Friday, December 23, 2022

"An Idiotic Rave" / version galore


Saw this while watching (very belatedly indeed) the Ken Burns Jazz doc.

The section on ragtime in the doc reminded me that the very first single I bought was Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer", when it was issued off the back of The Sting and became a small UK hit. 

Retrospectively, whenever this fact swam into memory again, I'd always think it was a bit uncool to have this as your first 7-inch single, given that at the time T.Rex Sweet Bowie etc were at their height while things like "Theme from 'Shaft'" were on the radio (a fave of mine as it happens - the wah-wah always made me think of a helicopter's whirring blades... 9-year-old me had no idea what that sound was - that it even came from a guitar). 

But watching the Burns epic, I decided that it was in fact supremely cool and showed a susceptibility to dance rhythm at a tender age - okay, very early 20th Century dance rhythm but still...  

As I recall, there were actually two dueling versions of "The Entertainer" released at that time and I might have accidentally bought the less-preferred rendition - not as bright and bouncy. Nowadays there are so many interpretations of  Joplins's tunes out there it's hard to know which one to go with (the Rifkind and Strickland recordings seem to be favored by some of those who know). But there are also a bunch of piano roll versions.  

It's like the head you have to put on when delving into classical music - like, which pianist's version of Satie's Trois Gymnopedies is the one to go for? Or which conductor's take on the Pastoral Symphony?. The level of variation in feel, attack, tempo, recording ambience, clarity etc is disconcerting for someone who grew up on pop music where there is a Definitive Recording.  

Now maybe you'd think that having been through the dance music culture and lived with (indeed reveled in) the whole remix thing, that this would set you up for this approach to listening. But it's different I think - a remix makes all kinds of substantial structural alterations and adds new material, so it is easy to accept a remix as an almost new piece of music - or something that only overlaps in places with the original. But the interpretative element in classical (and this applies in a different way with jazz... and in yet another different way with showbiz's many arrangements and vocalist interpretations vis-a-vis standards) can be disconcerting precisely for being subtler: the notes are exactly the same, the duration of the song is close, the timbre palette doesn't stray much from "piano" (in the case of "The Entertainer"), but somehow that proximity makes you hyper-aware of all those tiny differences in the player's touch and timing, in the recording ambience, that pervade the entire performance.  Every note is imbued with this difference. 

Perhaps the thing to shed is the idea that you'll find the perfect version of a piece that you prefer to all others, and just enjoy the subtlety of the iterative  range.  

Yet conversely, a form of variation that I do really enjoy with music is the way a song or album can sound really quite different when heard on different formats, through different playback set-ups.  I'll hear different things in a piece heard via streamer on the car stereo, than I do listening to the same streamer but through these computer speakers. Different things again through headphones off an iPod (no really, I still have one, still use it!). And if I happen to have the piece of music on vinyl or CD, there'll be different things again if played on the proper hi-fi with large speakers. We also have a boombox in the kitchen, so sometimes old cassettes get played - another format whose sound properties have a particular appeal.

I suppose the rock-era equivalent to the "many different orchestras / conductors / recording dates"  dilemma that you get with navigating classical music recordings, is the wallet-emptying racket that is audiophilia. You can get into comparing all these different remasterings and formats. Rebuying things in the latest remix, or ponying up for one of those half-speed mastering jobs that supposedly pull more information out of the tape and then what was a single album gets turned into 2 x 45rpm platters for the deep-grooved ultra-fidelity that offers.  Another sub-game here is hunting down particular back-in-the-day pressings that were legendarily closer to the original tapes, or pressed better quality vinyl. (People even have lore on legendarily superior mastering engineers whose cut is better).  Then there's the original mono mixes versus stereo mixes done then versus stereo mixes done today dilemma - yet another game. (The whole business of hi-fi equipment, cartridges, styluses, cables etc is another game altogether, an extra level of complexification and combinational possibiltiies, not to mention wealth-extraction... I hasten to add that I don't actively participate in any of these games, but am fascinated by those who do). 

These versions galore are not new renditions in the interpretative sense; the variation happens at the level of the mix and the mastering. The fundamental audio text is stable. The format and version choices are perhaps like trying on different glasses that change how clearly you perceive what is there; they don't change what is there. 

Or do they? In rock, pop, etc, the mix is what's there; it's not some transparent overlay extraneous to the music itself. The ranking and distribution of the elements in audio space is inseparable from  composition. To make one strand of overdubbed instrumentation peek out more prominently is to change the balance of the constituent elements. 

Another analogy: painting restoration. Removing all the discolorant crud off the surface of a painting, the tarnished  with age pigment and the adulterants deposited via the atmosphere, this reveals the true colours of the original. But for some viewers, they'd actually loved the semi-obscured image, its atmospheric murkiness; that was the original painting as far as they were concerned. 

Certainly there are records that have never sounded quite right when I've heard them later in much superior circumstances than the original hearing / bonding, when it might have been a taped off a friend, or an advance cassette.  

1 comment:

Ed said...

Great point about the version culture of Classical music. It was a revelation to me reading the Paul Morley book - perhaps it is a really obvious point, but it was new to me - that Classical music is to a large degree a written art form. The score is in a sense what a string quartet or a symphony is, the same way a rock or rap song is the studio recording. (And perhaps as a jazz tune is essentially the live performance. I think I am right that the great innovation that Teo Macero and Miles Davis brought to jazz was using studio edits as tools for composition and arrangement. IIRC John Coltrane's albums, for example, were recorded live to tape.)

Written scores were often the way that the Classical composers used to make money from their work. Beethoven sold the scores for one of his compositions (the Missa Solemnis?) in a strictly limited edition of 12, nicely produced and signed, like NFTs or that one-off Wu-Tang album. And there is a (possibly apocryphal) story about some piece of religious music performed at the Vatican being so potent that the Papal authorities would not allow the score to be circulated, so they could keep a monopoly on performance. And then a young Mozart attended a performance on a visit to Rome with his family, went back to his guest house and transcribed the whole piece perfectly.

That score-based business model survived for a long time, through Joplin's day and up to the 1970s, when the Beatles songbook seemed to be a staple of every moderately hip middle-class home. But does it exist any more? It's hard to imagine the sheet music being much use for Whole Lotta Love or Complete Control, let along Terminator or Goosebumps.