20100215

The Recording is not the Song

So there's this Blind Pilot song, "The Story I Heard", that just floors me every time I listen to it. While listening to the album today, it occurred to me how much I prefer the Daytrotter version. Pondering it for a while, I was reminded of a discussion in the Dewi Sant van that happened somewhere between LA and Portland. The conversation floated around, skirting many different subjects, and somewhere along the line it touched on the discrepancy between the recorded version of a song and the live version. More than one person expressed the disappointment they felt when listening to a band perform live and it didn't sound like the recording. I didn't have words to express it at the moment, but something about that didn't sit well with me.

I can remember a time, in my high-school pop-punk days, when the greatest compliment a fan could give was that "you guys sound just like the album." In this age of AutoTune, time correction, and sound replacement, I suppose that actually is quite a compliment for many bands. It certainly was for us at the time--it was tantamount to saying "you guys are not a fabrication." And for a long time, this sentiment remained; the goal, whenever performing, was to reproduce, as precisely as possible, the recorded song.

Somewhere along the line that all changed. It's hard to pinpoint discrete moments of mental shift, but if I had to venture a guess, everything probably changed with my discovery of jazz--specifically, bop (and later, Free Jazz). To a jazz quartet, the concept of a song was much more transcendent . To quote Ornette Coleman:
I don't know how it's going to sound before I play it any more than anybody else does, so how can we talk about it before I play it?
A song existed only in the moment it was performed. Improvisation was not just a novel tool to be used to spice up a tired guitar solo; improvisation was the thing itself--it was the interaction between performers. The music became the medium through which a listener might listen in on a conversation between musicians. The Song was what the band was talking about.

To paraphrase Korzybski, "the recording is not the Song." It's easy to lose sight of the fact that recordings are a relatively new cultural artifact. Before the advent of electro-mechanically reproduced sound, the concept of Song was drastically different from what we're currently accustomed to. A Song was not something that existed as a singular entity. A Song did not fit tidily on your shelf or hard drive. A Song was a more ethereal thing--a thing that existed outside of space and time in a sort of meta-musical Hilbert space. Once in a while, if the conditions were right, the Song might decide to materialize in local Euclidean space-time. It existed then and there, in that moment, ineffably bringing together performer and listener.
But heretofore, the whole course of music, from its first day to this, has been along the line of making it the expression of soul states; in other words, of pouring into it soul. Wagner, representing the climax of this movement, declared again and again, "I will not write even one measure of music that is not thoroughly sincere."

When a mother can turn on the phonograph with the same ease that she applies to the electric light, will she croon her baby to slumber with sweet lullabys, or will the infant be put to sleep by machinery?

- John Phillip Sousa, "The Menace of Mechanical Music," 1906
While Sousa's essay is a bit over-dramatic (as befitting his music), he recognized very presciently the dehumanizing effect of recorded music. He saw that as mechanical recordings replaced the folk pastime of music making, something important would be lost. This, however, is not to say that recordings are a Bad Thing--that would be short-sighted.

Even as I write this, I'm listening to recordings. Raheem DeVaughn, Caroline Smith and the Good Night Sleeps, The Tallest Man on Earth, Lil Wayne--all of this music is floating around me. I remind myself, though, that these recordings are not the songs themselves. That would make as much sense as saying that my 8th grade class portrait embodies who I am, right now, at this moment. That wallet sized photo is no more than a visual recording of who I was. To recognize that a recording is no more than a snapshot of a Song at a particular place and time: this, I think, is the important insight.

The Blind Pilot recording that I prefer exists only because of a broken acoustic guitar string and an electric guitar that happened to be lying around. The specific circumstances of the session are now archived in that recording. Like a Polaroid of a perfect day spent sailing the azure water off North Bimini, a song can remind us of the sublime moments in life. But just as fixating on a photo of a former-lover can distract from what is right in front of you, considering a recording as the Song itself limits one's access to the infinite potential contained within.

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