better about live musical performances, and even though we are rapidly sinking into an atomized digital age, I don’t think I’ll be the last: there is enough of the devouring ego in man to always desire the ambrosian nectar of live adoration. Still, with the rise of convenient personal digital music players, falling prices of CDs and iTunes tracks, and the ease of musical piracy, paying the price for admission to a live show seems a bit overrated for the average music listener. Combine the price of the ticket with the inconvenience of being miles from the center stage, pressed up against the bodies of total strangers, and breathing in stifling stadium air and the experience is certainly not about to remind anyone of the slick music video on VH1. Classical music concerts are sometimes a little bit better since you are guaranteed your own seat, but again, unless you are willing to fork out enough cash to have purchased six or seven CDs, you probably will be seated in the rafters and, despite the acoustic engineer’s claims to the contrary, miss out on the full sound of the quartet three-thousand leagues below you.
With the cards stacked against you in this manner, what could induce you to consider my claim that live performances are better than the recorded type? Well, for starters, the musicians know there is something different about their performance in front of an audience. Consider this observation from Arnold Steinhardt, first violin of the Guarneri String Quartet, on his first recording session:
Even before the first note sounded, something was wrong or, at the very least, missing. The ballroom was empty, devoid of any audience. As performing musicians, we exist not just to play but to play for someone, to interest, then involve and finally, move the live, receptive listener sitting expectantly before us. The pianist Arthur Rubenstein always picked a specific member of the audience to play to (preferably a beautiful woman), to woo her from his piano, creating a bond and ultimately, a deep relationship. Playing before the microphones hanging there so mutely on movable stands eliminated a whole series of transactions between performer and audience. Gone were the familiar sounds of the concert hall that drift across the footlights: the rustle of programs, the infuriating latecomer rushing breathlessly to his seat, the occasional cough, the intense silence of concentration, and, finally, the applause.”
Music, like speech, is a deeply personal thing and, coming as it does from a living human being, can be full of meaning, passion, and purpose; music makes a relationship possible between the human beings present with one another in the concert hall or in the back room of the barbershop. In both cases, the point of the encounter is something more than entertainment. At the very least it ought to be recreation in the literal sense of the word, re-creating some aspect of self through the employment of aural communication, and it could be as large and expansive as gaining knowledge through the combined influence of Wolfgang Mozart and Joshua Bell.
The value of listening to live performances deepens when considered in contrast to the isolationist tendencies of contemporary society. While listening to a CD or MP3 track is a harmless activity, it can reinforce the seclusion of self from others. The ability that technology has given humans to shape their experiences and to customize their lives often has the immediate effect of removing them from deep relationships with other people. No longer required to work hard at understanding somebody else and free to interpret messages according to personal fancy, individuals are increasingly cloistered from meaningful interactions with others and left to populate their world with creatures and meanings all their own.
The subjective interpretation of literature is only one aspect of this isolation, and musical interpretation usually fares no better. Removed from the meaning and intent of the author or composer, readers and listeners are left to fashion the text according to their own desires. While this approach gives autonomy and promises power, it ultimately leaves the reader alone and unable to receive guidance or illumination from another mind. Attending a live performance does the same thing as listening to a friend argue his viewpoint—it forces us to consider that someone else has something to share, and that the attempt to communicate this “something” requires our joint attention and effort. No longer can we continue in the fantasy that we can (or must) create our own reality; the sharp pizzicato on the fingerboard of the string-bass snaps us out of our isolated reverie. That bassist has something to say that differs drastically from my own interpretive blues.
Recorded music is here to stay and this is not a bad thing. Just as the printing press opened up new vistas to what would have been isolated minds, and the blogosphere expanded and strengthened communication between wildly separated groups of people across the globe, so the recording studio has filled the lives of many of the world’s inhabitants with the beauty, wonder, and power of music. However (and there must always be a however), there remains a temptation and even a tendency to replace the irreplaceable and to misuse the tools that we have created. Books, essays, and recorded musical sessions all bring the individual in contact with the fruit of other minds and other bodies. But the value of each of those mediums is in their ability to convey meaning and to establish a relationship, and this must remain foremost in our mind. If the relationship is lost sight of or, worse, trivialized, then we have exchanged the original value of the medium (bringing us into a relationship) for a cheap substitute (isolation and seclusion from intrusions). Attending a live performance should have, at the very least, the salutary effect of reminding us that there are minds outside our own.
That and the musicians always respond to the applause of their adoring fans, which means you are guaranteed a responsive, impassioned, meaningful performance—something your iPod will never be able to replicate.