Deep in my hard drive was a podcast featuring an interview with the pianist Krystian Zimerman, in which he makes some thoughtful remarks on the nature of music and modern techniques of recording. It springs from his apparently counter-intuitive claim:
I’m realizing more and more that music is not an audio experience […] It’s something more than audio, and the digital [recording] technique actually showed me this. […] It so clearly transmits the sounds that you can’t hear the music anymore.
Asked to explain the paradox, he continues,
From the very beginning of the digital technique I had a problem in the studio because I had too many informations concerning the sound; and music is not sound. We are using the sound for creating music, but music is actually more organizing people’s emotions in time. And it’s more the time-flow, it’s more the story you’re telling using the sound. Going by more and more perfect sound you’re not necessarily achieving a better story or are able better to tell the story because there will be a lot of factors which will start to disturb the listener – the perfection of sound, which is kind of over-exposing itself. And, on top of this, I would say there is a very interesting function of the distortion in all this. We always have some kind of distortion – in the concert hall there is a tremendous distortion. There is never a total silence in the concert hall, so there is a kind of basic hum, basic level of distortion which is something we can lean at, we can play with. And if you look at old recordings – for example, I had a beautiful recording of Chopin’s Preludes by [Alfred] Cortot. The man is really playing with these distortions, he’s really diving under it: sometimes doesn’t play half of the notes, and that I only realized after someone gave me a cleaned version of this recording. It’s awful, absolutely awful, and this man gave it with a great satisfaction, saying “look how he’s cheating in the left hand: he doesn’t play most of the notes.” I said, “well, this is terrible because for this media he recorded it for, it didn’t matter, so this man had an intelligence of playing that what was important, and hitting exactly that region in which he could transmit his art to the listener. Not bothering about all the other things with were unimportant. And now cleaning this recording is like you would go to the Louvre and undress the Mona Lisa and realise she doesn’t have very clean pants this day. This is unfair because the picture is about her smile and not about her underwear. And that’s exactly what digital technique did to us.
Krystian Zimerman, interviewed by Tom Service, Music Matters, Radio 3, 10 May 2008, 6’57”-9’47”
Two points interest me: (♮) that music is not to do with sounds or ears, but rather emotions and time; (♭) that digital recording works against music. The former claim is one I hope to explore implicitly over the next few months on this blog; the latter claim is a familiar one. I expect that I’ll keep coming back to these two oppositions of music as either audio vibrations or temporal emotions, and recording as working with distortion or seeking perfection. I’m interested in testing the objectivity of the numerous claims against the musicality of digital recording. Digital recording is encased in silence: the smallest distortion may be isolated and removed. The minute level of artifice allowed by the digital technique – where notes and beats can easily be moved, repeated, deleted, replaced – means that the end-result is not a record of an event that occurred in the studio, but a computer simulation of it. This is of little import to many: artifice is part of art, and I certainly can’t distinguish confidently between analogue and digital recordings. But the implication is that digital recording relies less on the intelligence of the player, and instead conforms to a measurable standard of apparent mathematical perfection.