Journal: News & Comment

Saturday, June 04, 2005
# 12:03:00 AM:

Vitality in imprecision

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In popular music, it's obvious how recording technology has changed things—from the echo of Duane Eddy's guitar recorded in an empty water tank through Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and hip-hop in its entirety, much of what we love to hear would be impossible in a purely live context.

It's puzzling, then, that classical music has, in general, remained so stuck in the 19th century. Or has it?

[At] the turn of the last century [...] "Freedom from disaster was the standard for a good concert." [...] Rehearsals were brief, mishaps routine. Precision was not a universal value. Pianists rolled chords instead of playing them at one stroke. String players slid expressively from one note to the next—portamento, the style was called—in imitation of the slide of the voice. And the instruments themselves sounded different, depending on the nationality of the player. French bassoons had a reedy, pungent tone, quite unlike the rounded timbre of German bassoons. French flutists, by contrast, used more vibrato than their German and English counterparts, creating a warmer, mellower aura. American orchestral culture, which brought together immigrant musicians from all countries, began to erode the differences, and recordings canonized the emergent standard practice. Whatever style sounded cleanest on the medium—in these cases, German bassoons and French flutes—became the gold standard that players in conservatories copied. Young virtuosos today may have recognizable idiosyncrasies, but their playing seldom indicates that they came from any particular place or emerged from any particular tradition.


Most modern performance tends to erase all evidence of the work that goes into playing: virtuosity is defined as effortlessness. One often-quoted ideal is to "disappear behind the music." But when precision is divorced from emotion it can become anti-musical, inhuman, repulsive.

I know first-hand the vitality of imprecision in live music. I am, by most technical standards, a fairly crappy drummer. Yet the parts of shows I play that people like the most are, by those same technical standards, the very crappiest—when I play a drum solo on my bandmate's guitar strings, when I circle around my kit while hitting cymbals during a break in a song, or even when I'm not playing at all, but leaping over my drums or falling backwards to crash to the ground at the end of the night.

Why people enjoy music is a great mystery that will probably never be solved. What is true is that the vast majority of people don't enjoy music for the precision and technique of the players, but for the intangible joy they create, however that comes about.


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