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Is lute best heard live or on recordings?

October 27, 2010

Ron & Will Russell at WilburlandIn many ways, lute and the more intimate repertory for voice and lute is ideally suited to be heard in the controlled quiet and privacy of home, rather than the concert hall.  Recordings allow the detail to be heard in sharper relief; subtleties of tone and dynamics that are nearly inaudible in a concert setting rise to the surface and allow the listener to hear what is so special about the sound of a lute.

It is quite likely that a typical person of today cannot hear the subtleties of tone a lute can produce in a live concert because our hearing has been collectively compromised by a constant barrage of noise produced by today’s technologically-dependent society.  Appliances, traffic, home and office heating and cooling systems, all contribute to a constant level of background noise that not only interferes with closely focused listening, but also contributes to an overall degradation of acuity in hearing.  Even the fan on this computer as I sit and type acts to degrade the acuity of my hearing as my ears are exposed to a prolonged and relentless frequency.  Such background noise, combined with concentrated bursts of sound from machinery, alarms, and loud music heard through headphones have all managed to make it more difficult for modern ears to appreciate the nuance of quiet sounds.

Listening to a recording at home, one can boost the volume to a satisfying level.  But is it the same as experiencing a live musician activating the strings of his or her instrument visibly with actual human fingertips and creating real sine waves of sound?  Not at all when one considers that recording is an unnatural act.

Recording the lute (we’ll save discussion of recording the voice for another post) can be a musician’s worst nightmare, and lutenists can be the bane of an engineer’s existence.  Since the lute is so quiet, a recording engineer’s tendency is to place a microphone close to the instrument so as to cancel out extraneous noise that can filter in, even in the controlled environment of a recording studio.  There is typically a protracted negotiation between the lutenist and the engineer that involves a great deal of experimentation with microphone placement and, likewise, a great deal of whingeing on the part of the musician.  The engineer wants the mic closer, the musician doesn’t like the intimidating, nervous-making thing so close, nor the presence of string noise and breathing in the recorded result.  Money is spent and no one is happy.  The best solution is to record in a very live, resonant space that is relatively quiet and allows both musician and engineer to relax and capture a pleasing natural sound with the mic at a comfortable distance.

Recording in old churches with their conducive atmosphere, high ceilings, hard surfaces and spacious resonance – the preferred venue for lute recordings – can be nearly impossible because of noise from building mechanical systems, traffic and routine neighborhood activity.  Scheduling a recording session in the middle of the night presents a potential solution but has its own set of problems, not the least of which has to do with circadian rhythms.  Even in the favorable acoustic space of a presumably quiet church, other problems can and do arise.  If ventilation systems aren’t running, the space is probably either cold and damp or hot and stuffy, affecting the sound of the instrument, tuning stability of the strings and concentration of the lutenist.

If a lutenist is fortunate enough to have sponsorship with deep pockets, a recording of lute music is the result of many takes of a piece spliced together to overcome the noisy interruptions of the outside world.  Then there is the musician’s or producer’s desire to create a perfect rendition of a piece for posterity, a manufactured perfection that splits a piece of music into phrases – or even notes – and pastes them back together.  Then there is the sometimes bizarre, unfocused sound resulting from the lutenist’s refusal to allow the microphone to be placed so close that finger noise or breathing might possibly be detected.  What is heard is more of the room echo and less of the real instrument and the musician’s interpretation.  This is not happenstance, it is a choice on the part of the lutenist and producer.

If the lutenist does not have unlimited funds and produces a recording with few or no edits, the recording can have traces of the humanity experienced in a live concert.  But the manufactured perfection listeners have come to expect in recordings of lute music is not the same as what one actually encounters attending a live concert, with human beings reacting to music being performed by other human beings.

  1. Ned permalink

    Thank you for an interesting, thoughtful post. In general, I’ve long felt that live concerts are invariably preferred to recordings, but am modifying that position somewhat. But first I should note that I have gone to considerable effort to assemble a satisfying audio system for playback, and located it in a dedicated listening room – a quiet room. While for orchestral music, the live experience is unrivaled, for chamber music I often get more satisfaction from listening at home. This is because the venues where concerts are performed are often not the best. Also, audiences are prone to coughing, leaving cell phones on, whispering to each other, rattling papers, etc. And then there is the program. With luck it’s music you want to hear that evening, but perhaps only some of it is. More typically, it’s music that you’ve heard many times before, because concert producers dare not be too adventurous in their programming. At home, I can choose my program and be assured that I can hear it without distractions (while my wife enjoys distraction free movie watching in a separate area of the house).

    Speaking specifically of the lute concert, this is almost a moot point. In the past four years there have been two lute recitals in the area where I live. If I want to hear lute recitals, it’s pretty much recordings or nothing. A lute with ensemble or voice is slightly more common but not very. That being said, I’ve been one of those that has posted laments on the lute net concerning the recording quality of lute recordings. For the most part, they do not do justice to the subtle qualities of the instrument ( I do appreciate the successful efforts you and Donna have gone to to address this tendency in your own recordings ).
    While I don’t expect lutenists to flock to my part of the country to perform live,
    I do still have hopes that more performers will give more attention to what the recording engineers are doing with/to their instrument.

    Best regards,
    Ned Mast

    • Thanks for your insightful commentary, Ned. You’ve obviously given the subject a great deal of thought and, as a musician and lover of chamber music, you have refined taste and an ear for detail.

      I completely understand the desire and tendency to maximize one’s listening experience with good audio equipment in the quiet and privacy of home. But my point is that what you are hearing in recordings of the lute is probably more the product of good (or poor) engineering. Good engineering (in my opinion) captures the essence of a musician’s intent with a minimum of interference using good equipment and better judgment. Poor engineering is either not noticing that something is wrong with a confusing sound-picture, or creating an unreal sound-picture by mucking about with a recording using every electronic trick in the book. We’ve had experiences that range toward both ends of the spectrum but we have fortunately found a very good engineer who understands the quality of simplicity.

      As a lutenist yourself, you know that a significant part of experiencing lute music has to do with the physical presence of the instrument. A live concert, with its many inconveniences, still conveys a better representation of the instrument and the aesthetic of the music. Your comments about coughing, whispering, rattling of papers, cell phones, are right on the mark and you can well imagine that it’s even more of a distraction from the performer’s side. And, yes, inappropriate venues are a serious impediment to a convincing performance. But I still like the idea of offering people the opportunity to hear the real thing whenever possible. It’s an old-fashioned approach but people need reminding that eggs don’t just come from the shop, money doesn’t just come out of that machine on the side of the building, and music is not just a collection of ones and zeros stored on an iPod and accessed at random.

      Hopefully one can bridge the two separate experiences of hearing lute music without discounting one or the other, although I tend to favor encouraging people to get out and experience the live musical event whenever possible. In my opinion, the world needs fewer ways to barricade oneself at home with electronic gadgets for entertainment, and more authentic human interaction.

      And we’d love to come and do a concert in your area.


  2. I agree with what Ned says. We have even fewer lute recitals than that.

    I think my best solution is to play it myself.

    Relating to that, your point with regard to an exaggerated expectation of perfection brought about by too much listening to highly edited recordings is well taken. I’ve noticed this with my classical guitar playing. I listen mainly to recordings and get discouraged that my playing doesn’t sound like that. But then I go to a recital and the performer makes mistakes, forgets a bar, fumbles a note, squeaks some strings – and it just doesn’t matter. The player enjoys the music, the audience enjoys the music, and everyone goes home happy.

  3. lemon-kun permalink

    “I think my best solution is to play it myself.”

    (sorry my English:) That’s wonderful! I do the same. Of course, everybody is different, but for me, I love to discover the piece first myself, before I hear it from somebody else.

    Regarding lute CDs, I haven’t heard any for more than one year. But my situation is a bit different I guess, I live like 30 minutes from Basel (Switzerland) where many lutenists (Barto, Bailes, Smith, etc.) live and do concerts very often. Personally, I prefer concerts to the CDs. But of course, the concert halls are not ideal for lute music, even the smaller ones and the nice old churches — the most satisfying, pleasing lute listening moments I had were on a couch, sitting next to the lute player and drink some tea, talk about lute music and hear them play. I heard Chris Wilson at his home, Tony Bailes at his, and Eduardo Eguez stays sometimes at my house when he comes to Zurich. As you can imagine, that is the best way to listen to lute music, and I feel it is a pity there is no way to perform like this (there should be salon concerts, but that is far too expensive if you just have a limited number of guests, etc.)

    What I don’t like with CDs/recordings in general, is that it takes away the “event-thing” from the music (sorry my English again). Obviously, listening to music isn’t the same like 100 years ago, when you maybe had only once in a lifetime the chance to hear a Beethoven Sinfonie. Today, you just click on play, and you can hear everything as often as you like it. I guess music had much higher value for the people 100 years ago, with no shopping center background music everywhere.

    The other, not so obvious part of this problem: Part of the audience seem to have forgotten that music performance is an event. Some just want to hear what they already know from a CD, some have their ears closed for the new, because they have a so-called “reference-recording” in mind. What I feel is the worst about this, especially being a musician myself: once you’ve played a piece on recording, people feel that this “is your interpretation of the piece”. Any improvising, ornaments, tempi that would alter each day are now affixed as “your interpretation”. Normally, after listening a CD it’s not “Uh, on that day Mr. Kuijken played the Gigue fast”, it’s: “Mr. Kuijken plays the Gigue fast, that’s his interpretation”. Once there was a master class with Andreas Staier (a very good harpsichord player) at my former university, and a student performed an Ouverture, but played with double dotted rhythm, like in the 1970 and ’80. When Staier told him that he shouldn’t do so, because there is no evidence for that kind of sharp rhythm in any French sources, the student, confused, asked him: “but, you did so on your recording” — which was recorded 20 years ago, and Mr. Staier had changed his mind on this.

    • Thanks very much for your comments. We, of course, are extremely jealous that you live so close to the ‘center of the universe’ for lute music. And we tend to agree that concert events are a much better way to hear the instrument. Recordings not only give the false impression of an interpretive decision, which can change from moment to moment, but also a false impression of how the instrument actually sounds without enhancements applied in the recording process.

      Of course, we prefer concerts to recordings because we perform. But we actually enjoy providing audiences with the opportunity to hear the instrument and how well it blends with Donna’s voice. After a concert last week in a somewhat resonant church, a member of the audience remarked that the lute was louder than the voice at times,

  4. Hind permalink

    Thank you all for this very interesting discussion. I do not have Lemon-Kun’s good fortune of living in Basel, close to so many great lute masters; but, living in Paris, with excellent lutenist neighbours, I do have the possibility of hearing lute players, harpsichordists, and gambists, in the ideal salon context, even sometimes in my own salon. It was this, even back in the 70s, that made me so dissatisfied with lute recordings, but particularly with most digital ones.

    Like Ned, I tweaked my listening system to attempt to achieve the level of micro-dynamics that are needed to convey the attack and decay of a note that are so essential in conveying the musical qualities of a lute performance.

    I believe recording engineers attempt to make up for the loss of micro-detail on standard (low information) CD recording equipment, by placing the mics, as close as possible, in the hope that if we hear the lutenist’s breathing, this can give the impression of more physical presence.
    This should, in fact, no longer be necessary with newer high density digital recording, but as listeners generally only have access to low data CD transfers, or worse MP3 downloads, the problem remains the same. Ironically, some of the best lute recordings I have are therefore analog LPs, such as POD’s Astrée CNRS recordings (using gut strings).

    Having said that, perhaps we do need more acoustic presence to replace the absence of the visual cues that can be so important in a live concert.
    Many years ago, I found myself in the highest gallery of the Théatre des Champs Elysées for a Baroque chamber group, which I remember included Leonhardt, Kuijken, and Bylsma; but from that height I had great difficulty in hearing the individual threads of music, until I used a pair of binoculars: I was then surprised to find that the performer I focussed on with the glasses also snapped acoustically into focus.
    Although, how to interpret this is not entirely clear to me, as I have also found that in concerts, where I am well placed, often closing my eyes makes me far more conscious of the music.

    I think the answer could be that with eyes and ears wide open at the concert, all sorts of sounds and visual disturbances, unrelated to the music tend ot overlaod the brain. Using binoculars to focus out irrelavant data, or simply cutting out all visual data can both, in certain circumstances, allow one to focus on the essential acoutsic cues.

    This can explain why with a very good recording, Ned can sometimes be more happy than listening at a concert with distracting coughs and bad acoustics.

    Nevertheless, as Jacob Heringman has explained on his diary pages and his interviews,
    the fear of a poor performance being recorded for all time, can lead the performer to over monitor their performance; furthermore with no audience to which to respond, the perfomer’s own hyper-critical ears come to the fore.This can lead to a muted performance; and if multiple takes are used, attempting to splice the best moments together, the rhythm and life of the successful live performance may well have been completely lost.
    With a duet, perhaps the lack of audience is slightly less critical; or is the hypercritical phenomenon mutiiplied? I hope not.

    Using high quality mics, preamps and recorders, developing a warm recording atmosphere, avoiding over splicing and above all preventing engineers from ruining the resulting performance with added reverb, would seem to be the only antedote.

    For the lutenist, the choice of a lute which projects well, and of strings that allow the strands of the music to be followed, even if they must blend, should also be a great help, particularly in a recording; and an effort to obtain the best balance between singer and lutenist is also a prerequisite, but hearing your web performances, I feel you are totally aware of this, and have resolved this question happily.

    I wish you the best of luck with your next recording.

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