Why perfect classical music has to die for classical music to live.

Someone wrote something on facebook the other day that gave me pause for a minute. I wanted to say something about it. I’m not sure how long this will go, or if I will even get this completely right, but bear with me…

I really do believe that recordings, and the resulting sense of perfection, are what has killed the classical music scene. I believe it is so because once you get the most perfect recording of something that you can ever get, it functions far differently than intended.

The first function is an emasculation of a sense of humanity and human connection. I recently heard a recording of the Rheinberger Abendlied, and it was surely the most perfect thing I’ve ever heard and it left me shaken. I was only a minute into the piece and I was longing for a sense of the humans who were presenting the work. I felt as lost as I do on the London Underground. I was longing for a sense of who they were, and what they thought about the piece, and what their passion for the piece was rooted in. Instead of accomplishing any of those things, the recording, so technically perfect in every respect, left me completely discouraged. The recording had managed to avoid communication what the piece was actually about. Pure crystalline perfection at the expense of human interaction.

The second function is a total destruction of the point of live performance. In a world where a recording can be both so perfect and so cold (and bit like skating the Red River in winter) a live performance sung with true intensity and commitment often suffers a reduction in value both by the performer and the listener. The well meaning listener/connoisseur thinks to themselves “well, I enjoyed that but I think the recording I have is of superior quality” while the performer thinks “I have an ideal of perfection I must strive for and I can’t waver in that pursuit. There is a recording there I have to live up to, and I’m frustrated that I’m not, but I’m going to try anyways, dammit, because that’s what the listener is expecting.” In doing so, they remove themselves from the equation, and instead run after someone else’s view of why the music exists.

See what happens there? No-one gets satisfied. Not the listener, not the performer, no-one.

Everyone walks away feeling like something was missing from the experience, when perhaps nothing was at all. The listener thinks they got a performance that wasn’t the gold standard, the performer thinks that they *nearly* lived up to the gold standard but not quite.  This never ending cycle of critique and self-flagellation which often ends with a terrible thud. Fewer and fewer people go to live music as this cycle perpetuates itself, and the organizations who perform it run after tax-generated dollars and end up bent out of shape like a burnt marshmallow, doing all sorts of ill-fitting collaborations in an attempt to woo dollars from donors. They lose sight of the most important and special thing about music – its communicative essence. In an era where there are more “perfect” players than ever before, communicative essence is lagging behind.

I don’t think this is what anyone sets out to do with a recording, but I think its an inevitable result. Our personalities, and our humanity, but become an integral part of music making. Otherwise…. you might as well play in a box.

Perhaps we need to start looking at music through our own individual lenses instead the lenses of our recording heroes. Christopher Jackson kept urging me “don’t be like me, find your own voice.” And I’m turning to you, the future musicians to whom I will one day cede the stage and offer this thought. Maybe, instead of all piling on to try and be the next “big thing in music” and running after a perfection that eliminates the sensual beauty of imperfection, we ought to reconsider.

So here I am, imperfect and flawed, reasonably good at some things and less good at others, reconsidering how much (or how little) of myself I put into the music I present.


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