Is lute best heard live or on recordings?
In 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.