The Parable of the Microphones

Hearing two very individual performers play at the Aspen Music Festival in 1997, I marveled at the privateness of their music: it was like hearing music that artists play for themselves when no one is around to criticize them; it is only then that music listens. Returning to hear the duo two nights later, the situation had changed. The concert this time was being broadcast live to an urban audience far away. In order to impress the invisible city with their competence, speed, and professionalism, the musicians threw their personal approach out the window and played it the way they felt people expected to hear it, that is, just like every CD on the market. This is the microphone effect, and it paralyzes soloists into parodies of perfectionism. It robs us of reality, reducing it to the lowest common denominator.

Recordings are made on the run, in churches between midnight and the first morning mass. The goal isn’t to capture an ideal moment, but simply to get all the notes down without motorcycle and airplane noise so they can be spliced into a “perfect” performance, one whose timings were never actually even performed. A piece plays off itself, off values discovered by chance during performance, off especially beautiful notes on a particular piano on a particular day, and little of that comes through on modern recordings, because there isn’t time to encounter those aleatory moments which suspend the music in space.