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Saturday morning quotes 6.17: Perfection

September 10, 2016

shiny-cdAs we prepare to release our long-awaited CD Magnum Mysterium, the concept of perfection frequently pops up in conversations about the the project.  Producing a recording of live performances of solo voice and lute in today’s environment of digital perfection is nothing less than an act of courage, and as the leading voices of the alt-early music movement, it is a process we embrace with pleasure.   First, a bit of context.

The early music revival is a phenomenon that gained currency and an ample audience in the last two decades of the 20th century.  Listeners were treated to the results of scholarly research and performances by truly stellar performers, mostly through recordings that were financed by larger specialist record labels.  With an ample budget and an expanding market, performers were encouraged to explore and record lesser known repertory, even to the point of financing reproductions of old instruments.

The lute was an essential but awkward contributor to the re-created sound of early music; essential because of the enormous surviving repertory and the many other historical graphic and literary references to the instrument, awkward because at best it was far too quiet and nearly impossible to play well.  But the solo repertory for the lute received quite a bit of attention in the 70s and 80s from classical guitarists whose standard of technique and latent perfectionist tendencies suited them to the task.  Those who were sufficiently drawn in by the instrument and its music soon discovered that modern guitar technique was not appropriate to the lute, so a special study of historical technique was required.  This aesthetic still defines the sound and style of lute recitals and recordings today.

Recordings featuring the lute are much more widely available now, thanks to evolving technology.  But the recordings, particularly those of solo lute recitals, are uniformly pieced together from many parts in order to achieve a manufactured perfection, simply because it is possible.  The result is that the listening public now demands that level of perfection, even in live performances.  News Flash: Without exception, every live performance includes imperfections which, at best, reveal less than optimal interpretive choices and, at worst, involve distracting mistakes and misfingerings.

In the essential article, “Recording the lute”, by John Taylor, published in the (UK) Lute News No. 62 (June 2002), prominent early music recording engineer Taylor reveals that iconic recordings by some of the more frequently recorded lutenists are pieced together from a multitude of takes, sometimes punching in individual notes.  Sadly, on repeated listening these recordings simply sound sterile and lack emotion and the essential breath of life.  Furthermore, we are plunged into a fantasy world of an acoustic that doesn’t exist in real life; a sound world that a Gramophone reviewer once described as “a psycho-acoustic nightmare” where the sound is close and far away at the same time.

While we understand that listeners in faraway places desire access to our music, we fully realize that the (now obsolete) CD and its digital offspring the mp3 constitute a poor replacement for a live performance.  But is the level of perfection one expects from recordings at all reasonable?

“The CD will be seen within a history of industrial design as the quintessential product of the 1980s-clean, shiny, a beautiful object in itself which creates a perfect, pure sound. It is the ultimate fetish object which allows the listener the ideal state of disavowal of the body of the performer. The particular ideology of sound of the 80s was one of purity and cleanliness, of static-free, interference-reduced, pristine brilliance.”

Donald Greig, “Sight-Readings: Notes on “A cappella” Performance Practice”,  Early Music, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Feb., 1995), pp. 124-148

Why have we come to expect perfection?  Because it sells.  And marketing psychologists are keenly aware of the human foible of perfectionism, as is evident in this article brimming with statistical jibber-jabber that provides fodder for developers of the multitude of algorithms that now rule our daily life:

“Compulsive shoppers routinely buy goods—like clothing, shoes, compact  discs, household items—that they hardly use afterwards…, in  many instances, purchased items are not even removed from packages, as if  they “cease to matter” once they are purchased. There is anecdotal evidence  for various similar behaviors: some people like to buy advanced electronic devices, but use only basic features afterwards; or acquire high-brow books with  out reading them; or pay marathon fees and skip the race, etc.”

Igor Kopylov, “Perfectionism and Choice”, Econometrica, Vol. 80, No. 5 (September 2012), pp. 1819-1843

The upshot is that perhaps there is cause to be concerned about your public behavior as a perfectionist when every online move you make is anticipated and constantly evaluated by commercial entities.  Under a democracy, the demos consists of citizens who play various vital and interdependent roles.  Under our current corporate rule, you are no longer a citizen—you are now a consumer.

We will be adding more context about our upcoming release in future posts.  And of course we want listeners to buy our CD or download mp3s.  But our recording will present a distinct alternative in a more human listening experience because our primary intent is to offer a live sound in order to convey the spirit of the music.   More to come in future posts.



One Comment
  1. Howard Posner permalink

    “Why have we come to expect perfection? Because it sells.”

    Actually, it’s because a recording is going to heard many times, and by the seventh listening that wrong note in measure 15 will be as much a part of the music as if Bataille composed it.

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