Friday, August 9, 2013

Recordings and Memory Satisfaction

I've had some thoughts lately on the impact that recorded music may have on us.  These thoughts were spurred by listening to pop songs that a student of mine has been learning this year.  In just one listening of a three-minute song, it can become lodged in my head for days.  

The craft of pop song writers is quite remarkable when you think about it.   There was an interesting New Yorker article a year or two ago about the songwriting team Stargate, and Ester Dean, and how they work.  I think the key element of their craft is their use of our memory.  I think memory is perhaps the most important factor for my enjoyment of recorded music.  Some recorded music that is.  

It has to do with the anticipation and then the experiencing of moments.  When I first hear a recording, I might experience some enjoyment.  But its usually with repeated listenings that I really begin to enjoy it more and more, because there are moments that I like for some reason or another - some melodic fragment, or a chord progression I like, or something one of the musicians improvised.   These moments become gifts that I can't wait to open.  And I can open them again and again, by listening again and again.  Anticipation.  Realization.  Then satisfaction.  Repeat.

It seems that pop song writers use this phenomenon very well.  They know how to create this memory satisfaction in a song on just one listening.  The hook.  Simplicity.   This also occurs when a listener attends a concert; because he or she had heard the song many times, there is a satisfaction of memory when the song is heard live - especially pop songs in which the recording is the standard, and the live performance is simply a live reproduction of the recording.  It is even common for things that were improvised in the recording studio to be played in exactly the same way in concert.  

I feel that modern classical composer Morton Feldman worked with memory satisfaction also.  I'm thinking of his String Quartet No. 2 and the piano piece For Bunita Marcus, as well as many others.  He activates my memory with the use of repeats.  Often a phrase of only three or four pitches is repeated three, four, or even more times.  As this happens in his typically slow music, I begin to anticipate the pitches as they repeat, while at the same time solidifying the whole phrase in my memory.  Often times, Feldman follows this repeated phrase with some kind rhythmic augmentation, which makes the anticipation of certain pitches more intense, and the memory satisfaction even greater.  He makes you wait for that note you like.  

Furthermore, in Feldman's String Quartet No. 2, certain phrases come back again and again.  Sometimes after an hour of different material.  (The piece is over six hours long without breaks!).  This has a similar effect to the hook of a pop song.  It's built in repeated listening.  

This memory satisfaction is perhaps the most important factor for my enjoyment of many styles of recorded music, but it's not important at all for other styles.  I'm thinking of extended improvisations.  A few years ago I did some serious investigating of these kinds of recordings.  I listened to The Schlippenbach Trio, Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, and others.  The Schlippenbach and Taylor were extended group or solo improvisations.  The Braxton was mainly his quartet from 1985 with Marilyn Crispell, Mark Dresser, and Gerry Hemmingway, which was a mix of compositions (often more than one at a time) and improvisation in 40-60 minute tracks.  

I was curious as to why these recordings existed.  Who was willing to fund them, when there was almost no memory satisfaction at all, at least in the sense of a pop song, or even a conventional jazz recording.  I had to listen many multiple times to begin to remember musical events, and even when I did begin to remember them, they didn't have the same effect.  Why was the Downtown Music Gallery full of records like this?  Obviously people buy them, or else they wouldn't be made.

I began to take notes as I listened.  When a distinct change in texture, dynamics, etc. occurred, I described it and noted the time in a notebook.  Then next time I listened I followed my notes and added new observations.   This way I thought my notes could aid in some memory satisfaction.  While this activity did help me focus as I listened, my memory was not often satisfied.  I didn't give up, but naturally moved onto other things.  Later I realized that memory satisfaction is probably not the point of such recordings.  Today, three or four years later, don't remember any of the melodies on these recordings.  Rather, I remember the energy and expressiveness.  The clearest thing from these recordings in my memory is the timbre of the instrumentalists.  Braxton's clarinet sound is there, as is the sound of Paul Lovens' muted snare drum.  I remember the vibe.  

Recently I've been thinking about the invention of the phonograph and recorded music, and the effect it may have had.  For a moment I was thinking that it may have ruined music, but now I think that's probably a bit overstated.  Before records people heard music by going to concerts, by listening to friends play instruments or sing for them, or by making it themselves.  At a concert, a piece of music was not heard over and over again, the way a record is played over and over again.  

With music recordings, we now have a musical statement frozen in time, allowing repeated careful inspection and analyzation.   Did Beethoven intend for his music to be heard again and again and analyzed in a short period of time?  Or did the audience have better memory for such music back then, so that they remembered it after just one listening?  Most classical sonatas and symphonies have repeated expositions, probably to aid the listeners of the day in remembering the themes before they are fooled around with in the development.  But is the repeat necessary on a modern recording that will be played again and again?  

In my mind, a drawback of a classical recording is that a certain interpretation can become standard.  There is a lot to be learned from a master's recording, but perhaps individuality is harder to come by since recordings have been our primary mode of listening.  Before recordings listeners probably remembered the vibe and the sound of the performer, not the way he or she chose to play a particular phrase.   Of course sound and vibe can be emulated from a recording, but all too often it's the specifics of a performance that are emulated, and then worse yet those specifics might become expected of subsequent performers.  In any case, recordings allowed the possibility of direct emulation of finer musical elements.

Now, I suppose this kind of thing was always happening in classical music from teacher to student.  This teacher studied with so and so who studied with Liszt..."Liszt played this phrase in this way and now I'm passing it down to you."  So that contradicts my point a bit, but I'd still like to think that emulation through a teacher is less intense than emulation of a recording.   A teacher is hopefully responding to the pupil's specific needs and challenges.  A very good teacher is coaxing the unique interpretation of the student to the surface.  

Now back to the pop music.  How many times have you heard someone say that a band is so much better live in concert than on the record?  I hear that all the time.  So it could be argued that recordings are a somewhat poor representation of a live concert.  At least they used to be.  I would agree with that argument in reference to most of the history of music recordings.  However, it seems like nowadays studio techniques might be used to create something just as special or even more special than a live performance.  The way that Stargate and Ester Dean work together is at least somewhat a result of modern studio capabilities.  And the myriad of effects and sounds available there are finally allowing the recording to be it's own thing - not just a representation of a live performance.  Could it be that music recordings and the recording studio are finally living up to their full potential through pop music?  In any case, we could say that many pop recordings are no longer representations of live performances, but in fact the opposite is true - live performances are now (often very literal) attempts at representing music that was created in the studio first.  I would like to note the ironic fact that the author is not at all involved with making such music, and listens to it very infrequently.  And of course this could be true of many different styles of music.  

In summary, I've come to believe that for most styles of music the joy of listening to a recording is in the phenomenon of memory satisfaction.  However, memory satisfaction is not the point of all music recordings.   The invention of music recordings might have significantly changed the way music is learned and interpreted.  And the music recording might be living up to its full potential in pop music and other modern music, which is no longer a representation of live performance - rather a separate entity with it's own features and purposes.  

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