Sunday, March 18, 2007

Great Moments in Stupid Headlines

The New York Times' Anthony Tommasini's late-to-the-game take on the Joyce Hatto situation begins with a truly stupid headline, "Can What You Know Affect What You Hear?" Well, of course it can; it can't not affect it. What you hear is completely and inseparably connected with what you know. He's writing about the apparent tendency of listeners to hear Hatto's playing differently because of what they believed to be true about her bio. Well, yes, that's an obvious point (that I made weeks ago, as I know others did), but I hope Mr. Tommasini didn't actually write that headline - that he doesn't think there's any actual question about our hearing music differently according to context.

More and more I think that so much of the confusion and misdirection that occurs when talking about classical music has to do with a failure to grasp just how complicated the process of "listening" is. As I mentioned a few posts ago, the whole idea of objectively reviewing a musical work or performance is absurd. This goes for all listening. We tend to forget that what our ears hear is filtered through innumerable mental pathways that have to do with our knowledge of the music, our past experiences hearing it, extra-musical associations, and a thousand other things, etc.

But when music enters more rigid worlds such as academia and journalism, there is a desire to talk about it in much more objective terms - namely, to pretend that we can listen to certain sounds (which acquire almost all their meaning through reference) and hear them just as sounds. This recent article by Edward Rothstein (also in the NY Times) touched on the issue from a different perspective. It concerns the efforts made to recreate a live performance of Glenn Gould's famous 1955 recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations. A brilliant man has gone to an extraordinary amount of effort to design software that interprets the recorded audio to determine exactly (more or less) how the piano keys and pedals were manipulated by Gould; this information is then sent back through a computer that can "play" the performance on a modern concert grand. It's a miracle of reverse-engineering if it really comes close to its goal.

In reporting on his own response to this new recreation, Rothstein is correct to point out several problems with the idea; most importantly, that unless the new piano is exactly like the one Gould played, it will fail significantly to be a true Gould performance, because every pianist constantly is adjusting to the feedback from a given instrument and its acoustic environment. The "instructions" would have to change for every different piano. Rothstein also wisely asks if his somewhat cold response to the new live performance is partially due to his fondness for the old, less life-like mono sound that he has long associated with the famous recording. That's getting closer to the problem because it acknowledges that our own associations (in this case, with the results of an inferior recording technology) play into how we think about what we hear.

What Rothstein doesn't address is the most important point of all.
Hearing a piano "played" live by a computer is different from hearing it played "live" or recorded by a person because we listen differently, because of "what we know." Knowing that a human being is actually getting all of those spectacular sounds with only ten fingers working in real time colors what we think about the performance. And it should. The skill required to play a piece is often one of the very things the music is about. There's no question that the recording industry has had a big effect on the degree to which that's true for us; the opportunity to listen to the same performance over and over is a revolutionary thing and it has led us to believe more and more that we just listen to the notes and the sounds, without regard for who's producing them. That's because all we have to do is hit a button and the music is produced for us - it's hard to imagine thinking that way in a world where the music could only be heard played live. In such a world, we are sure to be more naturally aware of our indebtedness to the performing artist.

But for pretty much all of the classical repertoire, that indebtedness is still there. Gould's 1955 recording wasn't just important because it made us hear the music in a new way; it also amazed and still amazes those who hear it because of the prodigious skills that it demonstrates. (We'll ignore, for now, the whole "editing" question because most who hear it tend to think of it as a complete performance.) I found it almost sad that in this recent interview pianist Alfred Brendel says "no performer should be called a genius." His idea is that everything the performer does is in subservience to the composer in whom the real genius resides. That's ridiculous. As I've said, many works are created with the very idea of showing off a performers' skills, and the skills required to play the most difficult repertoire well are often just as remarkable as the music itself.

I do like the notion that the less-than-ideal audio quality of Gould's '55 Goldbergs is an inseparable part of its identity. I've never been much of an audiophile myself - I only care about audio quality to the degree that it interferes with my appreciation of the music. (Here's an interesting recent musing on that issue.) Of course, I suppose the more one trains oneself to be concerned about audio quality, the more one is likely to be distracted by its absence. However, I think this again speaks to the fact that music lives in our response to it - not in the sound waves that send it to our ears. This is why a Beethoven was able to compose when he was deaf. Of course it must have been awful for him not to hear what he wrote, but the meaning of the music he could still perceive using the same mental pathways that we use. He couldn't connect them to aural events - but he could, in many ways, still have an aural experience.

In summary, I don't have more than a passing interest in hearing a computer replicate Gould's playing on a state-of-the-art piano, even though it might allow me to hear the music in a wonderful acoustic environment. On the other hand, if by some miracle it turned out that there was a new, low-quality live recording of Gould playing the Goldberg Variations at a level similar to the famous recording, I'd be much more interested in hearing that. The sounds would be superior in the first case, but "what I know" would make the second case so much more interesting and meaningful.

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