How ‘flawless’ music is killing creativity

Pianist Glenn Gould, wearing gloves, after rehearsals at London’s Festival Hall in 1959 (GEtty)

Some years ago, I attended a live performance of Berlioz’s titanic Requiem, played by a combined ensemble comprising the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre. It was a spectacle unlikely to be repeated, so you can imagine my surprise when I was presented with a free mass-produced CD of the concert as I left the auditorium.

Recording technology is now so swift and precise that it dazzles us. It exudes glamour, offering a magical escape from mundane frustrations. I was impressed by my CD, and yet it had also stolen my subjective memory of the live experience. The palpable pleasure shared by performers and audience had become a flat object in my hand, allowing little opportunity for personal recollection.

Classical music is surely one of the enduring achievements of European culture. For those that love this music, its universal availability online should be an ideal way to widen appreciation and preserve the legacy of neglected composers. But is this democratisation of classical music slowly destroying the art form? Will avatars replace live performers and audiences in digital concert halls? There are parallels in the rise of virtual churches, where “embodiment” has been redefined in terms of silicon and light, raising that vexed question – where does our incarnate identity begin and end?

Recording musical performances is today a commonplace. Thirty-five years ago, when I first made my way in the musical world, it was a rarity. It took time, trouble and money to make a recording. Vinyl discs would wear out, so that new recordings were needed to replace them. Recordings, like live performances, had a value based on their scarcity and impermanence. But, as the technology improved, new recordings sounded better and lasted longer. When digital recording appeared, the accuracy of recordings surpassed what could be heard live in the concert hall, so that listeners grew accustomed to hearing free, flawless performances in the comfort of their own homes.

By comparison, the cost of attending a live concert can easily exceed £45 ($58) per ticket. And what if something new is on the programme? The audience’s fear of the unknown remains an unfortunate legacy of post-war modernism which alienated the average concertgoer. Furthermore, live performers make mistakes, while some concertgoers will always cough in the silences. “Other people” create uncertainty. To enter public space is to discover that much of life is beyond our control. When the alternative is sitting at home, listening to favourite pieces, glass of wine in hand, why would anyone attend live music?

Ironically, while the internet has given music lovers access to an ever-wider range of musical performances, including rare pieces, the repertoire in live concerts has become ever more cautious. Anxiety about money and critical responses has made many performers risk averse. Musicians are increasingly obsessed by the need for technical perfection because audiences expect it. They must play like robots, enduring intense pressures which harm them mentally and physically. As music-making becomes more and more about mass-production and technical perfection, it grows less and less distinctive and spontaneously expressive.

Musical performance should be an event shared between composer, musicians, audience and critics, reminding us of the many common experiences and values that shape the social realm. This should be a constantly shifting dialogue that glories in colourful imperfections, raw spontaneity and messy subjectivity.

I am not advocating disorder, but too much perfection kills creativity. The recording studio and entertainment suite are not ultimately where culture happens.

Then what about the studio recordings made by the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould? Gould became disillusioned with the circus of musical life, despising what he believed were the audience’s unrealistic expectations for flawless performance. He abandoned public concerts to make fastidious recordings, but this surely only fed the public’s appetite for perfection, rather than connecting them with the artist’s ordinary humanity.

The advantages of recordings for promotion and research cannot be disputed, while, for the housebound or those located in remote parts, they are a godsend. But, if live performances of classical music are to continue to thrive, they must proffer genuinely human experiences.

Here we can learn from folk musicians, who feel an all-embracing solidarity when they improvise together. Everyone is welcome, regardless of technical ability. Each performance is a unique variation upon a melody known to all. The poet Edward Thomas described folk songs as, “the quintessence of many lives and passions made into a sweet cup for posterity”. Ultimately live music is the embodiment of collective memory; a well of identity from which we all may drink.

It may be far-fetched to imagine a Mahler symphony played with folk-like spontaneity, but to experience such a work, in all its depth and richness, requires us to hear it performed live with heartfelt commitment. Music asks us to come together, to feel in common, to commune in a ritual where human experience is symbolised in tones. This allows us better to harmonise the opposites; joy and sadness, the ideal and the real, group and individual. As incarnate beings, we need intimate interactions which can never be supplanted by avatars and disembodied sounds.

Peter Davison is a musicologist and cultural commentator, and a former artistic consultant to The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester