Amy Blier-Carruthers: From perfection to expression? Exploring possibilities for changing the aesthetics and processes of recording classical music 30:39
- Saison 2015-2016 - None - None > TCPM 2015 : Analyser les processus de création musicale / Tracking the Creative Process in Music
- Oct. 9, 2015
- Program note: TCPM 2015
- Amy Blier-Carruthers
Since the beginning of recording, there have been debates about the balance of and interaction between the technological and artistic processes at play in the recording studio. It would seem that in classical music, recording has not achieved an emancipation from the aesthetic of live performance in the way that film has successfully diverged from theatre. Some of the most famous thinkers and practitioners in the area of the possibilities of the studio have included Glenn Gould (ed. Page 1984) and John Culshaw (1967), but despite their work, and the fact that we have had well over a century in which to experiment and get used to the ontologies and practicalities of this process, my research has indicated that there are still many questions to be considered. And it may be that, in fact, we are nearly too late.
There is a crisis in the classical music recording industry - companies are struggling and being dismantled, and the traditional sales mechanisms are collapsing - but there is another, hidden crisis. Many musicians working today have a negative attitude towards recordings, in which they perceive a prioritisation of perfection over expression, and over which they feel they have a lack of control in regards to both the process and final product. Perfection seems tacitly to have become the norm expected in classical music performance. Editing makes perfection possible on a recording, but this aesthetic has also invaded the concert hall. The expectation of perfection can be detrimental to in-the-moment communication with the audience, which may sometimes put at risk technical accuracy but often delivers more expressive and convincing artistic expressions. Our tastes have therefore been influenced by what technology makes possible.
I have been using an ethnographic methodology in order to study classical music as cultural process (Cottrell 2004, Nettl 1995, Stock 2004). My doctoral research, which was an ethnographic and analytical study of classical music-making, focused on the conductor Sir Charles Mackerras. I investigated his recordings and live performances, exploring the issues that arise when comparing these different performance situations. In addition to detailed analysis of the performances, there was a strong contextual aspect to this research which involved interviewing Sir Charles himself, the musicians, producers, and engineers he worked with, and fieldwork observation of the rehearsal, concert, and recording processes. I have continued this line of enquiry by applying this combination of ethnographic and performance analysis techniques to situations involving preparing conservatoire students for their professional encounters with the recording studio, as well as studying other professional music-making situations.
In this paper, I would like to introduce the concept of the possibility of moving from an aesthetic of perfection to one of expression, and describe elements of a large-scale collaborative research project on which I am working (currently at proposal stage), that will look at these issues and will gather knowledge and test possibilities through various experimental case studies. Some of the questions I am asking are: how could examining current practice and musicians' dissatisfaction with recording in fact rescue the classical recording industry? By looking objectively at the situation from many angles, gathering evidence about preferences and current practices in the industry, questioning the status quo by asking people what they would like to try if they could, and then conducting experiments to try out these ideas, we might be able to find a new set of parameters and explore a new aesthetic for recording classical music. As well as academics in related fields (of musicology, ethnomusicology, sociology, psychology etc.), this kind of research involves musicians, producers, sound engineers, record companies, critics, concert venues, listeners, cultural institutions, educational establishments, and other parties with an interest in classical music (both live and recorded).
There are various areas of research and experimental situations which will be in process or will have been completed by the time of this conference, and I will therefore be able to report on the results of some of them. Issues covered will include: examining current practices in the recording studio; experimenting with different balances of power and control between producer and performer, both in the studio and the editing and post-production phases; testing perceptions of perfection, is perfection the problem?; how might an ‘expressive’ recording be received?; what are the possible future directions of the recording business?; what would classical musicians and producers do differently if only they were given the artistic and commercial freedom to experiment with other aesthetics in the studio?; what can be learnt about various recording aesthetics by experimenting with older technologies (such as acoustic recording processes); what might we try instead, as recording techniques could be more creatively used; what would the result be if we experimented more with the technology available, for instance a spatially distributed orchestra with implied movement in surround sound or hyper-real positioning of instruments, multi-track techniques used for rock/pop music so that listeners could have the possibility of choosing their own mixing and balancing options, a CD with several editing options so the listener can choose their own edits, or completely recomposed classics and new compositions commissioned to make the best of the opportunities that recording affords.
Some possible results of such explorations might be that musicians would be more in control, more involved in the production process and would have time to use the possibility of re-takes and editing to create something special, not simply to make it blemish-free. Producers and sound engineers could also have much more creative freedom in the studio - what would happen, for instance, if they collaborated more with the performer throughout the process, and if they were more than a footnote on the CD sleeve, an invisible prism through which the performance passes but in fact a visible part of the artistic process?
It is very important to have the freedom allowed by exploring these issues through the lens of research; being based in a conservatoire, we could be not only leading the profession but would also be at the forefront of educational innovations. Through this research we might find new ways of making the studio a place for creativity and collaboration, and offer new possibilities for the recording industry. Performers and production teams would have a new creative freedom, and audiences would be given something new to listen to, which would hopefully create a market and give record companies a reason to re-record and audiences a reason to buy new recordings.