The Preservation of Inspiration

A world-renowned musician had scheduled an appearance as guest soloist with the string quartet in residence at a certain university. When he arrived he noticed a pair of microphones arrayed over the small stage and, following the wires, located a college student backstage next to a tape recorder and a pair of headphones.

Rearing himself to his full and not inconsiderable height, he fixated the youth with a withering stare and said "There will be no recording."

The recordist said "But I always record these concerts. I do it for the players. They like to evaluate their performances afterwards."

"When I play with them," said the Great Artist, "there is no recording."

"Yessir," said the kid, and shut his recorder off.

After the concert, the star soloist hurried backstage looking for the college kid. He found him rolling up cables.

"Hey kid, did you record me?"

The youth made a visible effort to shrink. "N-no sir. You told me not to."

"Shit!" said the Great Artist. "It was the best thing I've ever done."

I was present at that concert. I was in fact the kid who was told not to record it. It was a memorable performance—one that many people would have enjoyed re-hearing for years, from a recording. Performances like that don't happen often, and they almost never happen in recording sessions. They are a result of two things: the players and the audience are both "up," and each senses the other's mood and responds to it. The hackneyed phrase "charged with electricity" describes quite aptly what happens.

A seasoned concertgoer can often predict when it is going to happen. Almost invariably the barometric pressure is high. And before the concert the audience noise is a low but steady buzz rather than a deep silence punctuated by coughs, throat clearings and program rustlings. The audience is primed. Its members want to enjoy. It only takes a modest contribution from the players to start the audience feeding back its approval, to which the musicians respond with even greater elan, and voila! a memorable concert.

Many such performances are actually riddled throughout with minor fluffs, which audience and players quickly forget while remembering all the things that went right. But some are almost note-perfect, and as such constitute performances that could have been collectors' items if only they had been recorded.

I remember the time I heard a broadcast of the New York Philharmonic with Leonard Bernstein conducting Shostakovich's 5th Symphony, which literally gave me goosebumps. (It is now well known in audio circles that no matter how I may seem to be keeping my cool, my forearm shorthairs give me away when I hear something that gets to me.) I had not bothered to tape it because that was the period when Lenny seemed to have become jaded with music, turning out one quirky turkey after another. But after that concert I talked to several people who had been in Lincoln Center that night, and all told me it had been one of those electric evenings. The performance was never commercially released.

I remember also, the time I heard the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood with Charles Munch doing the orchestral suite from Berlioz's Damnation of Faust. It was—pardon the expression—electrifying. The audience and the players fed off each other like praying mantises, except that both were filled and neither devoured. After the performance, the audience applauded the orchestra, the orchestra applauded the conductor, the conductor applauded the orchestra, and I went home with sore hands.

Next day, I hied me to my favorite record store and bought the recording—on RCA, with the same orchestra and conductor. It was awful. Quite apart from a lousy mixing job—what happened to the trombones?—the demonic Munch of yesternight had become a pussycat beating time too slowly. I do not blame Charles for that, I blame the system.

For various obscure reasons, many of which are directly attributable to the Amnerican Federation of Musicians Union and its seeming paranoia about recording, classical recording in the US virtually guarantees a third-rate performance.

To begin with, American musicians get paid more for recording than those in any other country, so those producers who don't just give up and do their recording in Europe must balance artistic integrity against dollars and cents. There is a minimum three-hour pay requirement for each of the 80–90 players, and only 45 minutes of material from that three hours can be used for commercial release. If the total time required to get everything right runs to three hours and five minutes, everyone gets paid for another three hours. For this reason most commercial recordings are choreographed like an Agnes de Mille pratfall.

The third movement is the most difficult for the players? So we'll do that first, while they're fresh. The fourth is the loudest, so let's do that next, while they still have the energy. The first is a breeze, so we'll do the second next. Oh, there was a fluff there at Rehearsal Mark 34. Let's go back to Letter 21—it's a good edit point—and take it from there. Wait a minute, the guys in the control room say there was a tape dropout in the third movement, They wanna retake from somewhere around 74. We may have to do that tomorrow. What's an easy piece they can play to fill out the rest of tomorrow's three hours? Maybe Night on Bald Mountain."

There is no way under these circumstances that a performance of any large-scale work like a symphony or sonata—yes, they do it to pianists, too—can ever have any unity, cohesion, or sense. And without an audience to provide the necessary feedback, there is little likelihood of anything better than a competent performance emerging from a recording session.