The Unconservatory  

The Case for Live Concerts by Kirk Whipple

Have you ever noticed that concerts seem to be a lot more exciting when you actually get out of your house, go to the concert hall and listen to living, breathing musicians perform on real instruments? Why is it that, while very entertaining, the concerts on PBS don't quite seem to take your breath away? If you are not already a regular concert-goer I hereby present my urgent case to make it your next move.

The most important reason that I can think of for attending live concerts is the sound. And (for everyone in the cheap seats)..... the Sound!!!!!

It physically feels good to listen to live music.

In this age of CD ROM, television, walkmen, car stereos, boom boxes, malls and (ugh!) elevator music, we can be seduced into believing that we are really listening to a great deal of music when, in fact, the exact opposite is true. The key word here is listening. Being exposed to music "on the run" or while you are doing anything else is sort of like eating a snack when you really need a balanced meal. For a while, regular snacks may continue to ease your hunger, but, in the long run, your body will complain that it is not getting what it needs to be nourished and to remain healthy and vibrant.

The same is true about a steady diet of recorded and (dare I even say it?) "background" music. For example, let's compare the experience of listening to a violin and piano recital on your home television or stereo to the live concert setting.

We will assume for the moment that everyone has the luxury of owning or leasing the newest digital television hooked up to incredible high fidelity stereo equipment. How big do you think the biggest speakers in your system are? Twelve inches? Eighteen inches? If you're lucky your woofers might be two feet wide and produce a convincingly rich bass tone. (Convincingly you say?) Your tweeters might be able to produce sounds pitched high enough to send Fido into ecstatic convulsions. Yes, friend you possess a world class audio visual system!

But wait a minute. The lowest bass strings on the piano are almost nine feet long. That's over one hundred inches in woofer terms! The strings on the violin are over one foot long and vibrate in far more subtle and complex ways than three or four inches of tweeting speakers. Piano strings are under thousands of pounds of tension, which produces a set of sounds that can only be approximated on a stereo system. And, you may not have the single best sound system in the world.

Remember that a recording is only a shadow of the real thing. A very beautiful shadow, but, nonetheless an after-image of a real experience. It is like looking at your best friend's pictures of her trip to Tahiti and convincing yourself that you actually went with her. From the live concert hall to your home listening experience here is a most common step by step journey that a recorded performance of your favorite artist may take:

(1) Sound waves are captured by microphones,

(2) processed by electronic equipment, and

(3) stored as information in a tangible medium - for example digital audio tape.

(4) A sound engineer

(5) mixes what she hears onto

(6) another tangible, storable medium called "the master recording."

(7a) Perhaps the same (or, 7b, another) recording engineer

(8) mixes the information onto yet another tangible, storable medium called the copy master.

(9) Copy master signals are processed in the duplication unit (again) onto

(10) another tangible, storable medium called "your cassette tape," which you purchase.

(11) At home, you tweak the knobs on your stereo,

(12) listen to the recording in

(13) a foreign acoustic environment called "your living room." If you end up listening to the performance from a compact disc recording you can cut out a couple of the above steps.

What happens when you go to a live concert? You travel to the concert hall or perhaps a friend's home, sit down, relax, breathe deeply (maybe even close your eyes) and (1) listen to the music. There is nothing to change your perception of the sound except your own distractions. There is no listening experience more immediate or satisfying.

The bottom line is that no matter how much paper, metal and 21st century electronics go into a recording and sound reproducing equipment the experience of human beings producing and listening to music together in the same room can never be equaled.

Am I trying to turn people off to recorded music? Of course not! I rely in part on sales of recorded music to pay my bills. I take great pride in my recorded work. For one reason or another it is not always possible to hear our favorite artists in concert or often enough. For this reason I will always be a die hard recording fan. I will also always be a champion of the living acoustic arts. Without support of live concerts and performing musicians there will be no more new recordings.

I have purposefully not mentioned the visual aspects of concerts because, aside from entertainment value they do not necessarily aid in the listening experience. Skilled camera operators who capture the images that accompany a T.V. concert presentation are no match for your own eyes and attention. In fact, the camera may be missing the best action. The script may call for the camera to focus on the pianist's fingers during the thrilling cadenza while you may be more interested in the reflective pose of the conductor, or the motion of the pianist's feet at the pedals, or the reaction of that fascinating total stranger, or your own total absorption into the glorious sound that is filling your being.

It is impossible to imagine how very different and extraordinary live music is until you have experienced for yourself the thrill of being in the same room as the people producing the music you love. Read and imagine the lists of valuable and destructive listening experiences after this article when you have some time for reflection. You may want to experience the better ones for yourself.

Originally, our ears helped to keep us alive. Sounds like running water, falling fruits and laughter meant sustenance and security. Sounds like thunder and the howling of wolves meant that we were in danger. Times have changed since we were hunters and gatherers, but our ears have not. Listen closely...The sounds that can cripple are everywhere.

Do you cover your ears when the fire engine screams past you on the sidewalk? when your hunting buddy fires his gun? when you find yourself too close to the stage at the wrong concert? If not, you should. The car horn that you might not hear the following week could save your life.

On one the one hand, the advent of recorded - and amplified - music has made the music of the world accessible to almost everyone. On the other hand, our society is devaluating our sense of hearing by pumping prerecorded sound into just about every situation where a little silence may be preferred.

Here is another quick list of situations in which I disapprove of recorded music: On the phone, in the mall, in elevators, on airplanes and other public transportation, in the town square (I am not one of the youths that Santa Rosa has targeted, but the piped-in music certainly keeps me from hanging out there.), in the grocery store, in the doctor's office, in any public waiting place and especially in the park. This list is not by any means complete and includes various forms of portable and professionally installed sound reproduction systems.

I prefer to use my ears to listen to music, my wife's voice, the sound of the wind in the trees, the traffic, footsteps and natural rhythms of the town square - especially when live musicians are performing, my own thoughts when the person on the other end of the phone puts me on hold. When recorded music is imposed upon us at every turn we can either tune it out or demand a better world.

Tolerance is fine up to a point, but, since we can't all spend our time in the wilderness, we all need to learn when it is a better idea to turn all of our gadgets off. Our increasingly noisy world is in desperate need of tranquillity. Your increased attendance of live concerts and regular periods of silent reflection will not only make you a happier and more balanced person; you will be taking an active part in creating a more peaceful and prosperous world.

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Updated: January 25, 2001 (KB)

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