Sound Off! // Comment Klatsch #5: Describing Musical Performance
klatsch \KLAHCH\ , noun: A casual gathering of people, esp. for refreshments and informal conversation [German Klatsch, from klatschen, to gossip, make a sharp noise, of imitative origin.] (Dictionary.com)
Dear Readers: Today’s Sound Off!//Comment Klatsch question comes to you from SO! regular writer Primus Luta, as a follow up discussion to this week’s post, his “Toward a Practical Language for Live Electronic Performance.”
— J. Stoever-Ackerman, Editor-in-Chief
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Can you describe the best (or the worst) concert you’ve attended, talking only about the musical performance (i.e. no scene, crowd, stage show, dancing, props, etc., just how they performed musically)? If so, please do. If not, why not?
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I got to see the Rolling Stones for one of their tours in the 2000’s at Madison Square Garden; choice seats only a few rows from the runway where Mick would strut throughout the two and a half hour performance.
I repeat two and a half hour performance. Straight. No intermissions. There aren’t many bands half there age that could carry a show for two and a half hours straight.
The most amazing thing for me however was that the energy was so strong throughout. There weren’t any lags, they weren’t playing songs at half time to make them easier. They were just playing, and so freely like there was nothing to it. It was markedly different from early shows I’d seen video for, where they were really pushing to get their sound. Physically they were just far more relaxed.
Understanding the why and how of it held my mind for a few weeks after. I realized there was a technological angle which meant that it was just a lot easier to play with power today. Then there was also the factor of decades of playing together. Then however I had to recognize that the material lent itself to this. Not as an intent when producing it originally but as a bit of a bonus.
The Stones were never the most complex band. They played relatively simple songs with complex emotions. In many ways they gave emotion defining performances. And because of that today they are the living embodiment of the emotive quality of that sound. They don’t have to try to achieve it, they are it.
They ran a clinic on that night, but the type of clinic where you knew there wasn’t anyone else on the planet doing that mode of playing anywhere near as good.
I, uh, was a music ed major for a while in college, so I’ve been to a lot of beginning band concerts. Those are musically bad for obvious reasons…but then, you don’t go to a 5th grade band concert for the music, per se.
I have had occasion to watch marching band performances from the ‘wrong’ side (the band faces the opposite side of the bleachers, playing away from me rather than towards me). That’s just sonically…weird–or rather, the combination of the sounds coming out of the horns mixes with the sound echoing off the bleachers (which is thus at a delay from the sound coming directly out of the horns), creating this asynchronous Its-Gonna-Rain-ish phasing effect.
Come to think of it, I also heard the Leipzig (Philharmonic?Symphony?) play once, but I was sitting _behind_ them, in the seats usually reserved for choirs (presumably for performances like Beethoven’s 9th). This was another instance in which the musicians (and here too the acoustic design of the hall) was funneling sound away from me. Not only did this mute the overall sound of the orchestra, but it upset the balance (the brass are in the back for a reason–they’re louder than strings/woodwinds), making different sections/parts more prominent than they generally are.
Those aren’t necessarily _bad_ performances, just sonically unconventional ones…
I also lovelovelove the prompt, for the same reasons as JSA above.
This question had made me realize that the best sonic experience does not always equal the best concert overall, but that I do take note of the sound, and increasingly so the deeper I got into music, both in terms of listening and in its professional aspects. Where my 15 year old self was disappointed in New Order’s live show–“they were just standing there, flipping switches,” I remember telling people, their penetrating dance music at seeming odds with their staid performance style (to be fair, it had been their misfortune to follow both a very lively John Lydon with PIL and Bjork fronting the Sugarcubes–my twenties incarnation began to position myself as close to the sound person as possible in the area known as the “sweet spot” (the logic being that the engineer is mixing for his/her ear, so that the closer you are to them, the more you will hear the sound “as intended).
Still, I do not have a rich enough language–at least in retrospect–to classify and rank shows in this particular way. The best musical experience in terms of sound was a Beastie Boys/Money Mark show from 1994 at the Olympic Velodrome at Cal State Dominguez Hills. The Beastie Boys were known for having impeccable sound engineering and on this night, they played expertly off the banked concrete walls, enveloping the audience in a thick, rich soundscape with incredible texture, layering, and depth. The vocals were clear and crisp, and the music felt like the smoky humid air around me: dense, cloying, and three dimensional.
The worst sonic experience I ever had was Ministry at Lollapalooza 1992, at the Shoreline Ampitheatre in Northern California. I had sixth row seats, right next to the huge speaker stacks, and to this day my ears wither when thinking about the sheer LOUDNESS of that show. Word is that, in the name of artistic integrity (and assholery, I maintain) that Ministry paid nightly fines for going over the decibel limits in whatever town they were playing in rather than turn their amps down. The sound was one flat solid wall of loudness–unlike the rich, deep plastic space of the Beastie Boys–that felt like sharp pinpricks to my ear drum and arrhythmia to my chest cavity.
Personally, I find this question fascinating, as I have always maintained that laypeople know so much about listening/sound, but because we lack language to discuss it (or to file it away in our memories in descriptive terms, rather than solely kinesthetic/emotional experience, which are different ways of knowing) it is not treated with respect. Also, I wonder if recording has taken some of out ability to describe what we hear away? The 19th century newspapers I read for my research have pages and pages of thick description of sound, voices, musical sound, etc., but music criticism post-recording becomes much more about stock catchphrases and telling the story surrounding the music. just a thought.
I think the point you make about 19th century criticism is interesting when contrasting the context. At a time when music was less pervasive and concerts weren’t readily accessible to everyone, the writing about the music had to convey that much more to those that were not thee. Even more the language which was used at the time was relatively common to those with interest in music.
But is that common language relative to the times or the instrumentation?
Yesyesyes! I completely agree with you here: “Personally, I find this question fascinating, as I have always maintained that laypeople know so much about listening/sound, but because we lack language to discuss it (or to file it away in our memories in descriptive terms, rather than solely kinesthetic/emotional experience, which are different ways of knowing) it is not treated with respect.”
I once had a student in a seminar ask something like “So, for us non-musicians, do we just not know anything about music?” I told her she DOES know a LOT–that’s what’s required to recognize something _as_ music, and as saying/doing something interesting–it’s just that her knowledge of music is not in propositional form (it’s what we philosophers call implicit knowledge).
My hope is that new tech will help give other ways to communicate and “debate” or “discuss” non-propositional musical knowledges, musical ideas/responses/etc that one doesn’t have _words_ for. (I’m thinking, say, of communicating one’s response as a gif, or directly sharing bits of recordings, etc.)
It’s funny you mention the part of language; I recently did a workshop on writing about music, and I told the student to focus on the sounds and not the lyrics. We had a lively conversation about the language to use when talking about music, and then someone asked me if I was a musician. I told them no. They then asked me how I had developed what they thought as as a “vocabulary” to talk about music even though I didn’t have a musical background. I mentioned to them that my desire to talk about the music pushed me to look for a language–which came mostly from academic readings, interestingly enough.
There’s a weird symmetry around re-cording and re-petition, too. Not only are the performances spinning in circles, repeating, and opening themselves to analysis, the re-thoric of re-view and analysis begins to re-plicate and close in on itself as well. Great point!
I still remember the first time I heard Dr. Billy Taylor play. I was only eight at the most. To that point I had taken some piano lessons, and spent many a weekend afternoon at the piano playing along to whatever jazz I could find in my dad’s collection.
The Billy Taylor performance was a special children’s program where he would talk about jazz and then demonstrate and for the very end he played a short concert. I had heard and played piano prior to that but I don’t believe it ever connected with me as a physical challenge until that point.
Watching Dr. Taylor’s fingers move across the keys and relating those movements to the sounds emerging from the instrument, something really came alive. I had done some of those movements before but I couldn’t do them like that. I sat in my seat miming the movements and getting stumbled up without having to worry about the sound produced. Meanwhile Dr. Taylor was doing all of these things with his fingers, while carrying on a logical conversation with us about what he was doing.
Then when he went into actually performing, I could see the contrast in the focus he was giving to playing even if it wore a smile and danced to the rhythm, and it was evident in the music. His fingers were now doing ten times as much but they were free. He wasn’t constrained by the demands the music was putting on them but rather they were free in their movement to interpret at his whim, that was the smile.
There was something really special about that moment for me. As it was the first time that I had the chance to experience the meaning of excellence in music both externally and internally.
“Watching Dr. Taylor’s fingers move across the keys and relating those movements to the sounds emerging from the instrument, something really came alive.”
I think this is why I think it is impossible to talk about a live performance without describing the scene, crowd, stage show, dancing, props, etc. Going to shows is entirely about those things! I say this as a sound guy at a music hall—all those elements create the full experience of a show. A band can play fantastically, but without stage presence no one enjoys it.
That isn’t to say I think it’s impossible to have a purely acousmatic discussion of a concert, but it might not be productive. The experience—gauged in terms of volume, ambience, emotional response, and/or spectacle—extends beyond the music itself. In the moment of performance, something is alive (versus the re-petition of re-cording).
I’m not sure that I rank concerts, or shows, anymore. Of course, I remember the first concert I ever attended, Weird Al Yankovic at the Count Basie Theater when I was in seventh grade. To this day, that’s still the one that sticks with me emotionally. I’m a timid guy, and I clearly remember being intimidated by the potential of encountering scary older “punk” kids (think Jimbo and his gang from The Simpsons) at the show. The only concerts I had known to that point had been on TV and in the movies and so I think that may have been influencing my experience, just a little.
At any rate, it is tough to describe this concert as anything but awesome. I, geeky to the core, had all of the words memorized, and was so happy to spectate and sing along. I even remember being completely blown away by the fact that there was an encore, and it was the fan favorite “Yoda.” Now, going to concerts, I expect these things now as part of the concert ritual, but as a thirteen year old – it was fresh, totally mind blowing.
I can’t really divorce the performance from the audience, or crowd, however, as that would imply the erasure of self from the moment at hand. The reason this was a stand-out concert was because I felt myself to be emotionally invested in it. By occupying a space in the crowd itself, to eliminate that from the dialogue is to ultimately project an authenticity upon art that undermines any sensibility of collective ritual. The magic of the encore was a sorcery of the collective, a moment of ritual where the crowd is able to invoke one more song through shared emotional bonds. As we chanted “Yoda! Yoda! Yoda!” seeing our demands manifest was pure magic, an inversion of the typical power dynamics which undergird our everyday lives.
Weird Al, who had held the audience in a rapturous state of hypnosis, controlling our collective utterance, had, at least for a moment, ceded control to the crowd, allowing us a moment of agency and commune. Within that moment, we were all as one, the trick had been done, and I was captivated. I felt a collective bond with the audience and a sense of reciprocity with the artist.
These days its had to divorce myself from a more economic understanding of the music industry (where artists like Weird Al pay managers who force them to play fan favorites during encores, to please the audience), which reduces the ritual of the encore to nothing more than smoke or mirrors. But, in moments when I informally attend performances in a basement, living room, or back yard, with some old (and new!) friends, there is a genuineness to the collective utterance of “one more song!” And that still is magic.
Easily. The two standout terrible performances I attended were entirely musically bad; nothing else about them was surprising.
The first was a trio of folksingers, who’ve recorded many albums together, but who apparently hadn’t rehearsed much of the material they were performing that night, so the music was halting, poorly orchestrated, weakly harmonized, and sometimes interrupted by the fact that the lyrics didn’t come to mind right away.
The second was a singer-songwriter open mike night performance: a trio again (maybe that’s the problem?), with drum, guitar and vocals, who did a sort of jam-band performance, an extended (maybe it just felt long? I’m sure it was close to 10 minutes, maybe more; my recollection is that they went over their allotted time) piece with very few lyrics. The tag line of the chorus will remain with me forever, though: “The head is wide, and the feet are broken.” Over and over, they sang that line, for minute after minute, hacking away at the rhythm guitar, amplified enough to be annoying, but not enough to balance the drums.
Out of context I must say “The head is wide, and the feet are broken” sounds like a great line. But much can fall apart in the execution.