Sunday, August 12, 2007

Transcription as a Metaphor for Listening

A well-known blogger with a perfectly named blog, Sounds and Fury, has directed a bit of his fury towards the feeble sound quality of iPods and their seriously compressed mp3 files. I've written before that I'm less bothered by this problem than some. Curiously it comes down to my complete agreement with part 1 and complete disagreement with part 2 of the following statement from Mr. S&F: "a live performance is quite literally an irreproducible benchmark, and the only true and fully acceptable means of experiencing classical music." While I might leave the door open for some technological development that could overcome the first problem, I don't even know what it means to say that an experience is only "true and fully acceptable" if heard live. Aside from the obvious authority questions about who decides what is true and fully acceptable, the statement just makes no sense. It's clear from reading the S&F blog that recordings play an important role in that writer's musical experience; in what way are such experiences not true or fully acceptable?

The basic problem here is to assume, as people commonly do, that music can simply be defined as the sounds generated in performance. On one level, that's a fine definition, but to be understood as a meaningful experience, we have to consider what the listener hears and how he/she makes sense of it. If the "true and fully acceptable" sounds of a Mahler symphony fall in a forest and no one hears them, they may as well not have sounded. (Let's forget, for a second, that the live performers producing the music would have to hear the sounds.) If they fall on an audience of listeners with no cultural context in which to understand Mahler, the musical communication will hardly be any stronger than with the empty forest, although certainly something will be experienced. However, it's surely the case that these out-of-context listeners will hear less of the music than a Mahler devotee would listening to a 1940's mono recording played on a scratchy old record player.

The level of "aural authenticity" is just one of many factors that are involved in "experiencing classical music" or any music. The more recordings have become a part of the music world, the more the sound of recorded music has become a part of the natural musical experience - in much pop music, the recorded route IS the experience, as I mentioned here. Sure, there are many uniquely special aspects of live performance, but given that we hear with our minds, it's amazing what one can hear that one doesn't actually hear. As I wrote a while back:

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.

Now I would agree that Beethoven was never able to have the ideal aural experience of his own 9th symphony, but it would be absurd to suggest that he couldn't have a "true" experience of it. His experience of it, even in the solitude of his own room, was probably more authentic than that of most listeners. That seems like an odd idea, to suggest that music can happen without sounds, but musical experience can certainly take place in silence. So, why shouldn't music also be truly experienceable when the sound quality is just substandard?

[By the way, a statement like this - "but the music contained in these [mp3] files represents less than 10 percent of the original music on the CDs" - is silly as well. The fact that the digital space used to store the audio is only 10% is far from the saying the resulting audio is only 10%, especially because the compression is designed quite specifically to help preserve the very aural information that we're most likely to interpret. Since the music is "what we hear," it's fair to say that a lot of the lost information isn't "music to our ears" anyway. That doesn't mean nothing is lost, but I can't think of any meaningful way in which that could be called a 90% loss of music.]

All of this has made me think a bit more profoundly about the process of transcription, which is already one of my favorite topics. My love for transcription probably started with the years I've spent "being the orchestra" in countless hours accompanying concerti, choral works, opera scenes, arias, etc. Especially because I generally know what the orchestra part sounds like, it can be amazingly satisfying to simulate that at the keyboard, even though much more sonic data is lost than with the worst mp3 compression. It's often remarked that 2-piano arrangements were the phonographs of the 19th century. Short of getting to a concert, the best way to hear one of those old Haydn, Mozart, or Beethoven symphonies was via such homemade experiences.

Of course, a piano transcription isn't the truest experience of an orchestral piece, although the nature of Western music up until the 20th century is such that melody, harmony, and rhythm are arguably much more essential to a work's identity than timbre issues. A piano transcription of a Haydn symphony makes much more sense than one of Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (although piano versions of the Debussy exist!); a piano transcription of Poème électronique makes almost no sense, but most common practice music allows a piano to present a "compressed" reduction of orchestral music in a quite meaningful way.

What I'd never thought of is that our ears are, in a sense, transcribing everything we hear. Just as a Liszt version of a Beethoven symphony does its best to keep the essentials intact, and just as an mp3 does its best to keep the e-ssentials intact, our ears do their best to make the most sense out of whatever comes through. Even when the sounds are live, the information might be "compressed" because of a noisy neighbor, a passing fire-engine, a bad cold - or by the mind's inability to parse everything that's coming in. For certain listeners, a Beethoven symphony and a Debussy tone poem might sound more similar than a Beethoven symphony and its piano transcription. To more culturally conditioned hears, the two Beethoven's would have much more in common with each other than the Debussy. The mind is always translating what the ear provides into a listening experience.

Yes, there's nothing (yet) to match the thrill of hearing a live performance (not to mention the thrill of being there in the moment), but the sounds are only part of the experience. There are all sorts of arguments to be made about the adverse effects of turning classical music into a recorded phenomenon, but decrying the widespread use of iPods is really going after a fairly innocuous byproduct of all this. I, for one, am thankful that mp3 compression allows me to cart many days worth of music with me in the car. Even if the experience isn't "fully acceptable," I know I'm getting much more than 10%, and sometimes I get musical experiences that make my day or even change my life. And you know why? Because the mind is a pretty darn good compressor as well. It can take infinite sensory stimuli (road noise, honking horns, air conditioning, stupid bumper stickers) and compress them into just me and Poulenc's Fleurs. I can live with that.

[UPDATE: I should have added to that last paragraph that the mind doesn't just compress (or distill) what it hears - it also can add all sorts of information to what is heard, filling in the blanks so to speak. "Hearing what's not there" may be the best summary of what I find intriguing about transcription.]

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