Comments on

Unnatural Selections

Original entry posted: Tue Sep 23 15:57:43 2008

pseudonymous @ Tue Sep 23 16:09:58 2008 EST

It's fun to listen to chatter about authenticity in art. Performances are artifices, i.e., unreal, but some are more real than others? The way we trip over ourselves trying to talk about whether or not a particular sound resonates with us or not amuses.

In a certain way, this "the audience will be able to hear everything in a way that no physical person ever could" gives me new confidence in what a good producer can do. I'd never heard it put quite that way before. It's always been difficult to articulate what a producer does, why I like certain albums over others when nothing really changed but the producer.

All that being said, to me, music is the most real when you play it.

pseudonymous @ Tue Sep 23 16:15:52 2008 EST

That is to say, music is the most real to me when I play. Not that I play with any particular skill, but it is real.

Thomas @ Tue Sep 23 16:27:35 2008 EST

Did I ever loan you my copy of Faking It? I think I did.

To build on what you're saying, we should probably separate the experience of playing music from listening for the purposes of "authenticity." I think it's possible to argue that they're not the same thing at all.

Playing music is an experience that's authentic because it's creative and rooted in a personal interpretation, however minor it may change from the original.

Perhaps when listening, we would be better off using the word "legitimacy," in much the same sense as in political science. Why do we buy into a piece of music? Because through its context, which includes its production, we consider it "legitimate." We grant it significance and authority.

It's also worth noting the ways in which good production can actually undermine the legitimacy of a listening experience--see Minor Threat and the DIY/punk movement, and the growing possibilities of a home studio.

That Fuzzy Bastard @ Tue Sep 23 18:31:22 2008 EST

Did you ever read Rip It Up And Start Again? It's a history of UK post-punk, and among many tales, there's some fascinating bits about how Joy Division got the drum sound of Closer and Unknown Pleasures, an incredibly weird, radically inauthentic (no earthly instrument has ever sounded anything like the drums on those albums) sound.

Apparently, in an effort to strip away all hint of funkiness, the producer recorded each drum separately, forcing the drummer to play piece by piece (often thwacking his leg with his other hand to keep time). Additionally, he did some intense compression (I think---I read it a while ago) on each of the drums, giving them the airless, claustrophobic sound that distinguishes those albums. It's a useful reminder that a radical fringe of music (including a lot of late Beatles) has thrived on the distinction between a studio production and a live performance, and gleefully exploited the artificiality of a studio environment.

And as an side-note to the discussion of reproduction and alteration---it's interesting to think about the example of color photography. An untreated color photo (particularly before digital cameras used software so extensively) looks very unlike the actual thing, because the camera isn't doing all the work your brain does to make things look "normal" (that is, cooresponding to the light of a yellow sun at mid-day). I remember when I started taking photos, in Alaska, I asked my dad why all the snow was coming out blue, and he answered "Because it is blue---sunlight slants in the winter up here. It's just that your brain knows snow isn't blue, so it tells you that it's white." Even stranger is that ever since then, snow looks blue to me---I've never been able to see it as white since.

Thomas @ Tue Sep 23 19:18:48 2008 EST

I'll check out the book--just sent the sample to the Kindle to remind me.

The most quoted drum compression story I'm aware of is Phil Collins' experimentation with gated reverb, which was so radical he had to take triggered drums on tour to reproduce it.

And if anyone could still listen to Phil Collins without cringing, it'd be a more useful reference point. Although it always just sounded like a flanger to me.

Amusing Phil Collins fact: when I went through the Zune store to look for a sample I could listen to, three of the first ten albums it returns are karaoke renditions of his songs. "Sing like Phil Collins"? If only!

That Fuzzy Bastard @ Wed Sep 24 09:52:46 2008 EST

Oh dear god... I've never thought about it, but Joy Division *does* sound not entirely unlike Genesis... Now I feel gross.

pseudonymous @ Wed Sep 24 11:59:53 2008 EST

I don't know that you can or should separate the experience of listening music and playing music for these purposes. Doesn't music imply performer and audience? Is there music if no one plays it? Is there music if no one hears it?

The only point I was making is that music meant something more when I was a producer in some sense and not just a consumer. I don't know if the right word for that is real, authentic, true, or what. It's definitely more fun.

I think the discussion of authenticity is fascinating but not very important. Discussions of whether or not music is real or true imply some sort of correspondence to some sort of idealization of what the music is supposed to be. And that always depends.

I think the better discussion is whether or not it resonates, whether or not it works, whether or not it communicates something, whether that's something worth communicating or not, and why. That's why I liked this: "Audio pundits often complain about the glossy perfection of music production, but there's another way to think about it, and that is that all of this production is intended to flatter the listener with the powers of omniscience." The "over"-production serves a purpose, and that purpose is to make the listener hear a piece in a way you might not ever hear it at a concert or without digital enhancement.

My quibble is that it's not any more "real" than a mash-up, an acoustic performance at a coffee house or the faux-acoustic of the Unplugged series (yes, you did loan me Faking It). They're all "real," and all discussions of authenticity seem to boil down to a favorable or unfavorable but ultimately irrelevant assessment of the artist's state of mind.

It's all real - he played it, she produced it, and you heard it - real enough, I think. Now what?

What did they say? How did they do that? How could it be different? Is it any good? Do you have anything to say/play in response?

That's a conversation I've only recently gotten to be a part of.

Fuzzy Bastard: You should feel very gross. Now go listen to some Wombats: "Let's Dance to Joy Division!"

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