Alessandro Bratus - Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Fire’ from Studio to Live, and Back: The Song as a Work in Progress 25:50
- 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
- Alessandro Bratus (conférencier)
The paper gives an overview of several of the surviving live and studio recordings of the song Fire, as performed by the Jimi Hendrix Experience between 1967 and 1969. The pivotal points consist in two versions of the song dating to January-February 1967 and February 1969; the first was released on the group’s debut album Are You Experienced? (1967), and the latter on the posthumous Valleys of Neptune (2010). A favorite opening number for their shows, Fire underwent some major changes in its structure between the two studio recordings, step-by-step documented by sources such as radio and television broadcasts, as well as live performances.
What emerges from a comparison of the 1967 and 1969 versions is the influence of the song’s performance history, underlining the normative value of recordings only in respect to a specific time, place, and conditions of production and consumption. Besides witnessing the creative work behind a song as an ongoing process taking place between the studio and the stage, the second studio recording of Fire also outlines a particular point of view from which Hendrix’s musicianship is understood today. By highlighting his image as a flamboyant and virtuoso guitarist, the posthumous release plays with material evidence of the past and consciously manipulates it according to our idea of Jimi Hendrix –the legendary performer who burned his guitar at Monterey Pop– overshadowing his own efforts to approach composition as a studio-based practice.
When dealing with the analysis of recorded tracks, transcription no longer represents a reliable tool able to account for the performative qualities of a song, but must be complemented with other forms of sound representation such as sonograms, spectrograms and maps of temporal markers. A crucial performative feature of Fire is the fluctuation of the beat duration within the same take, giving rise –as the song progresses– to distinctive patterns of tension and relax in each version. Digital tools can help to represent and account for such patterns, that cannot be thought of as pertaining to performance alone. Rather they became one of the central compositional dimensions of the song, as witnessed by the several live recordings before and after the two studio versions. Careful observation of the different temporal distribution of beat durations, together with other elements directly related to the performative dimension of the song in different recordings of Fire, could reveal which features descend from live performance and which are related to work into the recording studio. On the whole, such processes highlight how the elaboration of a song over time requires a dynamic and practice-based conception of the creative process in popular music. Its reconstruction involves analytical attention to musical details, as well as a careful historical investigation based on written, oral and audiovisual sources.
This case study is thought to be relevant as regards the study of creative processes in popular music because it underlines crucial issues such as:
1) the unstable relationship between the record and the concept of the “work” as implied in the traditional notion of the written score, similar to the distinction proposed in the theoretical framework of contemporary visual art between “art documentation” and “artwork” (Groys 2002);
2) the nature of the recorded song as a specific compositional object at the center of a relational network in which creative and technical figures, as well as different sorts of cultural gatekeepers, are involved (according to McIntyre 2012, who adapted Csikszentmihaly’s model of creativity to popular music);
3) the open relationship between live performance and its mediatization as part of a dialectic tension peculiar to the macro-genre of rock, in which the idea of “authenticity” plays a central role in defining the structural and representational strategies of mediated texts (Moore 2002; Auslander 2008).
What these issues underline is a concept of the creative process that not only chronologically predates the publication of a record –for which accessing documentation is often difficult (if not impossible) in the current framework of the popular music industry–, but that also continues after the release of the song, in its live performances or subsequent studio versions. On the whole, these documents witness an extended process of elaboration which can go on as long as the song is performed (and eventually re-recorded). Such later versions are often more relevant from the point of view of the audience and fans, as they reflect the specific needs of the contexts for which they have been produced. Here the unique personality of the star lies at the core of a complex strategy of representation, as the point of convergence of an overall intermedial image which is the result of the partial elements found in records, live performances, visual style, media appearances, interviews and historical accounts.
Such a vision of the creative process is typical of popular music as an expressive form of art in which recording and live performance give rise to peculiar configurations of production and reception. As the example of Jimi Hendrix’s 1969 version of Fire shows, song is a compositional form that always tends to be “in progress”: from point of view of its modular structure, its repetition night after night as part of the performative habits of popular music, and its nature as a cultural object in which conciseness and brevity are both aesthetic options and requisites for commercial circulation.