Does a Recording Steal The Musician’s Soul? Reflections on 4 years of touring Steve Reich’s Double Sextet with eighth blackbird.

I am sitting in an airport in Seattle waiting for a flight back to Chicago, so I don’t have easy access to online or other resources to confirm any assertion I am making here, and after all, it’s a blog entry not a dissertation, so I will just apologize for any inconsistency or potential lack of cultural sensitivity in advance and try to keep my references vague.  An easy task for me as anyone who knows me well can attest to.

I recall an idea I first heard when I was young that there are certain tribal cultures in the world that refuse to have their picture take because they believe that a photograph has the ability to steal one’s soul.  I have often pondered this notion in terms of musical performance, especially with “improvised” music.  As an improviser whose instrument happens to be a computer or other series of devices processing the sounds of other musicians- tandem mixing or tandem improvisation I like to call it – I have engaged in many sessions where I come together with others to attempt to capture a moment in time and space.  In that time and space, we explore, we workshop, we react to and respond to the sound of the room, the energy and mood of each musician in the room at that moment, and the specific way the various signals flow together in the analog/digital soup that is my process of working.  It is a process of discovery, and it is very dependent on the space, the musicians present, and even the energy of the audience in the case of live performance.

As a live sound designer for new music, I also engage in many different “moments”.  Each venue is different and gives opportunity to explore repertoire from a different perspective as does the reaction of each audience as well as the temperament and feeling of the musicians at that time.  Each performance represents a marker along a continuum of evolution for each musician according to the various activities they individually and collectively engage in from one performance to the next.  And their attitudes toward that music definitely change over time.  I think this is the MOST true of music we hold up as being “sacred” or “untouchable”.  In a post show Q and A session conducted by eighth blackbird last night after the Kirkland, Washington performance of Steve Reich’s Double Sextet, the group was asked what music they played outside of eighth blackbird for their own enjoyment.  Almost every member of the group mentioned that, on some level, they always return to Bach as music they are familiar enough with that they can experience it on a visceral level.  Of course, as musicians that almost always memorize the music they play, they get the chance to internalize music so it becomes a part of their physiology.  However, Bach represents a body of work that pretty much every classically trained musician in the world has grown up with from the time before they could read.  It becomes perhaps a part of their blood as you might say.

I will come back to Bach, and our relationship to his music later.   However, what really inspired me to get out the old laptop today was another question posed by the audience and the answer by percussionist Matthew Duvall.  The question was about the Reich and the fact that the group plays against a recording of themselves playing the 2nd sextet.  The question went something like, “how does the group reconcile the idea that you have this one set of instruments coming out of speakers, often hung from the ceiling above the proscenium, and then the live sextet playing on stage?”  Matthew’s answer kind of took me by surprise.  He explained how at first, we spent a lot of time and energy trying to match the tape as best as possible. In fact we did.  We went so far as to ask the publisher for raw tracks instead of the pre-mixed track I was originally given so I could create a new mix in every hall and pan things the way I wanted to.  We even considered placing speakers on stage to play back the tape part but this simply proved to be an un-tourable idea at the time.  Reich himself famously jokes about this with his pre-recorded works such as Vermont Counterpoint and Different Trains, and light heartedly quips in interviews and panel discussions “it’s just the old slogan, ‘is it live or is it Memorex?’”  We eventually settled on a certain working method, perhaps not completely ideal, but one that worked and was practical.  But what he said next was what surprised me.  He said that now, after years of touring it, he has become less and less attached to trying to match the recording with his playing, using different mallets than he chose for the recording and even not trying to match the style he played with at the time.  Then the group began to talk about all sorts of things they were doing differently than they did on the recording such as playing certain phrases with a different emphasis and the winds and strings deciding to play “non-vibrato” while the recorded winds and strings are awash with it.  They have started to think of it as a dialogue with a different time and place instead of an attempt to re-create that time and place.  They started talking about embracing the tension that these differences caused rather than attempting to minimize the difference.

I must admit at this point that for years we struggled with trying to match the original recording.   With a group as particular about their sound as eight blackbird is, finding ways to make that recording match them and vice versa was a big learning curve for me.  Generally tape parts are some kind of manipulated or transformed sound or perhaps some altogether other sound world from what is happening on stage.  In this case, it is just them coming out of the speakers, but in a different room with different mics and in the case of the piano and vibraphone, different instruments.   The musicians also seemed to struggle with it as their attitudes about the music would change as time went on and those inflexible bastards who recorded the original tracks seemed to just truck on with the same attitude, like machines without souls.  We had a short reprieve from this tyranny when the work was recorded for Nonesuch and the publisher again provided the raw tracks.  At first I was convinced the improvement was due to adjustments made in the technique of recording with the tape part in mind as they planned to submit these tracks as the final published tape part for Reich’s publisher Boosey and Hawkes.  Our first performance with these tracks was a revelation for the musicians as well as for me as everything could be heard more clearly and seemed to sound a bit more like what it was supposed to be.  In essence, it was much easier to match the sound from the speakers to what they were playing on stage.  But after just two performances with these new tracks, we took a long break from performing the piece with the tape part.  The group had found a number of opportunities to perform the work with other musicians in various locations so both sextets were performing live.  I have done sound for them in this situation as well and have found it to be significantly more satisfying than doing the work with the pre-recorded tape.  Instead of a game of trying to match sounds, I am free to actually shape the sound of the entire ensemble in the way that really brings the music to the listeners’ ears and can treat the piece as a palate for expression rather than a game of chess with the room that I must win.  The group also prefers the experience.  But after 18 months since our last performance together with the tape part, here we were in Kirkland having the same difficulties we had during the years of first touring the piece with the original recordings.   Of course, part of this is just not having done it in a while.  Another aspect was that there were still problems with a “monitors only” track I had created from the raw tracks so that Matthew and Lisa would have a consistent track in their headphones to play with from show to show.  We had some extra time, so I decided we would get to the bottom of what was troubling them with the track. Aside from being able to compress and EQ it slightly differently to make it clearer, we were also able to adjust certain balances based on what they wanted to hear at the time.  The result was officially gauged as “8 million times better than before” by Lisa.  But it brought up an important question for me.  I wondered what might happen next time we play it.  Will this new track still seem 8 million times better?  Or will subtle changes in the situation, and in the player’s thinking and feeling cause them to want to hear it slightly differently again.  Of course, dealing with changes in the acoustics on stage are always a variable, but beyond that, I think that changes in the state of mind of the musician could influence the perception of how that tape tracks work for them.

In this case, the tape captures a certain moment in time.  A certain attitude or mentality in the way the piece should work that does not necessarily hold fast.  Though the musicians will re-interpret the work based on a new insights and attitudes, the musicians they were at the time of the recording cannot engage in that dialogue.  Intellectually, and emotionally, they will always stay the same and cannot evolve.  In a certain way of thinking, they have no soul.

Back to Bach.  I think the beauty of Bach, other than just his sheer genius as a craftsman and composer, is that at the time he was writing his masterworks, music was only notes.  There were not dynamic markings, no expressive indications. Just notes.  Again, I don’t mean to start a huge musicological debate here in the case that the previous statement is not entirely accurate, but certainly dynamic markings as we know them were not yet a thing.  This left a lot of latitude for later generations to interpret his work.  Of course, we can always engage in historical research to study the performance practices Bach would have been aware of to inform our interpretation of these notes, but we can also ignore this historical performance practice if we wish.  For the most part, musicians have attempted to reference baroque performance practices in their playing, but those that have chosen to approach the music in a different way, putting their own interpretive signature on it, have created some of the most moving and engaging performances and recordings of this work.  In a way, you could say that by allowing us to continually re-interpret his work in our modern context, Bach’s music has retained its life.  Retained its soul.  There is no one interpretation we have universally held up as the end all be all example of how Bach should be played.  I would also hazard a guess, though I have never taken an official survey, that most musicians feel much differently about recordings they make of Bach or any other composers music as time goes on and they continue to play that music.  I have heard musicians say as much on many occasions.  I know that as an improviser, I generally become less engaged with particular recordings as time passes and I loose a mental connection to that time and place.  Improvisers often talk about “the moment” being something that is sacred in performance.  In classical music, I think we have this concept sometimes that we want to interpret music in a way that is “most accurate to the composers wishes”, but the more I engage with live performers, I feel like for music to live beyond a certain time and place, we must relinquish a certain amount of control over it.  Letting musicians engage creatively, and giving them the freedom to do so is essential to the longevity of the music.  The music leaves the composers mind, and pen, onto a sheet of paper, and only once it comes out of the musician does it truly come to life.  A score is perhaps like some kind of genetic code that then grows into a human being who is then further altered by their life experience.

For me, the beauty of Reich’s music, is that despite being very strictly notated, it is mostly about a pure process and structure and does not include or require an excessive amount of dynamic or expressive markings.  The repetition of small phrases and their subtle transformation over time draws the audience and performer into an alternate relationship with time and space.  It is like a fabric that changes each time you look at it depending on the lighting or how close or far away you are, and what portion of it you are focusing on.  Therefore musicians will always find new meaning in it and as the means of distributing sound through a space become more advanced, we sound engineers will find different ways to deliver each part of that fabric to the ears of the listener, thus engaging in that dialogue that keeps the music alive and gives it a soul.  So many music groups when performing Reich’s works with recorded tape such as Vermont or New York Counterpoint have chosen to record their own tape parts rather than the one that comes with the published score.  Generally the reason I hear is that they feel it is difficult to match the sound on the tape part, but it also definitely has to do with the fact that they want the ability to put their expressive stamp on it.  I also note that almost every musician I know who has done so has become dissatisfied with the recording they made in some way and want to do it again after a few performances.  In the case of eight blackbird, and Double Sextet, in the 4 short years we have toured the piece, I feel like each performance is a new discovery of the work and we definitely notice the change in our attitude in the fact that we have a tape part, recorded in a different time and place, as a mirror that reflects this change.

So I guess my answer to the overall question of this post is a qualified yes.  Recording DOES steal the soul of music.  But it is not my intention here to label all recording, or music that uses a recorded part as something that should be avoided.  Quite the contrary!  I just thought it something worth talking about.  Especially now as we plunge into an era where the documentation of performances, as well as every other moment of our daily lives, becomes more and more ubiquitous in our culture.  I think it is important to find ways to keep the things we record alive and to keep a perspective on the fact that a recording really does not give us the full picture of what a work of art, a life, or a moment, really is.