February 2, 2012

Jeremy Denk

[Studio recordings] are manicured artifacts, from which the essential spectacle of human effort has been clipped away.  ...  I think about how precious live performance is, and how terrible it is that more and more performances aim to sound like recordings rather than the other way around.
Jeremy Denk, "Flight of the Concord", New Yorker, Feb. 6, 2012, pp.24 - 29.

I know Jeremy Denk's playing from broadcasts of his frequent appearances at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.  He is not a spectacular pianist (who is?), but he is an intelligent, reflective musician who often has interesting things to say about the music he plays.  And judging by his recent essay in the New Yorker magazine, he can be as eloquent at the computer keyboard as he can be at the keyboard of the piano.
      Denk's thoughtful and often disarmingly honest essay, which relates the perils of making a studio recording of  Ives's "Concord" sonata, is the most attractively intelligent way I can think of for a musician to promote his new recording.  I hope Denk's CD outsells Lang Lang.  I really do.  But I am not going to buy it.  In fact, I will not even listen to it for free (if my public library acquires a copy) because my attitude toward studio recordings, expressed frequently in this blog, is far more negative than Denk's wistful lament quoted above.  It is the attitude of bottomless contempt.

I feel puzzled by Denk's conflicted, if not outright incoherent, perspective on studio recordings: he laments their "terrible" effect on "precious live performance", yet proceeds to invest considerable time and effort in making one of those "manicured artifacts, from which the essential spectacle of human effort has been clipped away".  I am puzzled because Denk's live recordings of Bach, Ives and Ligeti (from the Aspen Festival, and also from his recitals at the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston) show that he can give technically impressive, tonally seductive, and interpretatively compelling public performances of the most demanding music.  If such performances do not happen at every recital, that's just the price of trying to enrich music with "the essential spectacle of human effort".  Instead of spending hundreds of hours manipulating hundreds of takes in the editing room of a recording studio (and later lamenting the artificiality of the final product), Denk would be artistically much better off recording his public recitals (which can be done inexpensively these days) and letting the microphones hunt for those special occasions on which his playing, even if not note-perfect, fully communicated his love and passion for the music he chose to perform.


laybl said...

The Morgan Library in Manhattan, offers a partial response to the 'let's get it perfect' approach. In the Library they will feature manuscripts of great literature and sheet music. There we can behold the creative process with all the deletions,cross-outs, marginal notes, etc...the effect is dazzling! The creative process is laid out for us to see Dickens, Bronte, Chopin, et al, sense their second and third thoughts as a work takes shape.

For me, the "perfection" of a studio engineer's handiwork removes the human aspect of performance.

In sculpture, the "Dying Slave" of Michelangelo derives much of its power from the visible chisel strokes breathtakingly revealing the almost finished form emerging from the uncut stone. Rembrandt demonstrates how powerful a brushstroke can be, transmuting a swirl of paint into lace, flesh, armor or hair, all seemingly effortless, but not polished and smoothed out of the recognizable art of painting.

jackbrahms said...

Also his work at Isabella Stuart Gardner. That Ives 3rd Sonata was well done...

Boom said...

jackbrahms said...

>> Also his work at Isabella Stuart Gardner. That Ives 3rd Sonata was well done... <<

Indeed! (Except it is the 2nd sonata.) There are other live recordings by Denk on the ISG Museum website worth checking out. I alerted my readers to that treasure trove in my post on Russell Sherman's recording of Beethvoven's Cello Sonatas.

Anonymous said...

Thousands of years ago there was an exhibition at the NY Public Library's rare book room of some of the manuscripts of George Bernard Shaw. It was absolutely infuriating to see that the sentences simply flowed out with almost no corrections in, if I remember correctly, a tiny and immaculate sort of penmanship.As B.H. Haggin pointed out many times, we're better off reading GBS' music criticisms of 125 years ago than most of the stuff written today: Shaw on the usual "Eurotrash" productions which were a feature even then - "the house likes Boito's prologue, in spite of the empty stage and the two ragged holes in a cloth which realize Mr. Harris's modest conception of hell and heaven."

With best regards from over here,
David Mendes

RonanM said...

One of my favourite pictures was made by Patrick Hickey, an Irish print-maker who, late in life got Parkinson's disease. He used to take all his medication at once so he would have a couple of hours when he could work without shaking hands. His works from his last years have that sense of the impossibility of turning back or revising. My favourite is a tree whose mad, blazing orange foliage dominates everything else. But you can see where he made a false start on the shape of the trunk, and just abandoned it. It's this sense of the dangerousness of working 'live' that I love.

Ligeti downloading in the background - many thanks!

john schott said...

I'm someone who appreciates both live and recorded performances. Regarding the comments of "laybl" about the Morgan library manuscripts, with their "deletions, cross-outs, marginal notes", never intended for public perusal, but all the more fascinating for it: is this not also applicable to a studio recording? An artistic vision that has been worked at, arrived at, through a process of doing, then considering and editing, with deletions, cross outs, marginal notes, finally declaring it "done"? I don't understand not allowing the musician this artistic process. Of course a sporting event would be ridiculous with "do-overs" allowed, but music is not a contest between the musician and the score. That said, I DO appreciate the flow, risk and spontaneity of an unedited live performance (most particularly in improvised music)when I'm IN THE AUDIENCE; it means much less to me when I'm listening to a recording.
That's my two cents. Thanks for your blog, Boom!

Ron said...

Thanks so much Boom!! Ligeti is one of those composers I've taken a long time to warm to. Can't say I'm there yet, but I look forward to the surprises the etudes present!

Boom said...

John Schott said:

>> I don't understand not allowing the musician this artistic process.<<


I certainly don't advocate prohibiting studio recordings. I simply despise them because (with the exception of Glenn Gould perhaps) they are peddled as "performances", which they aren't.

This is a very complicated subject, but briefly I can say this: A studio recording divorces music from musicianship. From Heifetz' playing both parts in the Bach Double Cto, to Gould overdubbing piano parts in a Wagner overture transcription, to multitude of recordings issued by artists who never could play the recorded music in public without embarrassing themselves - all this tells me that recordings are artifacts with no relation to music-making.
Consider that, in theory, one could record the most difficult piano piece ONE NOTE AT A TIME (as Walter Carlos did in his SWITCHED ON BACH), and then use the most advanced digital techniques to assemble these notes and adjust their dynamic values, etc into a recording not different from any other studio product. How would THAT qualify as music making? But so long as it sounds "OK", it is not different from a recording with 50 splices or 500.

I really am not after the "sport" aspect of live performances. I am after their communicative qualities, which endow music with emotional significance wholly absent from assembled sounds coming out of the editing room of a recording studio. There is no emotional or intellectual investment of interest to me to be found in hundreds of snippets assembled simply because they seem to "fit" together better than other snippets. This is not music making. And music suffers, and suffers badly enough for me to reject the product on principle.

Kip W said...

For the true reductio ad absurdam of studio work, find Claudio Colombo. Don't pay for it, he gives it all away on his web site, where he has days and days of manicured, lifeless renditions that might have been made by a computer having been shown the printed score and told not to get carried away. The electronic piano is the icing on the cake. I'd guess they were all MIDI files.

At the other extreme, animator Robert McKimson used to sleep at his drawing board at Warner Brothers all morning and then animate more in the afternoon than anybody else could do all day. Contemporaries say he looked like he was inking pencil drawings only he could see, and each one had weight and feeling and personality. (Cartoonist Winsor McCay drew the same way, right in ink.)

Thanks for the Ligeti. I might not ever have heard these, but now I'll give them a listen.

SpiralArray said...

Thanks for this Ligeti, I enjoy his orchestral and chamber pieces, but have yet to hear these etudes.

I agree with you on the state of recorded music. The whole idea behind sound recording is supposed to be recreating the sound of a performance as accurately as possible. This ideal has been sadly neglected.

Keep up the good work, Boom. Oh, and is there any way you could re-post the broadcast of Stockhausen's Gruppen?

laybl said...

I had several years' experience working with sound studios to create commercials and voiceovers for industrial films.The finished product(s) seemed perfect to the casual listeners, despite numerous patches to cover mispronunciations, stumbles or laughter.

But none of this was art or pretended to be. Your objection to sanitized performances makes perfect sense, and arouses the belief that such "repairs" merit the same warnings found with used cars...perhaps a numerical code indicating, mis-fingering, memory lapses, second thoughts, etc. We might then see certain "gods" in the same light as we view ballplayers on steroids.

Peter Herbert said...

Very interested in the mention of "Claudio Columbo". Is this a real person? There is absolutely no information about him/her on the net except for an extraordinarily wide repertoire of recordings. My own suspicion is either piracy or, indeed, a computer reading and playback through Sibelius or similar program.
Anyone any real knowedge?