The English guitarist Robert Fripp, who founded the band King Crimson back in 1969, says that a record is like a love letter; a live concert is like a hot date. When he then asks, “which would you rather have?” it seems a very rhetorical question indeed.
Of course, a love letter can be something you treasure forever (or for as long as you remember where you filed that special Password-Protected Folder in your Inbox), because it says what it’s supposed to say. A hot date, on the other hand, can go very, very wrong. I’m talking court-records-sealed, financial-settlement-imposed wrong. (Actually I’m not talking at all, on the advice of counsel.)
The Beatles may have known what they were doing when they gave up live performances to make their studio magic. And lots of music is made these days in the studio, for the studio, by artists who perhaps are still learning the craft of playing live. Even classical music, edited to sound exactly the way the conductor wants it, sounds great on disc. But nothing can equal the sound of a live orchestra. In a good hall, with a good conductor, you hear the music in your body, not just your ears. And punk rock was always about the energy of the live performances – the records were kind of calling cards to get you to the show. I also think most improvised music – from jazz to ragas to Phish, and a lot of modernist classical music (Elliott Carter, Morton Feldman, Iannis Xenakis), simply doesn’t come alive except when you hear it and feel it live.
For the last century, humans have had – for the first time in our history as a species – the opportunity to enjoy music without having to hear it played live. This is a major convenience, and the only way most of us can possibly keep up with whatever artists or styles we’re interested in. A quiet night at home with the Chopin Nocturnes or a Friday night party with a favorite iTunes playlist can be great experiences. But they are not the whole of the musical experience.
Having produced and hosted the New Sounds Live concert series since 1986, I can tell you that when a crowd is really into it, the band knows it – feels it – and something happens that elevates that concert into a special event. I’ve seen it; I’ve felt it onstage – but the concert tapes, as good as they are, simply can’t capture that whatever that “something” is.
Is live music essential, or can recordings do the job for you? Leave a comment.