Listen carefully, you will hear this more than once

I experienced something of a revelation this lunchtime.  I’m reading Norman Lebrecht’s book about the history of classical music recording, Maestros, Masterpieces & Madness, and found myself very moved by his descriptions of one hundred milestone recordings.  The importance of the people performing, the time and the place.

I found myself wanting to hear music performed, to share in the absolutely unique event that each performance of a work constitutes; a communication of the performer’s feelings to the audience.  As much as I want to hear the recordings that Norman Lebrecht compellingly chronicles, they can only make sense as part of a larger picture.  It seems impossible to know a piece of music by hearing only one performance of it – one interpretation – no matter how many times.  (One thing that recording has helped reveal to us is that, even though the performance we’re listening to may be in every way precisely the same as the last time we listened to it, we have changed and it is the change in us that is revealed, the recording acting as a mirror.  This role of art would have been historically fulfilled by painting, sculpture or architecture, music and drama having to wait for the advent of recording to be scrutinised in this way.)  It also strikes me as imperative that musicians perform pieces without music in front of them.  The physical ‘text’ between performer and audience seems an insurmountable barrier to true communication, rendering the attempt as ineffectual as an actor standing on stage and reading from their copy of the script.  It is usual and acceptable for ensembles of instrumental musicians to use music, for example string quartets or orchestras.  I’d be interested to experience performances by ensembles who give concerts without any music stands.  (Choirs are not generally permitted this indulgence although choir pieces do tend to be shorter than the average chamber music movement.)

Listening to recordings and going to concerts needs to be practiced and not just reserved for special occasions.  I very much enjoy reading novels and it strikes me that I probably spend far more of my time doing that than attentively listening to music.  Culture is not just what is around us, it is the things that we spend our time doing.  Just because I did a degree in music it doesn’t automatically follow that I am ‘musically cultured’.  Something of a revelation, indeed…

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