Thoughts on listening and sound…

This week I’ve been thinking about how I experience and respond to music when I listen to it live and when I hear the same piece as a recording.  What prompted this train of thought was listening to Jazz on 3’s broadcast of Phronesis’ second set from their album launch at Kings Place on 26th May 2012.   I was at the gig, it was a joyous evening, the kind you want to go on for ever. Then I heard the recording and my first thought was “It sounds different, what did I actually hear live, was I really listening?”

Anyone who has ever been to a Brad Mehldau concert will know it’s an intense, exhausting experience because of the act of concentration and the spell he casts.  The same goes for a live Keith Jarrett experience.  I suspect musicians must listen at a deeper level  – once I sat behind Marcus Stockhausen at a concert and I could sense from his body language that his listening was of a different order to mine  – it was as if his whole body was a satellite dish where he picked up absolutely everything, was able to absorb and enjoy it, to see beauty where I was struggling (it was Schoenberg).  And then reflect it back to the musicians.  It was a two way process. I wonder if we ordinary mortals do the same thing?

I also wonder if recording quality is now so good that it enhances what we hear and that’s the standard we now expect to hear live, with coughs, rustling and traffic noise removed? Or is it simply that the visual experience always overrides the aural one?     So in attending Phronesis’ Pitch Black gigs we listened deeper to compensate for the dimension that was missing.  The visual experience is not really about what a band looks like or the lighting/effects, it’s is about the jokes and smiles that musicians exchange, how they stand at their instruments or sit at a piano.  A friend commented that the way Jasper holds his bass is very sensual, as if it were a person. You note the way Anton sets up his drums all on a level, hope you don’t get hit by the occasional escaped drumstick, wonder if Ivo is asleep at the piano.  You’d miss all that if you never saw the band live. It’s the humanity you go for in a live gig, the physical effort of making music, the visible joy when it’s working for the musicians and then, by extension, for us too.

And then there’s sound quality.  Take my favourite pianist, Brad Mehldau  – maybe this is a slightly unfair example – a snippet recorded on a phone and one in 24bit/192khz.

Compare this:


Sound quality is the difference. One is akin to a live performance heard in your living room.

And you can hear even higher, HD, quality here:

So sound quality may be better in a recording than your experience of live music, even in the classiest venues like Wigmore Hall.  It does add to your enjoyment.  But it wasn’t that I’d actually missed anything in the live experience when compared to the edited, smoothed out broadcast, it was just different and I’m glad to have experienced both.

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