I recently encountered a post on social media bemoaning the difficulty of finding good recordings of things. This particular user was saying that it was hard to listen to recordings when they had a particular idea of what a piece should sound like.
My response to this issue is YES! That is what is supposed to happen. I often cannot find a recording that I “like”. Which is to say that I cannot find a recording which I deem to be the definitive version of that work. I certainly find recordings which feature undeniably amazing playing and I find recordings that contain interpretation which I find inspiring. But I consider it my responsibility as an artist (if I can call myself that) to find my own way of playing a piece.
Consider this, if I were to find a recording which I considered the best ever, that judgment would have conditions. Perhaps I was listening to the recording on my headphones and, once transitioning to my car stereo system, I was made aware of some things that were less apparent on my $2 ear buds. Maybe I play that recording in a different hall and the acoustics of the space highlight something else I don’t care for. Maybe I play the recording outside on a bluetooth speaker and I realize I don’t care for the recording at all when played in that way.
If a recording, which has so many static factors, can be this malleable, surely live performance is fraught with contingency. Any attempt we make to reproduce something which is seen as definitive is inevitably dead on arrival.
Someone could play on Itzhak Perlman’s violin in the same hall, on the same day of the month, at the same day of the lunar cycle, when the temperature is exactly the same as it is on some recording he made and it will be infinitely different. Izhhak himself could do this with similar results.
So we have two choices. We can give up on the playing of music altogether, knowing that we will never reproduce definitive recordings. OR we can give up on the idea of reproduction altogether, acknowledging that each performance of something is so full of possibility that we can never be in control of it. We can give in to the difference, give up on recordings, and start making music worth listening to, not just recognizing.
I think the choice is simple.