recording and reality

Musical Quarterly

In the 2012 Spring issue of Musical Quarterly, there is an article entitled “Recording and Reality: The Musical Subject” by Leon Botstein. I stumbled across this citation of it recently online. Frustratingly it is only available online to people who have access to subscriptions to journals.

Yesterday I utilized the Hope College access and finished reading this article this morning. Unsurprisingly, Botstein bemoans the idea that recordings are now the primary way people think of music. This especially bothers him about classical musicians.

Leon Botstein, noted musician and conductor

He draws a parallel to teaching art history in which music comes up short. In art, students do not mistake the reproduction for the experience of being in the presence of the actual painting or sculpture.  In fact they often find it a revelation to experience the art in person.

He then goes on and points out that in the world of music the listener is more likely to spend time with recordings than live performances or even score study. He thinks this dulls and dilutes the experience.

He may be right. But in my life, recordings have provided me a delightful access to so much music that it’s hard for me to think of it as a negative thing.

Like most listeners there are certain recordings that have imprinted themselves in my mind and ears as sort of the definitive type of the music involved. But as I have matured I have resisted this notion consciously, preferring to experience music I am interested in first hand via playing it on the piano or organ or studying the score.

But having said that, I do find myself using recordings these days to study other performers interpretation or even choice of rendition (oddly enough there are often musical choices to be made about the actual notes one plays).

Also when I taught music appreciation at the college level, I began each semester sitting at the piano and performing a piece of repertoire before saying a word to the class. This was  a deliberate act of putting music (and in this case live music performance) first into the ears of my students.

Also as students attended the required live concerts, it was satisfying to read about their surprise and delight at experiencing live music.  Having the experience that Botstein is unhappy about, that is experiencing music primarily through recordings, these students were like the art students when they went from recorded music to live music.

I always thought it helped that I encouraged them to attend student concerts. Watching and listening to their peers make music had to be part of the delight.

Anyway, I think Botstein is off base in not expanding his notion of music (via the ideas in Christopher Small’s book, Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening) to include the ideas of not only recordings and scores as being part of what a piece of music but also performances, listeners and indeed everyone who has contact or made some sort of contribution to the process (this would include instrument makers and even people who set up chairs for concerts).

When I think of music in this way, the dominance of recordings is not as daunting or troubling to me.



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