Saturday, January 24, 2009

Worth a thousand words

Most people find it difficult to understand purely verbal concepts. They suspect the ear; they don't trust it. In general we feel more secure when things are visible, when we can "see for ourselves." We admonish children, for instance, to "believe only half of what they see, and nothing of what they hear." All kinds of "shorthand" systems of notation have been developed to help us see what we hear.

We employ visual and spatial metaphors for a great many everyday expressions. We insist on employing visual metaphors even when we refer to purely psychological states, such as tendency and duration. For instance, we always say thereafter when we really mean thenafter, always when we mean at all times. We are so visually biased that we call our wisest men visionaries, or seers!
Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage

In the light of the recent JohnWilliamsgate scandal at the Obama inauguration, McLuhan's comments on Western visual bias seem particularly prescient. For an event like this presidential inauguration, the actual musical content of John William's commissioned work - a wholly innocuous bit of Americana - was trumped by the visual impact of the performance. (Indeed, the racial diversity of the performers attracted more comments than the commissioned piece itself.) Thus, it's almost irrelevant to ask whether the music you hear is actually coming from the musicians onstage. I am less troubled by the report that the performers "lip-synched" to a previously recorded tape (an understandable measure, given the weather conditions), and more troubled by the reports that at least one of the major US networks (CNBC) apparently opted to display the visual of the performance only, dubbing over the audio with a stock market update. His throne may be getting shakier, but the visual image still is king.

McLuhan's reaction to all of this, were he still with us, would probably be a simple "I told you so". If you wanted a more emotionally engaged response, you'd have to go to someone like the composer R. Murray Schafer, who would probably see the whole thing as yet another case of schizophonia; we are so used to hearing music emanate from concealed speakers in restaurants that we have become completely unable to distinguish a "real" performance from a "fake" one. For most of the people in the audience, the performance by Perlman, Ma et al. was probably the only live performance of "classical" music they would hear for some time; what a pity, then, that it turned out to be a mirage.

In case you're interested, I can finally play the Reger. All should go well on Tuesday, barring hurricanes.


Dan said...

Hi, Aaron. Just found your blog. An observation to add to the table: Tom Wiebe implored his students to watch a video of the inauguration, not for Obama, but for Yo-Yo Ma. He wanted them to note the openness, the sheer generosity of his performance. Does the fact that he was not actually producing those sounds at the time affect those observations? Of course not. Would the audience present and at home have "gotten more" out of it had it been a live performance? I really doubt it, if trained ears such as TW's didn't suspect foul play.

I guess my own reaction to the issue is: who cares? If this was a concert, it would of course be a problem. But as Yo-Yo himself said, and I paraphrase, "We were just there to serve the moment."

Osbert Parsley said...

I'm not enormously bothered by the fact that a canned performance was used - given the weather circumstances, and with unamplified instruments, there was no other alternative. And I think you're right to say that the performance was there to "serve the moment", not to provide some sort of transcendent aesthetic experience.

Yet I wouldn't go so far as to say "who cares?", either. The White House organizers could have broadcast a live performance from indoors on a video screen, or simply played back a video tape of the recording session. The fact that they did neither of these things shows that creating a visual appearance of a live performance was a primary goal, more so than the fidelity of the audible sound. It's this assumption that I'm trying to probe here.

diplomatizer said...

The fact that performing musicians focus more on the visual than the aural is nothing new--I mean, the entire raison d'ĂȘtre of the marching band world is to look good first, and sound good second. Nobody ever goes to hear a marching band. Also, why else are the hundreds of music majors who pass through our school forced to shell out hundreds of dollars for tuxes and formal dresses?

I'll have to disagree with you on the prerecorded-video front. If you're expecting a crowd of 2 million people to show up in freezing weather, do you think they'll appreciate the performance more if there are live people in front of them (even if they're mimes) or if they're just watching a screen? Nobody's going to wait for hours in the cold to watch a big screen (unless it's a sold-out hockey game =P)

I've had an experience with this kind of silent performance, as well:

Several years ago, Paul Anka came back to do a 'homecoming' concert at the Ottawa Congress Centre, and for one of his newer, forgettable songs (Freedom for the World or something like that) he needed a backup chorus of young singers. So his people called up my choir director (the matron of young choirs in Ottawa) and I was one of 8 or 10 volunteers who learned the music and the actions that went along with it.

When it came time for the performance, we realized upon closer inspection of the mic stands in front of us that the mics were fake. They probably wouldn't've been able to hear us properly in that acoustic anyway--let's face it, it was a convention centre, and he had a full band with him.