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Provocative thoughts from Patric Standford

Clinical recording

The late and much missed musician Hans Keller said very emphatically to me, and no doubt to many others, a long time ago: 'One cannot be a musician and listen to gramophone records'. Klemperer said that listening to a recording was like going to bed with a photograph of Marilyn Monroe. Their distinction could have been between a recorded live performance, not so bad, and the artificial compilation of components that pretended to be a performance.

This gramophone trickery (fragmented takes over several days, assembling scraps from a series of recordings into a whole piece, or the superimposition of a choir taped in Germany, an organ recorded in London and an American orchestra recorded several months earlier) was then part of the infancy of a technology that would now surprise the almost unsurprisable Keller who died in 1985.

The transfer of an already overworked repertoire to CD has given us a perfect and indestructable artifact, supposedly everlasting but now commercially fragile, for how can we add more artificiality to this perfection? It need not be replaced, and this is commercial disaster. Behind all this is one of the biggest musical misfortunes of the twentieth century. The means we have invented to record, broadcast, communicate, and at all stages preserve musical performances have made music far too available, tragically creating a mediocrity out of masterworks and modernism. The process has saved both performances of music and much music itself which would, in a pre-recording age, have been spent far more rapidly and perished naturally much as it all did in earlier times. Long-life music is not good for us, for it ceases to progress.

Paradoxically, recording will not save the livelihood of thousands who can do little else but sing and play. In the hands of dilettante, academic theorists, politicians, business agents, promoters and commercial exploiters, as most of the music industry is, its progress is an illusion. Only the live performance of music, and the live exploration of new musical experiences will maintain a realistic perspective in the musical world of today. Recording live performance, with all its coughs and breathing and little imperfections, is close to reality, close to a responsible standard of professional concert performance. It has a usefulness second only to the live experience. But a clinically perfected CD of something that never was a performance is, as Keller suggested, not for musicians.

Copyright © 14 November 2002 Patric Standford, West Yorkshire, UK




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