The Rambler :: blog

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

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Inspired by comments from my new favourite blogger, Crawford @ God Bless Mr Lunch (they're buried in the Radiohead gubbins down below) I've been thinking about the whole live vs studio thang. It's a favourite topic/pub pundit rant of mine, so I'm sure I've brought it up in these pages before, but here's the full deal, as I see it.

Music writing may be divided into a number of broad camps: one of these is dividing things up into broad camps, genres, styles, periods, lists. (ahem) Traditionally, over the last 60 years or so, the big line has been between 'Popular' and 'Classical'. It's how record shops are divided up, it's how critics describe themselves and the framework they work in; it's how website listings work. All music guide (www.allmusic.com) uses a different URL for its Classical section (www.allclassical.com). Amazon runs two shops for its music. Rolling Stone's 500 greatest albums of all time includes at least nods towards jazz (Bitches Brew is in there, for example), but almost by definition, the list doesn't include any classical artists (although the Arvo Pärt recordings by the Hilliard Ensemble, say, surely count, conceptually, as albums, given the attention given to track selection, production ethics and so on).

And yet despite this, it is becoming an increasingly useless and meaningless distinction. Everybody knows this, but we all still persist with it. Because deep down we know there is something very different between a Mozart string quartet and a Beyoncé single, and this pop-classical line is the best axiom we have for articulating this.

But, however much validity this distinction may have had in the past (however it has been defined), it no longer means what it did now - if it means anything at all. A more relevant, quantifiable distinction, I believe, can be made between music written for the stage, for performance, and music written for the recording studio and the home stereo.

Look at it this way: no matter how good your hi-fi, no CD of Ligeti's Piano Etudes is going to compare to actually having Pierre-Laurent Aimard playing them in your living room. And that's got nothing to do with sound quality (or even star quality): it's simply because these are pieces written to be performed live, in front of a live audience. You have to see what's going on, or you're missing something. You have to have that sensation of risk that a note may be missed, you have to feel the player breathing the beats, moulding time with his wrists and fingertips. (In this instance, you have to watch the pianist's hands fly off the end of the keyboard, watch him hammering away at silent keys, that sort of thing.)

On the other hand, what would be the point of watching a live performance of Plastikman's remix of System 7's 'Alpha Wave'? You're not dancing - just watching him on stage, performing. You'd gain nothing, except a sense of unease, possibly boredom; and just as with a recording of the Ligeti Etudes, you'd feel a bit cheated.

The wrong situation damages the music. The difference is not 'classical' or 'pop' - analytically, there would be little qualitative to choose between a score of one of the Ligeti Etudes and the Plastikman remix. But then, a score to the Plastikman remix would be nonsense - it wasn't written for pen and paper, to be given to someone else to perform. It was written with voltages and bit-streams, to be cut to vinyl and bought by me in a record shop in Rickmansworth High Street after school one day.

Keep working the distinction, and it holds up: the awkwardness of the Warp Records/London Sinfonietta gig had little to do with pop/classical divides, more to do with the live/studio divide. This is music that wasn't written for live performers on a stage. Take Phil Glass's arrangement of Aphex's 'ICCT Hedral' - faced with the task of arranging studio music for live performers, Glass could only manage a straight, bland transcription. There was nothing creative he could add in the transfer. While Steve Reich may have had some influence on the electronica scene, that influence is all too easily overplayed (Reich: Remixed, for example): most of Reich's music is for live musicians, with all the imprecision that entails (and the technological pieces - Come Out, Pendulum Music etc. are composed through highlighting mechanical imprecision). It is not for the precisely-determined procedures of the studio. When he uses samplers (as in City Life), they're as live sound sources, not digital processors. He's a good source for samples himself, but when it comes down to it there's not much in common between Susumu Yokota's 'Gekkoh' and Reich's Music for 18 Musicians.

And, to return to where this post started, when it comes to a group like Radiohead, you just feel that they're trying - and failing - to cross that divide. Rock is a performative medium (to a varying extent); you get live albums, most of the money is to be found in touring, etc. etc. Live performance is essential to the aesthetic needs of the rock audience (authenticity, classicism, virtuosity, so-called 'humanity', etc.). In part I think this explains how certain electronica groups have managed to cross the divide into NME respectability (everyone still talks about the Aphex gig with sandpaper discs, the Orb played stadium-style concerts - and released a live album, natch - Orbital created a stage presence for Glastonbury, Underworld have a recognisable, pogoing frontman who shouts into a mic, etc. etc.). The Radiohead Syndrome TM is to have become so hampered with the performative, live baggage of rock, that you can't move from one to the other. And bless them, they've tried. But the simple fact is, they are no longer a rock group: they mean less on stage now than they do on record. In fact, as Crawford suggests, elements of their stage persona (the mythologising of 'Creep', eg) may be morphing into a protest against this very baggage.

Enough Radiohead. But more on the live/studio dichotomy later.

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