C L A R K  S O R L E Y

•   m u s i c   r e c o r d i n g s   •


The greater part of my personal experience of music has come through the joy of listening to records. I've seen my fair share of live shows and have indeed spent much of my adult life working venues but these experiences pale in number compared to the hours spent steeped in recordings. If most people analysed their behaviour they would find pretty much the same thing: that their relationship to music was almost entirely cultivated by recordings. It has been music's defining medium for a century now and continues to be.

I remain loyal to the recorded work despite its recent commercial meltdown and despite attempts by fundamentalists to demean its value in favour of the supposed real deal: live performance. I don't subscribe to that. Nor do I subscribe to the artist as some kind of shamanistic being who has a mainline to authenticity. I couldn't care less about authenticity. I think it is a nonsense concept when applied to music suggesting that some kinds of sounds are somehow more real or more credible than others. All music is simply organised noise whether live or recorded. Value is conferred upon it by imagination not by what it is or how it gets into the air. I'm not fussed whether an album is made in a day with one mic in a room or in five years using every kind of studio trickery. All I care about is whether I can get into it. And that is as much down to me and my own taste capacities as it is anything in the work itself.

Nowhere is there more bullshit spouted than in music criticism. I'm not talking here about professional critics who do a worthy job. They are creative and they take real risks. I'm talking about criticism in general, particularly the snobbish brand which takes itself too seriously and think's itself an authority. I have zero regard for that and every regard for liking what you like whether you are knowledgeable or not. That is why I am able with no irony, embarrassment or shame to appreciate the Mariahs and the Britneys. With the help of talented producers and writers they have made outstanding, state-of-the-art music which enriched the lives of many millions, particularly young women. Most authenticists (usually male) are contemptuous of these hugely successful women and their followers (usually female). They use the less than admirable personal lives of the pop divas as ammunition for taking down their contribution to the art.

The same authorities also choose to ignore that recorded works generally have a reality unto themselves. Somewhere they hold to the idea that a music recording is like a facsimile of an otherwise performance ideally captured live without any fussing. This kind of thing harks back to music's arcane mythology. The snobs would almost take delight in finding out that some recently discovered blues singer was a wasted alcoholic with broken teeth and a broken life. If he was black with a history of racist abuse against him even better.

The recorded work as a thing in itself has fallen outside the standard mythology as advanced by the authenticists. Yet recordings for long enough have been entities in their own right. Sergeant Pepper was a product of the recording studio used as musical instrument. Since the invention of magnetic tape performances had always been edited from the many into the one. At least from that point on authenticity had taken a knock. Editing has been the singular aspect that has contributed to recorded performances being made up and in that sense to be synthetic products. Multi-track recording allowed for an even more sophisticated form of editing to be done and then digital technology even more so. Even the much maligned tuning software allows producers to do more quickly something they have always done which is pay close attention to intonation. Previously, tuning a vocal was done by editing, simply re-doing out of tune lines. Much time and concentration was taken up by attending to that. The technology now renders that rather tedious part of the job easy. From tape editing to auto-tuning (it doesn't have to be "auto") these technologies are at root instruments for the manipulation of sound. A piano is an instrument for the manipulation of sound. So is a violin. So is a studio mixing console.

Recordings brought a massive benefaction of music to ears all over the world in the space of a few decades. Those who delivered it (the recording companies and their producers) created value and meaning for many and did so in a way that could never have been achieved through live performance. Actually it is live performance which has become an exotic species of the bigger beast that is the recorded work which for most people is more real. A live concert is something done for its treat value like going out for a meal. Live is the gourmet restaurant while recordings are the meat and potatoes of real life. In this sense music as appreciated through recordings has more authenticity than does its less patronised counter-part. Listening to recorded music is what we do as a culture. It is how we engage with the creative output of millions of musicians the world over. Occasionally we go to a gig. Every day we hear recorded works whether we want to or not.

Those who rail against the new tech and cleave to their need for so called authenticity are themselves the myth-makers. Looking backwards to a primitive past where music was only ever experienced on location is little more than a romantic attachment to history. The recorded work changed the musical experience opening it out to be much richer and diverse. There is no going back.

The beneficiaries of such well curated music archives are all of us who today can tap a screen and within seconds have access to anything that takes our fancy. In uncertainty, randomised playlists will churn out infinite possibilities without recourse to a radio loud-mouth full of opinion and prejudice. Old musical attachments can be remade and new ones discovered. That it can be done for something approaching free seems unusually good for this world. So good it is almost suspect. Music is the great gift of mankind to itself. The recorded work amplifies its sharing potential a million-fold. Arguments over authenticity are facile and degrade music's dignity. They should be ignored. The majesty of the gift is better served without them.

the recording has long been music's defining medium


music • 04.10.09