Out of body Mendelssohn

One of the interesting things about the making of recordings is that you never know where they’ll be heard. I had a reminder of that the other day. WXXI is featuring local concert recordings this month, including some of mine. I like to check out these broadcasts, as I usually learn something about how my work translates to the radio. On this occasion, I was in Wegmans with my gym radio still on when Julia announced a First Muse selection. Pretty cool, but kind of weird, too, to experience that while searching the aisles for drain opener. The sound was of the player’s concentration, the audience’s rapt attention, and my memory of the event, while outside my head the world was all the daily bustle. No revelation here, just a reminder of a modern miracle that has become so commonplace.

Glenn Gould, who famously gave up his concert career for the privacy and control of the recording studio, reflected deeply on the differences between recordings and actual concerts, and what that means to the practice of making records. One thing I recall is his comment on making a disk of Bach organ music – the only organ recording he made. Like many of his projects, it was greeted with critical head-scratching, for the sound as well as the performances. Unlike a typical spacious, resonant echo-y aural environment, in which an organ recording attempts to transport the listener to the expected kind of space, Gould’s team put their mics very close to the pipes, going for the greatest clarity and the least sense of place.

Gould justified this by pointing out that one never knows where or under what circumstances a recorded performance will be heard. It could be at home, with the lights low and attention focused, or “on a transistor at the beach.” So, to his thinking, what use was there in any attempt to depict a space, actual or idealized, when the playback creates its own environment, unique to that listener at that moment? For the ways recordings are experienced, concert hall realism is an anachronism.

petsoundsWell, this might have been an agile mind taking a practical concept way farther than it needed to go. Was his Bach at all likely to be beach music, heard along side the Beach Boys or Frankie & Annette? How different should recordings be from the traditional sound of music, when listeners will bring to the unavoidably artificial experience of a recording their expectations of how concert music is supposed to sound ? That question is answered by his own self-proclaimed experiment: his conducting of Wagner’s Sigfried Idyll. Both the performance and the recording are so minutely detailed, so drawn-out and closely miked, that it’s almost hard to listen to. Fascinating, but weirdly alien.

Recording is its own thing, but not divorced from nature – at least not for traditional, acoustical musical styles. For a Rachmaninoff sonata, I’d want to hear the piano in the room, the whole instrument and its environment. For a John Cage prepared-piano piece, I’d want to being the listener right inside the lid, closer than the pianist.

How do these issues relate to Fanny Mendelssohn Shops For Groceries? The recording is both closer and drier than I considered ideal for 19th century chamber music, even though I added a little reverb to it. Acoustics and practicalities (those pesky audiences!) limited my options. But, in a Gouldian way, it was okay for Wegmans, where she coped just fine with “clean up in aisle nine!